Holiday Memories

Historians say history needs to be learned so as to not repeat mistakes, but also to remember and acknowledge life’s evolution. Hopefully we are getting better.

For most of America, the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are memory-filled and memory-making annual events with families coming together to acknowledge blessings.  America continues to be the place that others want to be or to live.  While the commercialization of these significant holidays sometimes obscures the ‘original’ intent for the designations, I believe that most people are good and that we are a grateful people who do practice some form of spiritual or religious belief that advocates compassion and generosity.

For the Dakota Oyate (Sioux people), however, the holidays – and particularly 2012 – remind us of a history that is not told in history classes nor known to most Americans.  It is a significant history related to the colonization and settlement of America but also to the resiliency of a people who should have faded from life.

One-hundred and fifty years ago, December 26, 1862 (the day after Christmas!), 38 Dakota warriors were hung by the United States government in Mankato, Minnesota.  Two more were hung two days later.  President Lincoln sanctioned the hanging and commuted 265 of the sentences.

Today this event is known as the ‘Minnesota Uprising’ or ‘Dakota Conflict,’ but it is also known as the “Minnesota Massacre.” Various historical publications from that time speak to the heathenism and uncivilized nature of the Dakota people and how the event was unprovoked.  But there are many reasons for the Dakota warriors to exert their primary role as provider and protector of the families.  Our Dakota ancestors were lied to, cheated and coerced into signing treaties that were not honored or fulfilled but rather part of a corrupt system to ‘take care of’ the Indian “problem.”  The people were starving and yet the officials in charge had provisions that were for the Dakota families, stored in warehouses.  Those officials refused to disburse the food and one actually made the famous comment “…let them eat grass.”  Many non-Indians were killed as were many Dakota, particularly in the aftermath of the conflict.

On December 9, 2012 and for the seventh year, a group of horseback riders left Crow Creek, South Dakota for Mankato, Minnesota – a 330 mile trek – to remember and honor those Dakota warriors who were hung 150 years ago.  Many people – Native and non-Natives – will be joining the riders in Mankato for commemoration ceremonies on December 26, 2012.

As a Native North Dakotan with a Dakota mother and a Scandinavian father, my roots come from both sides of this history.  I am Dakota and a member of the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation, Fort Totten, North Dakota, but I am also Swedish and Norwegian. I can make tripe soup and wojapi (berry pudding), but I can also make lutefisk and lefse.  I believe I am the best of both worlds!

For the past several years some Minnesota communities, via an organization called Diversity Foundation, have been hosting ‘homecomings’ for the Dakota people (we were banned from Minnesota in 1863).  As an educator and advocate for human rights, I ask that we all take the time to learn about this past as well as our personal histories.  I ask that we be more respectful of each other and to practice compassion and forgiveness.  My Dakota relatives who are coordinating the Dakota 38+2 Ride are leading this effort.

We are truly blessed to be alive and well in this day and age.  The Creator continues to provide much for our daily existence and it is our responsibility to be good stewards of the bounty and beauty all around us.  Take time to learn more about history so that we can better understand each other.  Come to Mankato (Mah kah toh…blue earth) on December 26 and join us in remembering the Dakota warriors who gave their lives to defend their way of life and to celebrate together the good life we have today.

Mitakuye oyasin …we are all related.

 

Ṡuñka Wakañ Wicahpi Wiñyañ…Star Horse Woman

Cynthia A Lindquist, Ph.D., President

Cankdeska Cikana Community College
Spirit Lake Dakota
Fort Totten, North Dakota

 

Here is a trailer for the film by Smooth Feather Productions

Native Charities and Winter Giving

In November I had the opportunity to attend my first professional gathering as the new President of the American Indian College Fund. Combined with my attendance at my first meeting of the Board of the Native Ways Federation during the annual National Congress of American Indian conference in October, this event helped me understand the importance of charitable standards of performance for organizations that are raising money in Indian country. Although I had always heard the College Fund Board and staff speak with great pride about their charity watchdog ratings, I hadn’t really understood what that means. What I learned about its meaning is important to every Native person throughout the country and to everyone who wants to share their good fortune with a worthy cause.  Charity ratings are an excellent way to determine if your investment as a giver is going to the people you intend to help (You can check out the Fund’s ratings at the BBB, Charity Navigator, and Independent Charities of America).

There are literally thousands of organizations raising money throughout the United States and hundreds of them raise funds on behalf of American Indians. There is no doubt that a tremendous need exists in diverse social and geographic settings for resources to improve the health, education, and welfare of our people.  High unemployment and limited access to healthy foods, health care, and even to education due to location and transportation issues combined with significant barriers to resources for our local and tribal governments creates a real need for non-profit organizations to remove those barriers and to bring resources directly to individuals and families.

Native people often don’t think of our national Indian organizations as charitable groups, yet they are. They are designated by the Internal Revenue Service as 501(c)(3) organizations, meaning  contributions are tax deductible.  They often choose to meet national charitable watchdog standards, particularly demonstrating how the funds they raise are distributed. They use a variety of strategies, ranging from workplace giving to significant grants and contributions from individuals, corporations, and foundations to raise money for direct support to tribal peoples.

Participation in a range of fundraising approaches and with watchdog organizations is a fact of life among reputable national Native charities.

Many charitable activities occur at the local, grassroots level in reservation, rural and urban Indian communities.  With the rise of social media, more direct giving can be promoted through sites such as Facebook or with bloggers such as navajo on the Daily KOS.  A strategy called crowdfunding is becoming increasingly popular among Native organizations, especially those involved in the arts and media and with youth programming.  This approach allows an organization with financial needs to use the web to solicit individual gifts that are collected by the website and then disbursed to the organization.  This is a very accessible opportunity for anyone and allows widespread participation especially among the younger population across the U.S. as their media access is a tool to build their philanthropic support.

In American Indian communities across the country, winter should be a time of rest and story- telling, a time of gathering and celebrating the well-being of our families.  Instead it is often a time of great hardship and anxiety.  The lack of resources to provide adequate heat, food, and health care really shows during the winter.  In our past, we prepared for winter throughout the spring, summer and fall seasons.  I think of giving to our Native charitable organizations as a way of preparing our people for the winter.   We need education, housing, health care, protection of land and resources, and economic development to take care of ourselves when the harshest times arrive.

We also need to be accountable as organizations that raise funds on behalf of our people.   Not all of us have the ability to participate with watchdog organizations such as Charity Navigator or the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving program, but national Native charities certainly should.  Donors should be assured that their giving benefits our people and watchdog agencies are one very public, very accessible way to evaluate that assurance.  For local and regional groups, especially our grassroots fundraisers, the due diligence of donors can be more direct – donors can see the results through the use of grassroots social media, phone calls, photos and can even visit for themselves.

Education, especially an education at a tribal college or university, is one of the most effective ways to overcome poverty and a lack of access to resources both at the family and community level.  The American Indian College Fund (www.collegefund.org) provides vital scholarships to American Indian students.  These students achieve their dreams of a college education and become even more engaged as tribal and American citizens.

Many national Indian organizations are part of the Native Ways Federation (www.nativewaysfederation.org), providing support to a range of important issues for American Indians including child welfare, legal resources, and health and wellness.

Give generously and often to Native organizations, locally and nationally.  Your gift of your resources and your time are welcome and, if you use charity watchdog ratings as a guide, you can be assured that your gift is going to the people you intend to support.  Pilamaya, thank you.


Twelve Years of Honoring the Denver Elders

 

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Denver’s community of American Indian elders seated at the hall at All Saints Church for the annual Elders Dinner. More photos available at Flickr.com

For the twelfth straight year, the American Indian College Fund hosted its annual holiday dinner for American Indian elders. Three-hundred elders from an array of tribes gathered at the Church of All Saints at 2559 S. Federal Blvd. in Denver to enjoy a feast of buffalo, other treats, and American Indian entertainment. Diane Buck and Grace Gillette were honored as Elders of the Year for founding the Denver March Powwow. They were honored with Pendleton blankets and given the traditional honoring. Later in the evening, an Indian Santa Claus arrived to distribute goody bags and hams to the assembled elders.

At the conclusion of the program, an Indian Santa “Claws” arrived singing, dancing, and jingling his sleigh bells. He gave out hugs and told jokes as his many helpers distributed hams, gift cards, and goody bags to the elders, whose eyes twinkled like children.

In addition to the American Indian College Fund, community sponsors of the event include:

Apple Device Users: Click here to see the slideshow on Flickr.com

 

It’s National Influenza Vaccination Week

Did you know American Indians and Alaska Natives are up to four times more likely than the general U.S. population to die from pneumonia and other influenza-related conditions?  Even healthy college students like you can get the flu, and it can be serious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every year.

December 2-8, 2012 is National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW), a national observance established by the CDC to highlight the importance of continuing flu vaccination through the holiday season and beyond.

So please take the flu vaccination pledge to get vaccinated. The flu vaccine is safe. And you can’t get the flu from the flu vaccine. Your flu vaccine protects me. My flu vaccine protects you. Together, let’s protect the circle of life. Learn more at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/freeresources/print-native.htm

Siblings in Science: Breaking Boundaries in Indian Country in the Name of Native Pride and Native Science

Growing up in an urban environment was not easy for us. A lot of nights we weren’t sure whether or not we would eat dinner. It was in the Eastside of London Ontario, Canada where the struggle of survival and the knowledge of the “real world” began. We were not exposed to our culture other than at powwows; we were not familiar with our traditional languages, nor did our family participate in ceremony. As adults we understand the power of ceremony, culture and prayer; this is something that we agree is beneficial if it is present every day.

We were labeled “troubled teens” and always seemed to be present where the “trouble” was. Our actions reflected negatively upon us and we were viewed negatively by many people in the community. On multiple occasions we were told, “You are never going to be anything in life.” At that point in our lives we were quick to brush off those statements, but after a period of time that sentiment started to become reality.

It wasn’t until sometime in 2001 when our eyes began to open and realize that our future was not set, but our future was going to be what we made it. Statistically we might never overcome the obstacles of drug abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and violence. Society suggested for so many years that we were failures in this world. This was not the case for either one of us and we sought something better in life.

With constant support from our mother, Nancy Summers, we would face many challenges along the way such as discrimination, direct racism, and the normal economic and academic challenges any student faces. We did however share a common promise: to take care of our mother so she has no worry or conflict of any sort as she grows older. Another common goal we share is to ensure our children all become college graduates in the future, or have knowledge that success is accomplishable in what ever they pursue. The only way for us to keeo this promise was through getting an education.

We feel it is completely necessary to share our story in hopes that other Native people will recognize the possibilities provided by education and create their own reality inspired by dreams. It is our responsibility to directly enhance the development of Indian Country and encourage our youth that there are other Native Americans who grew up underprivileged in tough situations and were able to empower themselves to true independence. Empowerment lies within our degrees. We have dedicated our lives to not only the world of science, but to Higher Education in Indian Country.

Native American Heritage Month is a time for us to share stories, struggles,, and triumphs, and display to one another that we will not be broken and we will persevere. As Native Americans, we are in the perfect position right now to concentrate on the positives and possibilities afforded to us while lifting each other up with support.

We need to learn to congratulate one another for our achievements in a society that once told us that we were not good enough, not smart enough, not intelligent enough, or rich enough to make it in “their world.”

Our success can be measured through what we have overcome and the goals we are still seeking to accomplish. Our current accomplishments have been supported by many individuals, organizations, and role models too numerous to name here, but should equally be recognized that this is an effort and accomplishment of Native American higher education and the people before us who struggled to lay the ground work for us to succeed. In honor of all of the former, we will strive to provide the support to the youth of our families, our heritage, and our people that is owed. We believe that we are living proof that it doesn’t matter where you came from; it only matters where you’re going.

Yaw^ko (Thank you)

 

Although we are by far not fluent in the Oneida language, we understand and respect the meaning and message that comes with it. Luckily, we have good friends whom we grew up with that do know the language. A big thank you to Sasha Doxtator and Luke Nicholas for the translations.

Tsi’niyukwalihota – “Our children learn the old way”

Yako’nikuliyo’stu – “Good Mind,” a common word used in the Oneida Language. It refers to thinking, living and acting in a positive manner. In every deliberation we are using our good minds for the good of our community.

 

Dereck and Audra Stonefish are both enrolled members of the Oneida of the Thames First Nations located near London, Ontario, Canada. In 2008, Dereck graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Science. Audra graduated in 2012 with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science, both from Sitting Bull College, located on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in Fort Yates, North Dakota. In 2010 Dereck began the pursuit of a Ph.D. of Zoology at North Dakota State University, where he is one of only four Native Americans to be awarded the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in its history. Dereck is planning to defend his doctoral research in 2014.

 

In the fall semester of 2012 Audra began her Ph.D. of Entomology, also at North Dakota State University at the School of Natural Resource Sciences, and is planning to defend her doctoral research in 2017. She is also an Embrey Indian Women in Leadership Fellow through the American Indian College Fund, a four-year, $20,000 fellowship awarded to 20 Native women chosen from across the U.S.

 

 

 

Dera: Think ‘Skin

Dera adorns a hand-made quill medallion at the annual AIHEC student conference in Rapid City.

Growing up on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in south central South Dakota was a real experience. I have seen things that people only get to imagine as they read a book. Heck, some people in this country do not even know where South Dakota is.

The beauty of my homeland and the rich history of my culture always held me tightly close to the area. As a child growing up I thought I had it rough, I thought for sure I was the only one in the whole world who was living without electricity or who had to eat commodities. Little did I know I was one of the many who has thus far survived the reservation experience. I am proud of the hard road I have traveled to get to the good life: a life that isn’t filled with money or extravagant objects, one in which allows me to know who I am and where I come from and enables me to make the most of the present and the legacy I will leave behind.

I grew up in a rather large household. My family was comprised of my mother, her mother, and about six to eight other cousin/brothers and sisters whom my grandma and mother took care of, as well as me. We lived in a two-story housing house in a little village called Horse Creek. It was told to me that it was a great place to water your horses and camp back in the days when we were still a free people. The area was often visited by our hero Tasunke Witko or Crazy Horse.

I am fortunate enough to have been raised in a house that spoke Lakota all day and every day. I also had extended family, all of whom were very knowledgeable in not only our Lakota ways, but in our history. They were a family of story tellers and of elders who still tried to maintain their old way of life. The treaties that so many of our people signed with the U.S. government were also a topic of discussion in our family. I believe it is this way of life that has carried me so well into the future.

The stories that my grandmother and grandfathers told me were not the same the stories that I read in the history books at school. The stories in the books said my grandmothers were blood-thirsty savages, not the sweet old ladies who taught me songs and stories and my beautiful language so we could converse and communicate. This is one of the major reasons that I chose cultural resources management (CRM) as my major. I could not bear to read something else inaccurate. CRM ties me into a bigger picture that preserves and maintains ties that will keep us going.

There have been many anthropologists who went to numerous Indian reservations, stayed for a short period of time, then went home to write volumes on their perception of the people, but they were merely outsiders. Their studies usually aren’t very useful and are often untrue.

My choice to work in the anthropology/archaeology field was an important decision. As an “insider” I can get access to have more stories told and I believe that by knowing our language, history, and culture, and being a child who grew up with family who respected and honored one another and the treaties that our ancestors signed to make sure we as the seventh generation could be properly taken care of, I can preserve and protect what our ancestors fought for. They did not shed blood and sweat and tears for us to just ignore.

As long as we have languages and traditions and culture, we are the true inhabitants of the lands we walk on. The longevity of the Native nations who depend on us as young and educated Natives to keep the fight going is looking quite promising. I am confident that we will all make our ancestors proud and they will dance for us in the stars.

The Natives of this land now have the advantage of an education. Before we were only taught skills to help us work for other people. Now we are in a position to make moves for our respective Nations and for our families. The day has come and we need to stand up just as our ancestors did before us. Let us proclaim the land as ours once again and bring ourselves back into the ball court as a fierce competitor driven by the souls and spirits of those who fought and died while trying to protect us.

I would like to remind my peers to learn your language, pay attention to your elders, and study your treaties.  Knowledge is valuable and powerful, just as we are.

Toksa ake, lila Wopila Tanka Iciciye ksto.

 

Dera is a senior cultural resource management major at Sinte Gleska University from Swift Bear, SD. She plans to further her higher education with a masters and PhD to support her work in the anthropology field.  With a focus on cultural preservation, Native languages and gaining knowledge on treaties, she believes this will give back not only to her people on Sicangu lands, but to all Native America.

Always In Transit

 Not too long ago a friend told me I was like the wind – fierce, always in motion, and uncatchable.

For me, this time of year means travel. It means recruiting for a program I care deeply about – the University of Colorado Upward Bound Program. My trips begin with a flight to a small town like Durango, Colorado or Fayetteville, North Carolina or in the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sometimes I fly all day just to end up on a little commuter plane with two-seats on each side of the aisle, and fly through turbulence to land in a different place in a new state.

There I rent an economy-sized ride not designed for the rez and drive through different communities to visit schools in the Navajo Nation, Ute reservations, and Lumbee lands. The hours can be long, GPS signals don’t always hold out, cell service is a luxury, and dust is all around. I used to feel timid driving so many hours alone, but thankfully friends or family in those areas would accompany me as co-pilots on my recruitment on the rez tours, as I call them. But by now I’ve traveled those roads enough times to know where I’m going. I appreciate being on the go. The road gives me the necessary time and solitude to reflect on where I’ve been.

Back when I was an undergraduate at Stanford University, my friends and I used to joke that being Native added an extra five units onto your class schedule. We didn’t mean this in the sense that we had actual additional courses, but when you’re strongly tied to your family, community or reservation, something was always happening to make you miss home, and that missing or yearning for the place you grew up in took time and focus away from your studies. It was like taking a class on homesickness all on its own. We worried or felt disappointed when we couldn’t attend ceremonies or celebrations back at home. Some subjects weren’t always so light–relatives were ill, or there were deaths and funerals of leaders or people you grew up with. Attending college far away on limited funds always made it difficult to go home.

That period in my life taught me lessons about being Native. To me, our heritage means perseverance. However you persevere when life, history, challenges, successes, and all that you encounter in between comes at you defines you. Change and challenge can happen to you anywhere. I experienced the greatest growth in my life during those college years as I encountered fears of not belonging, not making the grade, and not wanting to disappoint my family and community back at home.

For each of us the answer to, “How do you deal with your brick walls?” is different. Some people dealt with stereotypes based on appearance by starting a successful blog discussing it. People who have dealt with health issues on their reservation, such as diabetes, have become doctors. People who did not have the strongest sense of community growing up became community organizers or ran for tribal council. People who couldn’t attend college without scholarships became advocates for organizations that to fund education. For someone like myself, I’ve tried to combine all that I am and all that I feel I can contribute to my people. For me, it means being like the wind – always on the move.

*          *          *

The drive is always the same each time. I take the same routes, the same path, and generally try to set up the same presentation times at each school. I even usually stop at the same gas stations to fuel up. While I purposefully make so much of it a fixed, familiar routine, the journey is always a different one. I’m met with new faces at each school, students ready to hear about our program. Some come because they’ve heard about the program and are eager to learn more, others I can tell just want to get out of class.

Either way, I feel they’re there for a reason. Everything happens for a reason and I always say a little prayer before each presentation. I pray that their hearts and minds are open to the possibilities of what I have to say. I pray that whoever needs to hear my words that day will hear them. As a former student of this Upward Bound program I have a lot to say: it changes lives, you meet lifelong friends, you get prepared for what’s coming not only your next school year but in college, and it goes on and on and on. I can say all I want to try to further inspire the already impassioned or try to motivate the ones who lack the drive, but it doesn’t always work. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m not as young as I once was; in fact, to many of the students I might be on the border of being relatable. But my favorite part of these trips is not hearing my own words, but those of our current students who share their own experiences about how our program impacted them.

This year I was surprised by the leadership amongst our students. I arrived at high schools where our current students already printed out applications, rallied students to attend the presentation, and even had informational sheets on Upward Bound. This moved me. I was seeing young Natives in action as leaders. I know our program can’t take full credit–their parents, schools, community, family, and other experiences have helped mold them into the strong, dedicated, and driven students they are today, but I’d like to think we played a part in it.

I was and am proud of all my students. The first summer they always show up shy and even quiet, but by the end of the summer and by the time they complete our program three years later they are loud, outgoing, and charismatic. I think this is partly because some of their greatest growth occurred during the summers where we modeled a college life for them, taking classes, living in dorms, learning new things, and meeting new people. You learn how to survive away from home at Upward Bound and the program teaches you–you can create and make family anywhere.

*          *          *

Tanaya Winder, a Cafe Cultura Collective member, performs at their November 2012 open mic: spoken word, music, art, vendors, & community gathering Denver Inner City Parish/La Academia. Café Cultura promotes unity and healing among Indigenous peoples through creative expression while empowering youth to find their voice, reclaim oral and written traditions, and become leaders in their communities.

Part of why I love working for Upward Bound is it allows me to wear many hats–I can program activities, implement new ideas, and I get to teach. Each summer I’ve taught a course whether it was Native American Literature, creative writing, or advanced creative writing. Most people don’t know that I came to the program in grief having lost a dear friend to suicide. But the program and the students saved me by giving me purpose, one that I’ve never let go of and try to work daily to see come to pass–teaching, writing, and sharing that joy and passion for words.

That first summer I worked with the first-year students on a poetry project called Many Hearts, One People: A Celebration of Poetry in Native America. Some students discovered healing through poetry, and others finally were able to find poetry accessible. I may have felt the impulse before, but it was then that I truly knew I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write the words that not only these youth would need, but words that people would need to read to realize they aren’t alone in the world.

One other teaching experience that always stands out in my mind is one I had with a student named Joe. I’d known Joe since the summer of 2009 when he first strolled into class wearing a black heavy-metal t-shirt, buzzed-cut hair, and sunglasses covered his eyes. I’ll admit I gave in to stereotypes and judged him when he tried to keep his iPod on during class. I thought he was going to be difficult to handle. Maybe he was at first, but since then I’d like to think he and I have bonded in some way since that first summer he walked into my classroom.

Three years later in my advanced creative writing class as we went over poetry, Joe refused to say the word love. He still offered to read aloud the poem I handed out in class that day, but only if he didn’t have to say the word. I complied. So, whenever Joe got to the word love he’d pause, look at me, and wait for me to say it – love – before he continued on.

*          *          *

Working for my people in this way, working with the youth for an ongoing seven summers at this program has taught me the meaning of that word love more than anything. One cannot persevere in anything in life without love or support. Part of how you create the love for yourself is by pursuing your goals like applying to college, scholarships, internships, jobs, or other opportunities that will help shape who you are destined to become. But part of being Native means thinking of the bigger picture. It’s never just about you. You have to think about all those who came before you who made it possible for you to be where you are now and you have to think about who will follow you because of you.

Once you are able to grasp that self-love by honoring the gifts you’ve been given, you help others fill in their blanks. You help them find the love and support they need in their lives. For some, their greater calling may seem as uncatchable as the wind, always moving, but each of us is capable of making an impact greater than ourselves. Once we realize that, we should all embrace the wind in each of us; that inner knowing that blows us from one experience to the next. You never know whose life you were meant to make a difference in, or whose life was meant to affect yours.

Tanaya Winder is a poet, writer, artist, and educator from the Southern Ute, Duckwater Shoshone, and Pyramid Lake Paiute Nations. A winner of the 2010 A Room Of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando prize in poetry, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cutthroat magazine, Adobe Walls, Superstition Review, Kweli, and Drunkenboat among others. More recently, her poems from her manuscript “Love in a Time of Blood Quantum” were produced and performed by the Poetic Theater Productions Presents Company in NYC. Tanaya has taught writing courses at Stanford University, UC-Boulder, and the University of New Mexico. She has a BA in English from Stanford University and a MFA in creative writing (poetry) from UNM. Tanaya currently works as the Assistant Director for the University of Colorado-Boulder Upward Bound Program. She is also co-founder and editor-in-chief of As/Us: an Indigenous women’s literary journal. Tanaya guest lectures and teaches creative writing workshops at high schools and universities internationally. To read more of her writing or to book Tanaya for a class visit or talk please visit her personal blog http://tanayawinder.wordpress.com/

Food for Thought: Stories from Sky’s Stomach

“You are what you eat” is a food saying I have already used on my blog, but for this particular post I felt I should use it again to jump into the thought. November is Native American Heritage Month and I felt I should do the term some justice in this blog to show my pride. I am Tohono O’odham and I have a rich heritage.

Food is tied into my heritage, including the future, the past, and present. I can still taste the same variety of squash the ancestors planted centuries ago. The taste connects me, but there is something more to it than the taste that makes me feels nostalgic.

My first major writing work that got published was about traditional foods. I was attending Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC) and I had a space to plant a small garden. I had never planted before and wanted to try to grow traditional crops. Since I was attending TOCC, I had the resources to help me expand an idea that became the article I wrote and published in the college’s newsletter.

Traditionally the Tohono O’odham were farmers, although agriculture is not as prevalent as it was back in the day. The history of food is still vital to discussing culture. It’s what feeds us.  There are specific seeds that grow well in the region, but there are stories behind those seeds that influence the culture. There are seeds that are indigenous to the land, but there are also seeds that were introduced to the Tohono O’odham through the contact of outside cultures. These particular seeds grow extremely well in the climate. Seeds like the tepary bean actually thrive on lack of irrigation. Planting was more than source of food for the Tohono O’odham. It was an obligation. It was survival.

Many Native American tribes have a creation or emergence story explaining how things came to be, some which include guidelines to maintain a balance. The state of well-being all entangled in responsibilities with the earth is the objective of these stories.

There are wild foods growing everywhere on the planet that can be harvested by anyone willing. What if it was the only food available? Humans need food and there is a nostalgic feeling to feeding yourself straight from the earth without paying a grocery attendant or a waiter at Chili’s. The concept of eating has changed in the past century. We’re not starving, but we’re not hungry, either. There is an experience lost when we pay money to feed ourselves. Maybe there is a difference between being fed and trying to survive. Knowing the history of our food might just be enough to fulfill that experience. In our stories there is usually a reference to the people needing to live off of the land and survive. Food is a part of who we are. All of us.

The seasons on earth change the plants and the availability of certain fruits and other food items that can be found outside the grocery store and force people to stay connected to “mother nature.” I remember as a kid taking the sap from the mesquite tree bark. It has a sweetness resembling a molasses flavor but with an earthy twist. In Tohono O’odham it’s call u:sp, but in popular terms it is the sap that trees produce to protect themselves. But as kids we would collect u:sp and I saw it as a treat, like it was candy from the desert. Our parents wouldn’t let us eat sweets, but they forgot about the candy that grew on the mesquite trees. It wasn’t an everyday activity and that’s the important thing to know about harvesting wild vegetation: location of the plant and knowing when is the best time to harvest.

Harvesting is a rite of passage because the person harvesting is connecting to the plant, but also with the past while sustaining the future. The knowledge is being passed down, not through any written forms, but by practicing the traditions of the ancestors while we maintain a close relationship to the earth.

The times are changing so fast I believe that some of these practices, such as planting a small garden or harvesting ciolim (cholla buds), is important to stay grounded in our ongoing relationship with the earth. “You are what you eat” applies to the situation perfectly because the food that is being harvested is the same food that kept the people from going hungry centuries ago. If this food didn’t exist would I exist? If I no longer harvest and eat it, do I exist?

Food is also the element that has been a way for people to connect and relate. The sharing of flavors and stories all poured out on the dinner table, creating closeness for the people. This Native American Heritage Month it is important to remember that we must share knowledge with the people. It helps us bond while simply eating a meal while enjoying the taste of home.

Agriculture in America has been commercialized over the centuries. The self-sufficient farms run by the community or a large family declined when men joined the military and left their fields to wither, or left their own fields because they got paid in dollars, or grew a commercial crop  like cotton. As America grew, business fell into lock-step with agriculture. Today the source of our produce is really unknown after it gets to a grocery store.

The commodities program implemented into the United States really shifted Native communities because there were new ingredients and unfamiliar commodities. The influence of American culture produced the famous Popover or Fry-bread. Lard, grease, flour, and salt are the ingredients. Fry-bread is the taste of making do with government commodities, but doing it deliciously.

Sky is a senior creative writing major at the University of Arizona. He has lived in Arizona his entire life, on and off the Tohono O’odham Rez. His started his academic career at the Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells, AZ.

“I feel it’s important to learn where you come from and to know your culture. However I also am just a poor college kid trying to be successful. My perspectives are all over the grid.” To read more of his thoughts on food and culture, visit his “Stories From My Stomach” WordPress Blog at http://storiesfrommystomach.wordpress.com/

Leaving Home to Fulfill a Destiny

Iva, presenting the results from the Blackfeet Community College during the convening of tribal colleges participating in the Woksape Oyate, Wisdom of the People grant last year in Denver, Colo.

I went to work for the Blackfeet Tribe fresh out of high school.  I planned to work for just a year, and then go to college. That year turned into 22 years.  I went to college for the first time in my life just short of my 44th birthday. Had it not been for the Blackfeet Community College, I might not have ever gone to college. True, I had to start commuting 50 miles round trip again, but the upside was that my husband agreed to join me. He hadn’t ever gone to college either.

I learned a great deal by attending my tribal college, and it wasn’t just about the history and the language – both incredibly important to me. I started to learn more about myself. I graduated in 2011 with two associate’s degrees: one in Blackfeet studies, and one in Blackfeet language. Much to my surprise, I was the class salutatorian. I passed my exam for the Montana Class Seven Special License, which gave me the opportunity to assistant-teach the Blackfeet language in public schools if I choose to do so. I really want to do that, and at first that was my ultimate goal. However, the wonderful people at the college’s Academic Enrichment Services Department did their job perfectly and encouraged me to continue with my higher education.

I got geared up to transfer to the University of Montana after graduation, but my youngest daughter was expecting her first baby that August, so I delayed my transfer for a year. But, my educational experience didn’t stop during that year off. I was recruited by the co-coordinators of the LEAP Grant, Wisdom of the People Initiative at Blackfeet Community College as an intern for one year. My main job duties were mostly clerical, but the mentorship furthered my learning experiences. I learned more about Blackfeet history and discovered more and more about the truth of Native American history. On top of that, I was selected by a faculty member to be his research assistant under the Mellon Fellowship Grant. I enjoyed more learning, more mentorship, more guidance, and more self-discovery.

In retrospect, I feel like I was really destined to go to college later in life. I truly believe that had I gone immediately after high school I might not have had the rewarding experience that I did at BCC. I might not have even gone to my tribal college. By attending Blackfeet Community College, I received a great education that was very much in contrast to the non-Native public school I graduated from. I felt an incredible sense of community and kinship in my time at the tribal college, and I became familiar with the tribal college movement.  It so inspiring to learn about how much those who made the “movement” happen had sacrificed for Indian people to have a chance at a college education.

I am now a student at the University of Montana in Missoula. My major is Native American studies, with a minor in sociology. It was difficult to leave my home where I have lived most of my life and move to the city. It was also difficult to leave my family and extended family, but I couldn’t fight destiny. I am enjoying my new beginnings here as I bump into many Blackfeet and other Native students doing the same as I am – empowering ourselves, our children, and our people, and continuing to break down the stereotypes about Indian people. And living away from home for the first time, I have noticed the solidarity and friendliness amongst the people of color and Native communities as we attempt to do so.

Like I said earlier, at this point in my life the stars have really aligned for me, and I am truly happy. Aside from when I became a mother, I’m probably happier than I’ve ever been in my life. That might not have ever happened had it not been for the tribal college movement, Blackfeet Community College, and of course, the American Indian College Fund and their donors.

Oral Tradition: A Tool for Knowing Who We Are

I spent summers with family in Kaibab. When my aunt would speak Paiute to me, I did not understand at the time that she was trying to teach me the language. I did not know what she was saying to me and I would ask my cousin to translate. Her reply was that I needed to ask my aunt what she was saying to me.

Although I did not know what was being said, I did not perceive her intent as mean or negative. She spoke slowly and enunciated each word. I loved listening to her talk. I always felt very close to my aunt and closer to her daughter because she spoke English and could speak to me at my level.

I think that my mother did not teach me the language because of her experience with the language. You see, each Native is truly an individual, as are their experiences are. My mother’s mother passed when my mother was a very young child, and my mother grew up in the care of family members, went to boarding schools, and attended Indian schools. She did not share many of her experiences with me, and my impression is that they were not very positive. What she did express to me was the importance of education.

At the age of five, I wanted to be the first female American Indian/Mexican President of the United States of America.  My mother had just begun to talk to me about walking in two worlds. She said we were different in many ways, but society was going to force us to be another. Her perspective at the time did not seem to matter to me; I felt that I was going to change the world. Little did I know that the president only has so much power. I also thought that I wanted to join the Marine Corps. I was a senior in high school when the war began. I admire many service members, but I could not bring myself to contribute to destroying another’s culture as was done to mine. Not only were recruiters pushing for me to join, their masculine egos were often challenged by my drive to succeed. My gender played a pivotal role in this, the way that the men spoke of women and the ongoing struggles to define myself by my standards. I had no idea what I was going to do. I decided to enroll in college, thinking I wanted to be a lawyer and would change the system from the inside.

I had the opportunity to work with my cousin on a project that she had been working on for many years. I went to training with her in San Francisco at the Cultural Conservancy. There I learned how to record and edit audio visual documentation of ethnography.  It was not until that following semester that I took my first anthropology class.

Many Natives are skeptical of anthropology, but the way the professor taught it with a “do no harm” approach I felt as though I finally found where I could fit in. I maintained my drive to finish my bachelor’s degree in anthropology, not to study people, but to help with language programs that my tribe and others may have difficulties with. After having a child myself, I know I need to know my Native language and my child needs to know who she is, not just what society says about whom she should be.

There are times that I am still discouraged in the anthropology department at school because of many of the different views of my peers. It is unfortunate that I feel that the time has come to have a written language as our ways are oral. I think that the constant pressure from the dominant paradigm that forces Natives to alter their ways. Traditions only last for so long.

I think that because of colonization and forced assimilation that we as Native people often fight change, not realizing how it may hold us back. When people talk about historical trauma, I think that it is very real, but it is also time to heal. We have control over our lives and letting the dominant culture tell us who we are has passed.  The more we know, the more tools we can acquire and use to help our children grow and thrive in a world that is often cruel and unjust.

Together we can change the world and help one another for the better.  We must educate one another in ways without discouraging each other, and inform the dominant society of who we are, rather than conforming to who they want us to be.

Melanie is currently an administrative assistant at First Nations Development Institute, headquartered in Longmont, CO. Melanie is an enrolled member of the Kaibab Paiute tribe. She was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, where she and her daughter, Elyse, reside. As a part-time student at the University of Colorado Denver, Melanie working towards a bachelor’s degree in anthropology.

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