The challenges we face as indigenous peoples with our reservation economies is frequently in the news. From many places, there are discussions about health, schooling, violence, and the lack of good housing and transportation. The stories are so personal. To each of us they are our stories, our relatives, sometimes they are us, in the past or even now. We hear more and more about the special circumstances faced by those of us who live in urban and metropolitan areas. We know unemployment is high and also that our home-based and barter economies are both significant to our financial well-being and a natural extension of our tribal societal practices. We are communal and family-oriented so it is not surprising that our families support each other both in actions and with financial resources.
It reminds me that there are many people who are not aware of the richness of our cultures and our families and of our relationship to the land. While it is true that many live in dire poverty, it is also true that powerful qualities from our traditional economies exist as a resource for a more prosperous future. It is also true that education, especially an education that is rooted in tradition and tribal knowledge can ensure the ability to provide for oneself and one’s family. I see the success of this educational experience everyday at tribal colleges.
What does a healthy reservation economy look like? I prefer to offer the most straightforward explanations of economics and money when discussing how our economies can be strengthened. First we should always remember as tribal people that our people always had economies – we engaged in production, trade, and distribution of wealth. We recognized talents and abilities and trained people for the work that needed to be done. We had work time and leisure time. We decorate our functional tools with art to make our work more beautiful. We found ways to ensure that our governance was intact and that all people who needed support were cared for. Among different geographic groups we found ways to communicate that supported our ability to engage in trade. Through our resource management, we provided for basic needs for food and shelter and for health.
Second, we should recognize that a healthy family and reservation economy is within our reach. Tremendous human and natural resource capital exists and new technologies create opportunities to use that capital. Our population is young so we have a good resource in the development of skills and knowledge among our youth and young adults. They are responsive to technology and to the global economy. They are also still involved with our tribal cultures and are learning our ways in a modern context.
Third, we no longer have geographic and infrastructure barriers. There was a time when a lack of access to transportation especially highways and railroads could be a significant barrier to economic development. That is no longer true. While many rural reservation roads are in need of repair, this nation’s economic transportation system is quite intact. So are the resources that are needed for investment. It is good business to do business in Indian country so there is no lack of partnership opportunities.
Finally, we have proven our capabilities – we start and manage some of most successful public and private enterprises in the country. We build and operate home-based businesses, small and large commercial enterprises, public services, and are active in the entertainment industry. We are intimately involved with entrepreneurship and leadership. We know how to manage and how to make money.
Investment in education, infrastructure, and in diverse enterprises leads us into a prosperous future. We are not only eternally hopeful about the future, we take action to build resources and opportunities.
This past summer the College Fund was the beneficiary of the ticket sales for the Lone Ranger premiere. The opportunity, of course, prompted great discussions about misappropriation and Native star power. It wasn’t an easy decision but I kept my focus on the tribal colleges students who benefitted through the scholarship funds raised by the event. Several Fund staff were able to attend the premiere which was awesome. The movie, not so much, although the actors are amazing and I recognize that Tonto is a fictional character. I wrote this poem after.
Lone Ranger: Reflections on a Star Trip
Studded red carpet winds across the California Amusement park
Stars poking out here and there
Hero worshiping fans lined deep
Along pretend white picket fences
With 24 hour waiting signs and cell phone cameras at the ready
Media hounds shout to the actors – turn right, look left, come closer
We wait to be recognized
Escorted to where invited Indians gather
In their modern day regalia
Women wearing facepaint
Men in top hats and beaded vests
I don’t know the actors
Lined up under signs with their names
Waved around by escorts
Where are our signs?
Send pictures to my granddaughter
Who knows Disney stars because she is 11
Disney’s target market
They shoot their arrows at them
I am disappointed although I don’t know why.
I hoped for a less silly Tonto
Johnny Depp plays him
A caricature of a sacred person
This a movie fraught with one-liners so moments of poignancy or heroic gestures are lost. I don’t usually use the word fraught, but it works here, signifying twists and turns that are seeking direction.
Native cultures mix
I am crow
Living among the Dine
From a dead people
Recently, I took a journey to two cities that thrive with political and social relationships that are so defining to the ways of people in the USA. I went to Washington DC and New York City. In many ways these cities represent this country in ways that are both grounded in the best of intentions and in the most difficult of circumstances and behaviors.
As Native people we have a long history of venturing in and out of Washington DC. It has long been the place of America’s greatest political power. In the early days of colonialism, as Washington was established and began to attract the good and bad of this country’s politicians and justice seekers, we came to understand that in order to navigate the new world created by the founding of the United States, that we must go visit this city, our ancestors went by walking, on horseback, later in trains, and cars and now we fly. We go there into this seat of political power looking for the next chapter in the stories passed down from our parents and grandparents – the stories of our nationalism as tribes, the stories of our negotiations, the stories of our sacrifices and our hope. As tribal educators, we are often hopeful that by some miraculous intervention, the resources will come from Congress and the President to fully fund our early learning programs, our schools and our colleges. We wish for the fulfilled promise of the makers of our treaties. I wish we didn’t have to go there, I wish for us to have everything we need, nestled in the heart of our homelands.
I visited friends at the National Congress of American Indians. The embassy sits nestled among row houses on a shady street. Our most powerful political leaders go in and out of those doors, leading us. We are working on developing a better, more public understanding of financing of tribal higher education both for institutions and students.
A gathering of educators and social leaders to discuss how to creat a social movement in support of the importance of a college education was the reason for my trip to DC. The tribal colleges are a social movement created through our story-telling and now we are part of a larger movement supported by social media and flashy slogans.
I made my first trip into New York City, into Manhattan, where I actually stayed several days instead of just overnight. I was pleasantly surprised at the adventure. There really are concrete canyons and millions of people. One article I read said that over 800 languages are spoken in NYC, that it is the most linguistically diverse city in the world. I even had the dubious pleasure of riding in a NYC cab with thedriver weaving in and out of spaces that were inches away from the cab.
Besides visiting with supporters of the College Fund, http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/10/08/bite-big-apple-american-indian-college-fund-raises-awareness-contributions-tribal , several of us attended the annual conference of the Independent Sector. This organization advocates for and educates both non-profits and the public.
This was a good trip, I saw the doll exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, browsed a street fair outside my hotel in NYC, ate at corner deli and had that adventurous cab ride. I appreciated the privilege of travel and the fact that I could share pictures on Facebook.
Like many Natives and our allies across our Grandmother Earth, Unci Maka, I have joined the Idle No More movement, attending round dance gatherings, praying for Chief Theresa Spence and her supporters, sharing the stories I hear and read and perusing news and opinion pieces. Like many indigenous people, I am acutely aware that our voices in the mainstream of American, Canadian and Central and South American societies are often unheard, that we appear silent when in fact our voices are singing out with stories of our lives. Defining this movement is our responsibility. Each of us should learn about this movement and find our own place in it. We can add our voices to songs of our relatives and allies across the earth.
The new calendar year can be a time of renewal and recommitment for many – but for most Native people, our annual calendar is seasonal or ceremonial, related to the changes of our Grandmother Earth or the rituals of our people. For me the year goes from summer to summer, from the time of sun dances to the next sun dances. I know that measuring time in this manner comes from my identity – we may adopt the calendar year and New Year celebrations but we find our renewal as tribal people in the seasons and rituals of our people.
As the Idle No More movement has gained strength, like many, I have pondered its meaning. For me, it is our voices, singing out from the place inside of us where our identities as “the people” live, it is the rhythm of our shared heartbeat and the movements of our bodies as we dance a shared dance – a social dance of hope and friendship and affirmation, in a circle, around the drums and the voices that are singing out who we are.
Each tribal people have a unique identity given us by our Creator and our understanding of Creation. Our identity emerges out of our knowledge of how we came to be as a people. Our oral knowledge is intact and the stories of our creation remain essentially untainted by western influences. Often we are viewed by mainstream America in the context of what educators’ call the 3 F’s – food, fun, and fashion. We are the celebration of Thanksgiving, the Indians in popular movies, feathered headdresses, and geometric designed pottery and lilting lute music. A deeper understanding of who we are, philosophically, spiritually, and socially is elusive to most of mainstream America. I often think this elusiveness is exacerbated by the fact that it would require a painful acknowledgement that we, as the First Peoples of this hemisphere, are really human beings subjected to devastating military and political policies of the very governments that still lead our countries.
Tribal people have their own teachings about their Creation, about their family relationships and how they came to be on this earth. Native people have teachings about plants and animals, about gathering in celebration, and about the meaning of each item of decoration or clothing that they wear at the ceremonies they have.
Our stories reflect the richness of our heritages which are such an important part of today’s democracy. Although the experiences of Native people with the arrival of Europeans on our shores are filled with tragedy, we have not lost our identity or our cultural ways. Idle No More is the story of our shared identity. Like all social movements, it has roots in history and connections with the social actions of other movements including the Occupy movement and environmental actions.
Tribally controlled education is a vital part of the foundation of tribal knowledge that underpins the Idle No More movement. In today’s society the education of our people is essential to our prosperity, our identity, and our activism. The tribally controlled education movement emerged during the last modern great wave of social activism among our people – the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s. In the last 45 years, tribal educators and our schools and colleges have been at the forefront of the restoration and preservation of our identities. Our work ensures that our ancestors and our descendents will recognize us.
Now is the time to affirm that we are entitled to an education that honors our identity, our knowledge of Creation and our relationships. We are entitled to the best of public education – a tribally controlled education – content from our knowledge with teaching methodologies and assessment that uphold our ways of learning. As our social activism grows, look to your Native educators and encourage them to bring Idle No More into their classrooms. It is a modern day teachable moment in the context of our cultural ways and the histories of our people. It is a moment that can last a lifetime. It is the work of a lifetime that will be felt for seven generations.
There is a smell of pine
A smell that brings memories
Bearing down upon the present day
Tangy, pungent, clean
The smell of freshness
Carried on cool winds left behind by thunderstorms
Warm in the summer sun
Crisp with winter ice
Sticky bark and prickly pine needles
I have stood many times in the shelter of those pine trees
Lain down on the ground beneath them
Felt the tiny pricks of the needles on bare arms and legs
I waited for signs of the coming of the spirits into the places of shelter
Looked through the patterns of the branches for the sun
Now I hear the special sound of pine trees
On mountain cliffs and peaks
On golf courses
Along trails near my new home in the city
I smell the scent
I wait for signs of the coming of the spirits into the places where I live
There is a foreign language
That trips on the tongues of the elders
Skirts around the hearts of the young
Sets itself to music and writes itself sonnets and epic poems
It is the language of the end
The end of ourselves
It is a white language
Translucent in some places
Transparent in others
You can always see the shimmering shadowy intentions
Behind the words
It is not opaque
It cannot hide itself totally
There are obscure references created by faraway thinkers
There are blatant claims of understanding from all the intelligent thinkers
We name the words as asked of us
By those who have spoken before us.
Many others who tell us the power of words
We find our language
Flowing over the tips of tongues
Filling the hearts of ourselves
Giving us our own songs, poems set to the music of the grandmother’s drumbeat
It is a red language
©Cheryl Crazy Bull
In October I attended the National Indian Education Convention in Oklahoma City. It is a place of rich Native cultures and beautiful landscapes. It is so flat in Oklahoma City you cannot see the horizon and the winds sweep you off your feet as they rush across the plains looking to knock over whatever lies in their path. There were places in the downtown area where the wind hit you for a few steps then slowed down. The Native people there are a mix of those who have been in this place since the beginning of time and those who came here as a result of forced removal from the lands of their creation. They all have made a place for themselves.
They have learned to live together and we witness the strength of their work in the faces of their elders and the hopefulness of the young. I picked the convention as my urban theme this time because I noticed that the voices of our advocates for our urban children and youth are finally becoming more prominent. There is a greater emphasis through the NIEA Urban Indian Education sub-committee and in the content of workshops on how we can better serve the diverse Native population in our public schools. This leads to more focus also on mainstream colleges and how they may be serving Native student populations.
Reservation, rural and urban Indians must work together to ensure the best education for our children, our youth and our college students. I believe that public schools through local, state and federal support have a moral and legal responsibility to ensure that our children have adequate resources and support to get a quality education that includes support for cultural education and to meet any special economic or social concerns. Tribes have the duty and the legal right to insist upon this education and should not have to pay for it.
We are each uniquely identifiable as a people because of our specific tribal languages, our connection to a place that we call our homelands, our social, economic and governance systems and our relationship with creation. It is very important as we focus on our children who are in public schools that we help them make the connection to their homelands and to the traditional knowledge that is their identity. It takes work and it take cooperation because the diversity of most public school settings especially in urban centers creates a high risk for pan-Indian practices to prevail over the effort it takes to help each child find out more about their own people. In many cases, this is made more complicated by the inter-tribal identity of our families.
But we can do it, my own children and grandchildren are mostly living in the cities in pursuit of employment so as a family we have to make a special effort to tell stories, practice our traditional ways and touch base with our relatives and our home. They are inter-tribal being Sicangu Lakota as well as Shoshone-Paiute. Because my children were raised in Rosebud they are mostly Lakota in their understanding of the world but they know they have a rich Native heritage in all of their tribal ancestry.
Generally, public schools won’t give our children their identity, but their family, community and their life education will. We can ask of the schools to represent our identities appropriately and with respect, to give our children access to resources for success, and to ensure equity in their educational experience. Parents and tribes have a right to inform the allocation of resources and to insist that cultural education be as as much a priority as academic support. Cultural studies, curriculum, teaching strategies, extracurricular and co-curricular activities can all be used to support tribal children and youth. As tribal people we must reach out to our families no matter where they are at, using the tools we have access to in the form of new media, to pass on our knowledge.