Strengthening Native American Communities & Economies
This page hosts occasional blogs that are contributed to First Nations Development Institute by Native American leaders and others. The topics will vary over the course of a year. Enjoy!
Elizabeth Peratrovich is My Role Model
Guest Author Evan Elise Roberts (Tlingit) - February 12, 2018
Evan is a junior at Niwot High School in Colorado. She is one of the daughters of Michael Roberts, President & CEO of First Nations Development Institute.
Role models are some of the most powerful people in the world, no matter their positions in politics or leadership, because they can influence the minds of the next generation. As a high schooler, all of my peers and I are looking up to role models and those who we truly admire. But being Native American, my choices for role models are not nearly as plentiful as my classmates.
There are few prominent Native Americans in politics, or who are prominent scientists or writers, and even fewer who are popular celebrities. Even in American history class, accomplishments by prominent Native Americans are not often taught, leaving Native students to their own devices to learn about important and inspiring people like them.
Lucky for me, from a young age I have heard story after story about a wonderful ancestor of mine – the inspiring Elizabeth Peratrovich. Elizabeth Peratrovich was a civil rights activist whose advocacy helped pass the Alaska Territory’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945. She was a hero to our people, the Tlingit, as well as to so many other Alaska Natives. In fact, she blazed the way for advancements in fighting Jim Crow laws in the United States as a whole, as her actions came almost 20 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
To me, my great-great aunt Elizabeth Peratrovich was finally a role model who was a Native woman. We need to learn more about women like her – women who stood up for what they believed, against all odds, and who defended their people and their rights throughout their entire lives.
In the time of Elizabeth Peratrovich, discrimination toward Natives was shown in many ways, including signs posted outside of establishments like “No Dogs or Natives allowed.” She fought against so many stereotypes against Native people and showed that we can be anything we want. Her speech to the senate before the passing of the Anti-Discrimination Act was so inspiring, saying “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of ‘savagery,’ would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them, of our Bill of Rights.”
It showed me that no matter our position, we can stand up for what we believe in and make a difference with the power of our words. I am honored to call Elizabeth Peratrovich my kinswoman and my role model.
(To learn more about Elizabeth Peratrovich, visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Peratrovich. First Nations Development Institute is closed on February 16 each year in honor of Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. In 1988 the Alaska Legislature established that day in her honor.)
Native Languages Preserve Our Way of Thinking and Knowing
Guest Author Richard B. Williams (Oglala Lakota) - January 18, 2018
Richard is the retired President & CEO of the American Indian College Fund. He now works as a consultant to First Nations Development Institute and other Native American organizations.
Last month, I had an exceptional opportunity to facilitate a convening of several “Native Language Doyens.” A “Native Language Doyen” is a leading figure who works tirelessly in language programs and activities in our Native communities. It was very stirring to see the spiritual essence that comes from our cultural language guardians who are reintroducing and saving our precious languages. The “Doyens” are – through their diligent hard work – producing fluent Native speakers throughout Indian Country.
During my lifetime, I’ve heard elders and medicine people eloquently and profoundly say that our languages are sacred. I never really understood what that meant until I had the opportunity to spend time thoroughly immersed in the Lakota language. The experience left me in awe of what it meant to learn a language. My first experience of understanding that the language was sacred came when, in a dream, I was speaking Lakota. The second experience was when I was cognitively processing the world around me in Lakota first and not English. I remember looking at this “sunka” and I realized that, in my mind, I used that term instead of dog. After that profound experience I would naturally and without dual cognitive processing see objects in Lakota and not in English.
The mysterious part of understanding that a language is sacred had nothing to do with the way we were learning the language. We weren't meditating nor were we praying constantly. We weren’t asking the Creator to help us learn the language. We were just simply immersed and totally focused on learning and experiencing the language. There was never really an “ah-ha moment” where I felt that somehow the experience was a sacred experience. It was an inner sense of knowing our people and the speaking of the language allowed our people to live in harmony and in a sacred way. The profound nature of the experience has changed me and heightened my path to learning more of the language. And even more importantly to understand the inviolability of visions and dreams. The unconscious act of dreaming in Lakota was a significant spiritual experience. One of the sacred ceremonies of Lakota is the hanblecha or vision quest, and dreams have always been a very important connection to the spirit world and Creator. There is no English word to express this feeling. In Lakota, we understand it as “Wakan” – a great mystery.
The opportunity to spend time with the language doyens was inspirational. Their knowledge of the language and its acquisition was complex, and each person had different ways to accomplish the goal of creating fluency among their people, especially in the children. The lifetime commitment made by each of the participants is notable. We had participants who were relatively young, as well as seasoned language veterans. An important message from each participant was that Native language acquisition and Western methodological educational practices are not symbiotic. Contemporary education practices that exist in schools today do not work well, and there is wealth of American Indian experts and current teachers who are very critical of the Western methodology and pedagogy. The message was clear: do not malign language immersion by force fitting it into existing education practices.
Language acquisition is important because, in practice, it has been demonstrated by many studies and testimony by practitioners that it improves and enhances a child’s confidence and self-image. It is well-documented that increasing a child’s self-worth is one of the most important aspects to their future success. The research also indicates that when the educational experience is culturally- and language-based, it produces a greater sense of well-being in a child. This knowledge is so compelling that it should behoove and compel all educational practitioners to alter their work to include language and cultural activities into their daily practices. The caution here is the reminder that the contemporary education system is failing our students, and we will only be successful if we make a complete change to the existing archaic way our children are being taught.
The second compelling reason for language in our schools has to do with enhanced cognitive development. Second-language speakers become better students because they are learning to process information in different parts of their brains. The cognition of language acquisition enhances critical thinking and improved learning intelligence. Recently it has been reported that it is good for the old folks. Learning a second language as an adult can help avoid cognitive decline, and it is reported that bilinguals come down with dementia and Alzheimer’s more than four years later than monolinguals. Although I regretfully inform you that age limits the ability to learn the language even if you were a child who spoke the language fluently.
Other advantages inherent in speaking a Native language is it introduces new words, concepts, metaphors and time frames. People who speak multiple languages tend to score higher on standardized tests in subjects such as math, reading and vocabulary.
We are living in a world that is foreign to us and would not be recognized by our ancestors. As we continue to adjust to the challenges of this changing world, it is comforting to know that to hold on to our languages means that we will continue to preserve our way of thinking and knowing. It is that sacred language and our good ways that will help us secure a place in this world, forever!
'Tis the Season: Our Heritage, Our Medicine
Guest Author Valerie Segrest - November 29, 2017
Valerie is a Native nutrition educator and the Muckleshoot Traditional Foods and Medicines Program Manager. She is an enrolled member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.
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/
We’re Having Something a Little Different this Year for Thanksgiving
Guest Author Michael E. Roberts - November 22, 2017
Michael is President & CEO of First Nations Development Institute. He is Tlingit.
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.
But sadly, for America’s original inhabitants, Thanksgiving may be the one day of the year when American Indians cross the minds of most other Americans. Other than at our yearly commemoration of Pilgrims and Indians giving thanks, in early elementary school, in occasional movies, or as tourists in the Southwest, most Americans give about as much thought to – and have as much knowledge of – their country's first inhabitants as they do the people of Outer Mongolia. This needs to change.
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 at 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.
At First Nations, a fair amount of our time and energy goes into national initiatives like Reclaiming Native Truth and in building culturally competent leaders. But sadly I, and most Indian parents, spend an equal if not greater amount of energy doing so at home. We send our kids to school, with the hope that they will survive these attempts at cultural indoctrination. And while we may do so with less fear for their physical well-being than our grandparents had when sending their children off to the horrors of Indian boarding schools, our fear for their self-worth and self-esteem is just as great.
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:
Native American Heritage Month: Extending Our Boundaries
Guest Author Carnell Chosa, Ph.D. - November 15, 2017
Carnell is Co-Director of the Santa Fe Indian School Leadership Institute. He is from Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico.
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.
It was for me.
You see, in addition to this team of substitute father figures, there was something special about growing up in a small Indigenous community where extended families shared one home and where neighbors and distant relatives were expected to participate in your growing up.
Because our people are connected through land, history and ancestry, the community shared the same core values of contribution, relationship, communality, responsibility, engagement and commitment. What moved this cultural context forward was that the focus of this transference was on youth.
My grandfather cherished this role for all his grandchildren. Growing up in his home, we found that our teaching and learning time happened over meals, but most of the time it was in the multiple farm fields we cared for in Jemez Pueblo. The core of his lesson was always that all young people have different types of gifts and talents to contribute to community. He stressed that their contribution would be more valuable in the future.
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.
Founded in 1997, the Santa Fe Indian School Leadership Institute (LI) serves as a convener think tank to initiate community dialogue on issues important to communities. Specific to LI youth work, this dialogue creates programming opportunities that have guiding principles of community service, mentorship/networking, critical thinking, and policy awareness. Over the course of 20 years these guiding principles have served thousands of youth in our Summer Policy Academy, Brave Girls, Senior Honors Project, New Mexico Summer Youth Tribal Employment, Pueblo Pathways Boys Mentoring, Art and Archeology Academy, and Community Institutes.
Through this work, we have come to further appreciate how powerful and valuable youth participation is to tribal communities. You may be familiar with the saying that adults feel what they say to youth goes in one ear and out the other. Fortunately, our experience has been quite the opposite. In our experience youth today seem to be more aware of what’s happening both internally and externally in tribal communities in regard to policy issues. Today, they are more critical of the social, economic and racial conditions that impact us personally. And they are more curious about and draw from the historical road we have traveled as a people. In our experience, they are looking to be more actively involved.
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.
Creating space for youth means giving them your time through mentorship, providing learning that is relevant to their lives as Indigenous people, and convening them so that they create a network, or community of diverse talents. This type of resurgent space has created an exciting energy to engage in community. One interesting program, New Mexico Summer Youth Tribal Employment, is an excellent example of how we engage youth in their community.
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.
Claiming our Native Heritage from the Boarding School Experiment
Guest Author Jerilyn DeCoteau - November 8, 2017
Jerilyn is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. She is on the board of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Her parents, maternal grandmother and some of her siblings attended Indian boarding schools.
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.
If the boarding school story makes it sound like many Native people are sad, damaged, broken, it is a truth we cannot hide. The effects of that trauma are evident today, long past the boarding school experiment. Native people have much to grieve and much healing to do. We can be silent no more. Our boarding school stories need to be told. They are hard to tell, but like Dennis Banks’ story, they are stories of resilience and hope. Only if we learn the truth, as Mr. Banks did, can we claim our full Native American heritage and begin to heal our families, our communities, our tribes.(3)
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/.