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