Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Gratuitous postcard: The importance of carrying on one's culture

Postcard: "Indian Squaw Carrying Burden Basket"
I'm only one very small part Indian (that's "Native American", for the politically correct), and that small part is so distant that it can't be traced by legal documents -- the family history includes (and whose, these days, doesn't?) an early frontiersman who returned from one of his stints wandering bringing with him a dark-skinned bride who "became white." That is, she severed her ties with her family, took on a Christian name, married in a white-people's church, raised her children in the white community, and never told any of them where her roots lay.

We gather (by dint of a series of other indicators fairly deeply buried in our family lore) that she was probably Ioway. That's as far as it goes.

And so, we in our family go on with our lives, knowing little about that part of our family heritage. But then, we're also Welsh, German, Swedish, Scottish, and I can't remember everything else. We don't carry over much of those cultures, either. We have what is best described as a "mixed heritage".

Hell. We're Americans.

I was born here. Mom was born here. Dad was born here. The familiar earth speaks our souls' secret names, and binds us to it. Our people were here, are here, will be here, no matter what names they bear, no matter what faith they follow or deny.

So it is that I know, as does everybody else, that need for a sense of belonging.

And so it is that I can fully sympathize with the concerns over life on and of the reservations, such as those expressed by Cinnamon Stillwell, at David Yeaghley's forum:
I'm not opposed to the existence of Indian reservations and I'm certainly aware of the blood, sweat and tears that went into their creation. But I have my doubts about them. Reservations do seem to act as nations within a nation and as an opponent of multiculturalism and the balkinization that attends it, I tend to promote assimilation over separation. Plus, I'm not sure reservations have helped Indians integrate into mainstream American culture. And they can help build resentment among non-Indians over the perceived unfairness in reservations being exempt from certain laws and restrictions to which other Americans are subject.

However, there's nothing wrong with keeping one's traditions alive and passing them on to future generations and undoubtedly, reservations help serve this purpose. Furthermore, Indian culture is part of the tapestry of American history and should be preserved for all. Lastly, people should have the choice to live how they want to live. Cities and suburbs aren't for everyone.
In many ways, what I've learned about reservations echoes what I know about isolated rural communities throughout the country (the primary difference being that the rez has sovereignty). Many of the old ways of life have been discarded in pursuit of modern wealth and convenience (casinos on the rez, factories for towns like ours).

If the people on the rez so decide, they can (and sometimes do) rebuild their family and their culture in much the same fashion as do the Amish, the Mennonites, and similar groups. They have a common thread, and they can use the place, the land to build upon it, to reinforce their unity and their strengths. They can belong to the place.

And, if, unlike many of the Amish, they continue to open the gates for others to join in saving the culture, and at the same time, allow for those within who have other dreams to go forth and explore, then they may find themselves the stronger for it. They can belong to the people, and the people can belong to them.

The farmer of today bears little resemblance to the man who was digging earth at Jamestown, Virginia, the first year the English settled there. The Indian of today is nothing like the Indian of 1607. We have little experience in common with our own grandparents, more in common with strangers born on the other side of the land, but in the same decade as ourselves.

This doesn't mean, though, that all our tradition is lost. It simply means it is changed from the legacy left to our forebears.

The way to survive is through adaptation. We become different persons with every new experience, we learn from our mistakes, and teach those changes to our young.

Our heritage, our cultural ties with the past should be respected, honored, taught as crucial to our societies, but not placed above all else. We must acknowledge that life, that life stories occur today, and will continue to occur tomorrow. Otherwise, all we have at the rez, or in a town like Monmouth, will be a museum -- walking, breathing, but nevertheless, without a future, still a dead thing.

We prefer a live culture. Who knows what bread may rise from it?

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