Using Tradition to Teach Our Kids Purpose: Mentorship Matters, Part II

Gyasi Ross

“Native people who are in some stage of adaption to Western culture often lose their children because their families are unstable for the same reasons that American society’s families are unstable…The Western lifestyle and the Western legal systems are combining to destroy the Native People, and the primary victims of the attack, as in any war, are the children.  It is no accident that activists of the Native movement are calling for the strengthening of the family as a way of reversing the processes destroying Native nations and Native people.” 

John Mohawk, The Future is the Family

We’ve got to restore our children’s sense of belonging and purpose.  That sense of belonging and purpose will only come through introducing them to/keeping them involved in their Native communities. 

It’s in our DNA.

The Baby Veronica case was heartbreaking and also was crucial fodder for political-types who tried to say that it was yet another example of stealing Native babies. Factually, that may or may not be the case; yet our history is indeed packed full of examples of Native children being forcibly taken from Native parents. But the underlying premise—that white, proselytizing forces need to steal Native children—I’m not convinced. While it very true that at one time, boarding schools and forced assimilation stole our children away, I simply don’t think that anybody needs to steal our children anymore.

We give them away now.

RELATED: Mentorship Matters, Part I

As John Mohawk observed, we lose our children by adaptation to Western culture. We allow our children into the colonizer’s education system to learn the colonizer’s history and eat the colonizer’s horrible, unhealthy food. We allow our children to pledge allegiance to the same flag that was planted in victory immediately after the massacres of Wounded Kneee, Marias River and Sand Creek (and many more). But…but…all of that’s practical, right?—some of us have no other meaningful choice in how we educate our kids. We have to let our kids go to public schools. Economics.  Time.  We don’t have much of a choice. 

And those forces can be counteracted anyway. It is possible to use the educational system, while our kids are at school, for what it’s worth and still maintain Indigenous values by making Indigenous education a priority while not in school. Still, for some reason many of us don’t counteract those strong, colonizing forces with the important Indigenous training that has existed and sustained Native people for tens of thousands of years.

That education starts with the Native community.  Teaching them “belonging” and “purpose”—our communities used to do that (and still can, if one looks hard enough). See, historically, in order to be considered a member of a Native community, one had to participate in that community.  There weren’t many “non-practicing” tribal members—you had to belong.  If a person did not serve and/or participate in the community’s activities—whether those activities were hunts, religious ceremonies or observing community values—that person would not be a member of the Native community long. How could they?  With very small, very interdependent communities, everyone had to pull their own weight.

If you didn’t, someone else had to carry that weight which put a strain on the entire community.  The community’s survival required everyone to participate. Participation and service equaled “belonging.”

That was part of the value of being a member of a community—that you had protection, many hands with which to make light work, and common values.  But in exchange, you had to offer protection, hands to help make that work light, and common values.  The reciprocal to the “belonging,” was the “purpose” piece.

Our purpose was to contribute to the community. Everyone had an obligation, a duty.  Along with that obligation and duty came purpose—people knew that the community depended on them and that their work was crucial and vital to the community’s survival.

Now, as a result of accepting white colonial/legal concepts of tribal membership in the place of Indigenous concepts of community, there are “tribal members” instead of “community members.”  As opposed to the strict requirements to be a community member, there are plenty of non-practicing tribal members who rarely visit the tribes to which they are legally members.  Those members, as a result of the legalistic definition of “tribal member,” are not obligated to be participating members of the Native community (now called “tribes”).  Nor do the tribal members have to have common values or have to contribute to that home community. Oftentimes, they obtain benefits from being a member of a tribe, but don’t have any responsibility to try to make it better.

It’s changed.  Considerably.

That’s unfortunate—that tribal members are not required to contribute to their tribes in order to be considered a “member” is a disservice to Native communities (and to the individuals themselves).  Still, that’s not the point of emphasis here.

The other consequence of the change is that, when Native people do not contribute to their communities, the evolved sense of “purpose” also disappears into a vacuum of nothingness.  See, Native people have evolved for tens of thousands of years to help our small communities survive.  “Service” is in our DNA—literally.  We didn’t do the “free-market” thing; hunter/gatherers usually can’t. Instead, within small communities, everyone had a function:

“You, you’re going to be in charge of gathering medicinal plants to ensure that we’re ready for when it gets cold.  Choose your young folks and train them.” 

“You, you’re going to be in charge of training our young, strong men so that we can protect ourselves if we’re attacked.  Choose your young folks and train them.” 

“You, you’re going to be in charge of our spiritual societies and making sure that we’re giving thanks so that we ensure a good hunt.  Choose your young folks and train them.”

And each young person was placed into one of those training grounds. There wasn’t a choice. 

Now, we’re not training our kids to fulfill their genetic purposes to our communities, to our people.  Many of us are replicating the majority population’s infatuation with individual success—schooling, go get a high paying job, get married—but no contribution to community. 

When you take away a person’s sense of purpose, those people seek fulfillment in other ways.  Drugs, consumerism, alcohol, etc.  When that sense of fulfillment that only comes with service cannot be found through external means, that “vacuum of nothingness” rears its ugly head and people search for other ways to scratch that itch—dependency, alcoholism, depression, even suicide. 

All of which are rampant amongst Native people.

The way that we counteract that is by utilizing the tools that sustained our people for thousands of years—immersing them in practical cultural training.  Obviously we must contextualize these lessons so they maximize function in 2013. Still, there are very compelling reasons that those lessons were there—service, training, purpose, health.

Those lessons, in a modern-day context, are how we return our communities to health.

Gyasi Ross
Blackfeet Nation Enrolled/Suquamish Nation Immersed
Pre-order new Book, "How to Say I Love You in Indian," coming December!
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi


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Samantha Brett Locklear, Lumbee's picture
Samantha Brett ...
Submitted by Samantha Brett ... on
Mr. Ross - I absolutely love all of your commentaries/columns that you write & fully support your ideas!! But the question is since this assimilation has been continuing for decades for some & centuries for others (we East Coast Natives) - where do we begin?? Especially when our "leadership" knows nothing about going back to our roots? What do you suggest we can use as a catalyst for this change? I am sure there are many others out there that need this type of change in their communities but we get so overwhelmed by ALL that needs to be done & it is hard to pick a starting point!! If you can suggest some resources my email is!! Thanks in advance & keep up the inspiration & truth telling!!

Miigam'agan's picture
Submitted by Miigam'agan on

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
Some one who actually get's what I have been talking about for ages! Gyasi, I am so proud of you for being one of our up & coming leaders who DOES get it! Now we need to clone you 10 million times over to go throughout our First Nations communities & start the process of immersing our youngsters, their families, clans & tribes into what is needed for our many peoples across Turtle Island to once more find the success our people had in the times of the ancestors. I have been preaching this philosophy for many years now. Many times the young people just smirk at you, roll their eyes or call you a old man who needs to get with the times. They are shameful, disrespectful, lack honor & integrity. Where did they learn this all at? Their homes where they have never or seldom ever received discipline or had the example lived before them daily as to what it is to be a good man or woman! Our many peoples are failing & have for a very long time due to what all is going on in their homes. You have parents who are just as bad as these kids. We have elders who seldom do more than complain about it all instead of taking their places of authority & applying the discipline they should. You have parents who think it is funny & laugh when their kids are sassing, cursing & being disrespectful to others. It is THIS kind of behavior as a whole that angers me faster than about anything among our peoples. So many of our peoples appear no more different than the washichu around them. Listening to that awful immoral music, watching filth, driving around with their radio speakers blaring that awful stuff they call "music". They seem to relish in the hip-hop culture running around with their pants hanging around their knees, ball caps turned around, making those gang signs to each other, etc. It is sickening! Too many times you have parents who have no clue as to where or what their older kids are up to. No set bedtimes. Kids running around at all hours of the day or night. This shows parents who are NOT being parents. They are either too lazy to be parents or don't have a clue about being parents. It is appalling seeing this go on in various places across Indian Country. What is wrong with people allowing youngsters to behave like this? Elders need to shake or whip some sense into these shameful ones. In my day no one dared act like this. Someone would have got a horse whip ahold of you or took a switch, stick, bow or arrow to your hide. I don't care where you went in our communities in days gone by you just did NOT get away with acting like so many kids & young folks do over the past 30 years. Everyone was watching you & had the approval of your parents to make you mind one way or another. These younger parents & school-aged kids need someone to take them aside & tell them to start behaving respectful & if they refuse or get mouthy, then they need to be dealt with as in the days of the ancestors. If that means a public whipping or taking that walk of shame through the community then so be it! The Great Spirit is not going to bless a people who are shameful, disrespectful, rude, foul-mouthed, drinking the white man's booze, taking other types of drugs, whoring around like some junk yard dog or alley cat. Gyasi, may the Creator bless you as you get out among our many peoples in your travels & preach this message my friend. Thank you for sharing this article today. I needed to read it & so do many across Indian Country who are doing all they can to get our peoples to return to the ways of our ancestors: Honorable, respectful, decent people of integrity who brought pride of a good way to the Creator.

Leslie Isturis's picture
Leslie Isturis
Submitted by Leslie Isturis on
this is exactly why I want to get a longhouse built here in my community. Sure, our kids can have access to public schools, etc., but I believe we need to make 'who we are' just as important, if not more, the dominant society. Once we find our place with our people, we can know, within our souls, that we are a great peoples and can do anything, despite the unwavering roadblocks of racism, discrimination and killing diseases of our communities. Write on!

Anna Tipton's picture
Anna Tipton
Submitted by Anna Tipton on
Native indian children are the most beautiful children the world.They just are.

kymberly jackson's picture
kymberly jackson
Submitted by kymberly jackson on
ok why don't it be where if you adopt an American Indian child the biological parents has to but the tribe there from and any medicinal info of the family and a little of the family's back ground and the adoptive parents has to agree that no mater what they'll know of there heritage and belives and they have to bring the child once they get older to the reservation or to the treble conceal and find out where they can go and take the child to larn about the tribe

Ms Ayden Bremner's picture
Ms Ayden Bremner
Submitted by Ms Ayden Bremner on
Chills! Yes, great article I believe in all the points strongly. I like your writing style, too. Only when I got down to the end and saw who authored it, did I get to smile in recognition. It was great to see you and this little cutie guy at the Film Fest in SF last evening electrifying the audience with humor, wit, truth, and dedication, all in cool style, man.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
You have a romaniticized version of Native American past which you cling to in a way that only causes you to hold yourself and others back from achieving their "genetic potential". The way you describe things is in a way to hold back progress. It is important to remember our cultural values, yes. But to prevent kids from having the freedom to pursue whichever career choice is in a way to romanticize the past at the cost of having a future. Like those who refuse to leave the reservation because the world out there is not understanding of our culture. Growth is not a bad thing. Evolving to meet the needs of the world today is not a bad thing. As hunter-gatherers we didn't have a choice, does that mean that we would refuse a choice if we had the possibility of a choice as hunter-gatherers? Or did we assign roles, simply because we didn't have a choice, it was for survival. See you're using a historical context to guide your future in a world where if your ancestors were alive they might actually seize opportunities of today, not because they would have gotten corrupted by the Western World, but simply because the opportunity was there and because Native people were very resourceful. Having a choice is not a bad thing, you make it sound like it is. Giving them proper guidance to make the right choices is the optimal solution to the problem of "tribal members" as opposed to "community members".

darryl mckay's picture
darryl mckay
Submitted by darryl mckay on
Its good to hear truth.our children are our future.i grew up in a white mining town up north and didn't know I was native until I was ten or parents were ashamed of being indian.I believed in what was taught to me.It led me to confusion and twenty five I felt there was something missing in my life.i had courage to seek the answersand joined aa.I'm 48 now and carry a pipe.I hunt, fish,go berry picking , make drums.tan hidesand run a sweat lodge.I sun dance at morris crows sun dance in standoff alberta.were here for such a short time ,with the time I have left on mother earth.I pledge to keep our traditions alive . My baby girl is ten shes been coming into the sweat lodge since she was 2.I had a vision on the very first round after I was pearsed.she was dancining on the tree.she was about 18 or 19.our native teachings are the right thing to do .she has so much love respect and humility.all our chidren should grow up healthy with a sence of belonging and responsibility.

mizzy's picture
Submitted by mizzy on
I don't disagree that young Native people need quality mentorship, but I must disagree where you suggest that there was not a baby scoop era in the U.S. in which children were displaced through adoption and foster care. Yes, these were proselytizing forces whose beliefs impacted native children and families. This is more than a mere extension of boarding school practices, and extends several decades after many large federal boarding schools closed. Dylan Meyers, commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1952 first suggested to the National Council of Churches that there were 8,000 native children available for adoption into "Good Christian Homes." By 1957, the National Council of Churches completed a survey of tribal communities across the U.S. in which they suggested that there were 1,000 Native children across the United States available for adoption. That survey was used by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to fund a project intended to stimulate the transracial adoption of American Indian children. That work was supported by funds from the Elizabeth McCormick Foundation and the U.S. Children's Bureau. The BIA funded that work in step with Termination and Relocation policies, not because the IAP was advocating for the "termination of parental rights" on any given case, but because the BIA was attempting to transfer funding for social services to state governments in step with the language of Public Law 280 which granted several states criminal and civil jurisdiction. The impact of displacement practices are still with us today. And, while I understand you feel its more important to provide mentorship than make excuses for why parents are not parenting today, its extremely important not to erase this history.