Strengthening Native American Communities & Economies
Native American Heritage Month
November is Native American Heritage Month in the U.S. As part of our observance, First Nations Development Institute asked four Native leaders to share their thoughts and observations relevant to Native American heritage in this short series called Voices from Native Communities.
Guest Author Valerie Segrest
Valerie Segrest is a Native nutrition educator and the Muckleshoot Traditional Foods and Medicines Program Manager. She is an enrolled member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.
'Tis the Season: Our Heritage, Our Medicine
Despite what mainstream and misrepresented history claims, our ancestors lived long and well-nourished lives. This longevity is linked with our heritage. Specifically, the knowledge we carry of our ancestral foods and medicines. For generations the ancestors put forth tremendous effort to uphold our health by perfecting and passing on their recipes full of wisdom and nourishment that clearly animate for us a health system that is inextricably intertwined with the lands we come from. Our inheritance is truly our traditional food and medicine culture, which represents our deep connection to the natural resources all around us – it is a living legacy that has the power to heal us and encourage our vitality.
As the seasons change people follow the foods, moving through the landscape and simultaneously embodying the dynamic energy of the phase upon us. In the Northwest, this time of year is called the “moon to put your paddles away.” Cold air activates our ancestral senses, signaling us to put away our summer energy and embrace self-reflection, quietness, prayerfulness and soul-nourishing activities. Winter is the period we need to slow down and feed ourselves not just physically but also spiritually. It is the time to cultivate our minds, collecting the work that served us and letting go of what no longer does – so that we can make room for new things to come that will help us to learn and grow. All of our energy is being called to examine the gravities of our presence.
It is the Tree People, like the Big Leaf Maples and the Sitka Willow, that reassure us of this teaching as they move their energy inwards and down toward the Earth, shrinking from the height of the futile sun. Their leaves change color and then gracefully fall to the ground, signaling the coming of winter. Without a spoken word, the trees urge us to follow their lead and take this opportunity to rest and tonify our bodies internally, so that we will be ready for the uprising of spring. We do this by eating our ancestral diet of warming foods that include roots and rich stocks made of animal bones. They are cooked slow and low so that the food has time to capture that warmth and then transpose that life energy inside of our bodies.
Getting in rhythm with the seasons is truly all about living in harmony with its spirit. This includes the instructions of both the prolific trees as well as the uncontrollable nature of seasons. In turn, these teachings have made us a prolific people. Since time immemorial our ancestors were diligent students of these great teachers. With great care they observed how nation upon nation of plants, animals, birds, fish and even fungi built a fully engaged communal citizenry. One in which every aspect of life is honored and valued. These observations commanded simple questions like “How can us pitiful humans be more like these powerful teachers? How can we embrace diversity, display humble generosity and be big medicine in the world?”
Robin Wall Kimmerer, one of the most brilliant Native authors of our time, shared the following reflection in her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants about the generous presence of two trees in her life: “Their gift to me is far greater than I have ability to reciprocate ... Perhaps all I can do is love them. All I know to do is to leave another gift for them and for the future, those next unknowns who will live here.”
This contribution could have shared insights and perspectives on the first Thanksgiving feast, or what Native American Heritage month has to do with the state of health in Indian Country, but we know these stories already, right? We live it everyday and everyday we have the opportunity to become cold and bittered by our collective history or we can choose to deliberately focus our attention on our heritage and the meaning of it all. We can do this for ourselves, for the values that we hold and how those values keep us living. Our heritage is our medicine and this month is an annual reminder of that, but don’t let it be just one month – surrender your life to the seasons and to the incredible teachers that are waiting for you right outside of your door. Remember that the culture we carry is inspiring and when honored leads you to the most powerful self-care imaginable. Be assured that each of us carries an internal light. Stoke the fire, build your light, and nourish the dynamic energy and steadfast spirit power you’ve been gifted so that you may overcome obstacles and press forward to accomplish the work we were put here to do in this life.
To all my relatives, Happy Native American Heritage Month!
To find background on bone broth plus a recipe from Feeding Seven Generations Recipe Book and Native Infusion: A Guide to Ancestral Beverages by Valerie Segrest and Elise Krohn, please click here.
Valerie Segrest is a Native nutrition educator who specializes in local and traditional foods. As an enrolled member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, she serves her community as the Traditional Foods and Medicines Program Manager and is the Executive Director of Feed Seven Generations, a Native-led nonprofit. Valerie aims to inspire and enlighten others about the importance of a nutrient-dense diet through a simple, common-sense approach to eating. Watch her TED talk to learn more: http://www.tedxrainier.com/speakers/valerie-segrest/
Guest Author Michael E. Roberts
Michael E. Roberts is President & CEO of First Nations Development Institute. He is Tlingit.
We’re Having Something a Little Different this Year for Thanksgiving
Lucy van Pelt of the Peanuts comic strip fame may have said it best when she observed this about Thanksgiving: "Isn't it peculiar, Charlie Brown, how some traditions just slowly fade away?"
And for the sake of us all, perhaps America’s silly myth of the first Thanksgiving as a delightful story where Native nations of the East broke bread with the colonists of the “New World” should fade away.
You see, when contemplating American Indians in America we soon realize that to many Americans, November and Native American Heritage month, culminating right after Thanksgiving, is American Indians’ only reality.
For American Indian people, what is Thanksgiving? Or better yet, what has it become? Or even better, how might we reimagine it? How might we begin to change the narrative?
For the longest time, the United States has treated Indian religion and creation stories as quaint myths. But that doesn’t stop these same folks from holding on dearly to their own mythical stories of creation. The colonizer’s myth of the first Thanksgiving is of Pilgrims hosting a harvest feast for their Native brethren. Native peoples, however, know the full fabrication of the historical circumstances surrounding this celebration.
While America's non-Indians generally express goodwill and considerable sympathy about past injustices and present poverty afflicting Indians, they largely view the nation's Indians as relics of a past that ended with Custer and Wounded Knee. Or, because of lack of knowledge, they frequently see them through a caricatured and stereotyped lens forged on old Hollywood back lots or racist caricatures emblazoned on sports teams’ jerseys. For the most part, they are oblivious to the vibrancy and difficulties of present-day Indians' lives and culture, or to their social and legal status. A great deal of this uncovering of dominant narratives is being documented by First Nations’ project Reclaiming Native Truth: A Project to Dispel America’s Myths and Misconceptions. This first-of-its-kind project is trying to both understand the narratives that American people hold about Indian people, and then trying to construct a new and better one.
Despite some recent events like the pipeline protests at Standing Rock and the politically correct romanticizing of Indians as spiritual and/or model environmentalists, to most Americans, knowledge and thinking about Indians begin and end with Pocahontas and Sacajawea (good) and half-formed notions about primitive savages and “alcohol-riddled” reservations (bad).
For me, October and November follow eerily similar patterns in my own personal quest for narrative change. Because it’s at this time of year – bookended by Columbus Day on one end and Thanksgiving on the other – where I find myself knocking on the door of the principal and teachers of my daughters’ school, to talk about Indians. And the good news is, this almost always leads to the opportunity to go to my daughters’ classrooms and chat with their classmates about Indians. And for my daughters, this is an important part in them taking pride in their heritage.
Unfortunately, however, it seems that I begin each year by having to approach the school’s principal and teachers and educate them about Indians, dispel myths, and fight against the stereotypes they bring to the classroom.
You see, each year I have to educate a new set educators and make up for the failings of their own history education – that Columbus did not ”discover” America, or that the Pilgrims did not feed the Indians at Thanksgiving. I have repeatedly had to ask teachers and principals to take down caricatures of Indians on bulletin boards – decorations that have been put up every year since a least when I was in elementary school. I have to point out to these same educators that the books in their libraries about Indians, the ones written by non-Indians, with copyright dates in the 1950s, do a horrible job of portraying Indians. And I need to help these folks understand that headdresses with turkey feathers, and art projects that include teepees, are wrong on so many levels – the least of which are that they do not even represent the Indians the Pilgrims encountered. But worst of all, these horrific stereotypes, ones we would never allow for other minority populations, are in danger of eroding my children’s self-esteem and self-worth for the incredible heritage that they enjoy. And most of all, I need to stop them from teaching theories, such as the “land-bridge theory,” as fact. By their very definition, theories are assumptions based on limited information or knowledge. They are conjecture. And the land bridge is one that every day finds less and less evidence to support it.
So how do we begin to change these narratives? And while I believe that First Nations’ Reclaiming Native Truth project will create an ambitious strategy for narrative change, my hope here today is a person-to-person appeal for individual action.
Here are some things that you can do to help:
Guest Author Carnell Chosa, Ph.D.
Carnell Chosa, Ph.D., is Co-Director of the Santa Fe Indian School Leadership Institute. He is from Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico.
Native American Heritage Month: Extending Our Boundaries
I grew up without a father. As a team, my mother, Aunt Pat, and grandmother shared that position. And for the majority of the time, my grandfather Guadalupe Chosa filled the role. This is probably not unique to many of our youth. And what may seem to be a deficit situation to many can also be an incredibly rewarding experience and opportunity.
The spirit of this type of intentional and organic programming guided by a sense of responsibility, inspired by creativity, and based on community participation and values, is the framework for the Leadership Institute's work with youth.
As a result, our tribal communities must respond. We must not lose the opportunity to engage a young person. As my grandfather shared with me, each young person within our relatively small communities is so valuable and has their own particular gift to contribute. The LI took on this challenge 20 years ago and has learned that youth need opportunity. There are many ways to engage youth. For the LI, our formula is to create space where youth can exercise their voice and activate their advocacy.
Over the course of four summers, through generous funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the LI placed 325 youth in meaningful internships in their communities. Paying close attention to their career interest areas or majors in college, the LI worked with professionals in tribal communities and urban organizations to serve as host sites and mentors for youth. Providing this type of space for youth to engage meaningfully during their summer created great outcomes, including tribes hiring their youth for full-time positions, offering them employment to manage tribal websites or blogs while in college, and reintroducing youth workforce programs. The greatest outcome for the LI was igniting the engagement space so that youth know that their skills are valued and that communities know that our youth are talented, available and looking for a pathway home.
First Nations Development Institute’s blog series during Native American Heritage month is a great way to celebrate our communities. It is also a great time to reflect upon how we engage young people who are a part of our community. Extending the boundaries of what home means is critical so that the young person contributing in the community through culture or career is just as valuable as the young person in Albuquerque or Washington, D.C., who is advocating for their community. I believe this is what my grandfather meant when he shared that someday our communities will extend our boundaries through engaging our youth.
Carnell with his family in 1994, including his mom Martha Chosa, Aunt Pat Chosa,
Guest Author Jerilyn DeCoteau
Jerilyn DeCoteau is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. She is on the board of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
Claiming our Native Heritage from the Boarding School Experiment
The heritage passed down to Native Americans is often too painful to name. Not reported in textbooks, and often not spoken of by boarding school survivors, is the chilling fact that for generations Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools far away from their homes for the purpose of destroying “all that is Indian in them.”
Children from age four were taken to nearly 500 off-reservation boarding schools.(1) They were shorn of their hair, stripped of their Native garb, forbidden to speak their language or practice familiar customs, and denied contact with family. Many children spent all their school years in boarding schools. Many died there, never to return home. Each of these schools has a graveyard. The intended and actual result was the rending of family and community ties, the weakening of Native societies and social structure - the annihilation of much Native culture.
Silence has been a way boarding school survivors have coped. Silence is a survival tool, but it has caused untold damage. Dennis Banks, a great Indian activist, who departed this world a few days ago, left us with many lessons. One was to break the silence.
I was taken to a boarding school when I was four years old, and taken away from my mother and my father, my grandparents … 300 miles away from our home. And, you know, the beatings began immediately, the … de-Indianizing program … that was trying to destroy the culture and the person …
…You know, they cut off all communication with your parents, and a lot of letters, which I found later in — I stayed there for six years without communicating to — with my parents at all … I asked my mother, I said, ‘Why didn’t you write to me?’
… I lost my family relationship with my mother. I lost that feeling with my mother, because I thought she abandoned me … And I opened up the shoebox, and those were letters, letters from my mother. And I started opening them up, and I started reading them. And in the second one, there was a letter to the superintendent of the school that said, ‘Here is $5. Please send my children — my son back home to me.’
… I had a chair; I was sitting right by her grave, and I started reading these letters. And I knew that she loved me then. I mean, even now, even at this moment, I feel that, man, it’s a hard — it’s a hard experience to tell people. But I tell them anyway. (2)
The evil of this genocidal experiment, and the effect of the silence around it, cannot be exaggerated. Because people are beginning to tell their stories, we are beginning to understand the intergenerational and often traumatic effects of the boarding school experiment. In many critical ways Native American heritage was destroyed in the boarding schools. In its place is often the visible manifestation of the pain from that loss: broken families, alcohol and drug addiction, mental and physical health problems, suicide. Dennis Banks’ story is typical. Unloved by his mother, alien to his Native language and culture, he was sent back home, empty-handed of tools and skills needed to take his place in his Native society. And so, well into his 70s, he sat by his mother’s grave and knew for the first time that she loved him. He fought his whole life for his heritage, for all of us, and won after all.
1) There were about 500 federally supported boarding schools, a large number being run by churches. See National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition at http://boardingschoolhealing.org
2) Native American Leader Dennis Banks, “The Overlooked Tragedy of Nation’s Indian Boarding Schools,” an interview by Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now,” October 8, 2012. https://www.democracynow.org/2012/10/8/native
3) The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has just launched a campaign called “Break the Silence, Begin the Healing,” which features “Healing Voices,” stories that “foster resilience and support healing .“ http://boardingschoolhealing.org/.