All We Are Saying Is Give Tradition a Chance

Mike Taylor & Amy Moore

He looks like he could be 60, but Baron is probably about 75 years old. No one knows exactly when he was born and neither does he. “We need you again for our drum group, we need to practice for the powwow,” said Baron. Then his face became sad and he added, ”That chairman, he won't allow us to practice in the tribal building any more. He believes that powwows are sinful, it goes against his Christian beliefs.” For a couple of weeks, we practiced in Baron's living room but his neighbors justifiably complained about the noise. We asked the local college if we could practice in their gym but they never got back to us. The powwow was approaching and we simply had no venue to practice. Then Baron found an elegant solution to our problems. Each Friday, we loaded everything on Baron's pickup truck, drove about 12 miles on a dirt road up a desolate canyon where we practiced to our heart's content.

Tribal traditions are under attack in Indian country because of assimilationist pressures. But traditionalists are finding novel ways to cope and in the process are becoming healthier and better off than before. Many young Indians all over the United States, Canada and South America are increasingly embracing tradition.

When Faith was disenrolled by her tribe over casino per-cap disputes, she started learning her language from her grandma. “I don't need the federal government or the tribe to tell me I am Indian,” she says, “I get my Indianness from my language.” And she has a point. The Sapir-Whorf theory says that a language affects the perceptions of reality of its speakers and thus determines or influences their thought patterns and worldviews. This theory tells us that if we speak in an Indian language, we also start thinking like an Indian; likewise, if we speak in a European language like English, we think like a European and eventually become one. If this isn't a strong enough reason to learn our languages, we don't know what is.

Nineteen-year old Elizabeth strives to emulate her ancestors. She refuses to have her picture taken; and like her ancestors, she even refuses to point. When Elizabeth received a $250 award at the year-end party, she immediately gave the money to a needy elder who was sitting next to her. Her ancestors would have done the same thing. We always valued giving over receiving. Wealth was measured by how much you gave away rather than how much you had: a man with one horse who had given away three was wealthier than someone with ten horses who hadn't given away any.

A friend, Tyler, sews elaborate traditional clothes when a person dies. In three days, these clothes so painstakingly sewn by Tyler are burned in the traditional ceremony. But that does not deter Tyler. He still puts enormous effort into his sewing and makes the very best clothes even though he knows they will be burned three days later at the funeral. This is the traditional way of honoring his departed tribal members. Following tradition has given Tyler inner strength and helped him kick his heroin habit.

Carlton makes cradleboards. He used to keep getting into fights and would end up getting arrested until he found solace in making cradleboards the traditional way. For his cradleboards, Carlton does not buy thread from Jo-Ann's or Walmart; rather he makes his own cordage by splitting willows. Carlton is now working on completing his MBA program.

As for Jason, his triglyceride levels were in the 1000s, putting him at very high risk for pancreatitis. He needed to get those levels below 150. The doctor put him on Slo-Niacin. The levels dipped by a few hundred but still remained over a thousand; cholesterol levels remained off the charts and his sugar also remained high. And he started having many other side effects with Slo-Niacin, including his AST level shooting high. That’s when Jason decided to eat the protein-based diet that our ancestors ate. He started using his fingers, instead of using a spoon or a fork. And he also began to eat while sitting on the floor like ancient Indians. If you use your fingers and sit on the floor, you tend to eat less.

Next, Jason researched the ingredients in Lovaza, the medication that is prescribed to control triglyceride levels (465 mg EPA and 375 mg DHA), and made sure he got those omega-3 fatty acids through natural means like fish, flax seed, etc. He completely gave up on his daily addiction to fry bread (which is not a traditional food anyway). Jason also started running each day like his ancestors. Within only three weeks, his triglyceride, cholesterol and sugar levels amazingly dropped to normal range and have remained so ever since. Jason's physician was convinced some other doctor was treating him but Jason was only following the traditional path of eating protein-based foods and running like our ancestors. Three weeks is all it took for tradition to take effect.

Give tradition a second chance and see the miracle for yourself. When we follow tradition, the spirits of our ancestors smile down on us. Tradition helps. Tradition soothes. Tradition heals. Tradition cures. Tradition certainly does not mean rejecting modernization and scientific progress. But it does mean recognizing that traditional Indian values are vastly different from the values of the shallow and materialistic society presented to us by the colonizers. Indians have admirable traditions. Family-orientedness, courage, loyalty, sacrifice, generosity, honoring elders, being respectful to women, never interrupting, being tolerant of all people whether they are gay or of some other race, not focusing on material values, forgiving others, helping our fellow humans, being gentle with children, giving thanks to the Creator every day, being kind to animals, treating the Earth and the environment with utmost respect – these and more are all part of our sacred traditions.

Indians are not made like the white man. When we eat the white man's foods, we get diabetes and other illnesses. When we depart from the red road and follow the white man's path, Indian society pays with consequences like alcoholism and suicides. When we aspire for what the mainstream society aspires, our social and moral fabric breaks down and Indian families are ripped up by jealousy and material selfishness. The Great Spirit never told us to value money and accumulate wealth; the media tells us that. When we start valuing what the colonizers value, whether it is casino wealth or financial gains from oil drilling on reservation land, we pay with consequences one way or the other.

Sometimes these consequences are obvious and immediately evident to all, as in when a tribe recently waved a final goodbye to Indian tradition and constructed a casino over the bodies of their buried Indian ancestors. However, the most serious consequences of departing from tradition are not immediately evident; the price will nevertheless be paid by our children, grandchildren and our seventh generation who may no longer be Indian as a result of our actions.

Mike Taylor is a student in the ALB program at Harvard University and hopes to serve as a physician on isolated and remote Indian reservations. Amy Moore is passionate about saving as many Indian languages as possible. If your tribal college or university would like to offer your indigenous language class online to a much wider audience through avenues like Coursera, you can contact her at [email protected].

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Michael Madrid's picture
”That chairman, he won't allow us to practice in the tribal building any more. He believes that powwows are sinful, it goes against his Christian beliefs.” THIS is precisely what I've been ranting about in nearly every post today. The ways of our colonists are not our ways. Christianity has turned NDN against NDN and I find it infinitely sad that traditional beliefs are given up for this European business (because what is Christianity if NOT a business?). Native beliefs never costs us anything but dedication, respect and devotion. Why is it that "God's supposed religion" always needs money? I believe this statement to be 100% true. "Indians have admirable traditions. Family-orientedness, courage, loyalty, sacrifice, generosity, honoring elders, being respectful to women, never interrupting, being tolerant of all people whether they are gay or of some other race, . . . " Of what use are "streets lined with gold," to an NDN? The heaven we are promised by the White religions will relegate NDNs to mopping those streets made of gold.
Michael Madrid
Two Bears Growling's picture
Very true, Michael Madrid, in what you say. We native folk should NOT be trying to value the things of the Invaders. We have nothing to prove to anyone. The Creator made us, taught us His ways & what is right & wrong. OUR peoples have been far better at worshipping Man Above than so many of these Christians. We pray & are thankful each day to Wankantanka for what He provides us, takes care of us & protects us from all that is evil in this Universe. We do NOT need a building to worship He who made everything & everyone. The wide outdoors is OUR cathedral. The animals herald the Creator's greatness & we lift our hands up in praise for all that He does each day for us regardless or how big something is or how small it may seem to others. We native people who worship as best we can in the old ways go to sleep each night knowing if we have pleased our Creator or if He is angry at us in any way. We use our smudge pots in cleansing ourselves & our homes with the rich aroma of sweet grass, cedar, sage & other herbs much like those in churches use incense in their ceremonies. Almost makes us think they got many of their rites from us! We are far from the pagan & savages we have been portrayed for centuries. We are anything BUT such! There is much I could post here about how OUR ways are superior to those of the Invaders, but due to time I shall not. We have nothing to be ashamed of in our traditions, values & beliefs. We know if we are living in the good way then the Creator is going to bless & be pleased with us. Likewise, we also know quickly if Man Above is displeased with how we live our lives each day. Take care my friends all across Indian Country & may the Creator protect you & those in your lives each day that He gives you one more breath. Each day is a blessing. Hoa!
Two Bears Growling
Michael Madrid's picture
TWO BEARS GROWLING: You put that so beautifully, I hope many of our brothers read it and think on it. Too many of our brothers have taken up the White Man's religion. We Natives worshiped daily in the Creator's own church (nature) and we were called "savages" or "pagans" by Christian missionaries who told us we only had to worship once a week. We Natives were taught to respect our elders, help children and to treat others with dignity, but Christianity teaches that ANYTHING (including the massacre of an entire village, or the murder of unarmed women and children) will be forgiven for simply repenting. Why should those who orchestrated the Sand Creek massacre, or Wounded Knee I & II be allowed into heaven? Why should all the world's despots (Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Hussein, etc.) be seen on par with an innocent child simply because they repented (I'm not saying they did, but Christianity teaches that they could have been forgiven)? Our Native religions taught us respect for all living things. White Man's religions teach repentance (and even for sins that aren't our fault - i.e. "original sin"). Our religions teach us how to live, White Man's religions teach us "heavenly loopholes."
Michael Madrid
Michael Madrid's picture
Being an NDN and a librarian, I read everything I can get my hands on regarding various Native cultures. There is quite a bit of information regarding Christianity and NDNs. There is one book titled "Native American Testimony - A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present, 1492-1992" (Penguin Books, 1978, 91)" that documents American history from a Native's point of view. In Chapter Four (Bearers of the Cross) there are several accounts of NDNs trying to make sense of the White Man's religion (Christianity). The second entry by an anonymous NDN is titled A GOOD INDIAN'S DILEMMA (foreword) Even when an Indian was baptized as the missionaries insisted, racial bigotry kept him from gaining fuller acceptance by Whites. The Fox, or Mesquakie Indians of the southern Great Lakes region provide this ironic anecdote about a convert's can't-win plight. ________________- ONCE there was an Indian who became a Christian. He became a very good Christian, he went to church, and he didn't smoke or drink, and he was good to everyone. He was a very good man. Then he died. First he went to the Indian hereafter, but they wouldn't take him because he was a Christian. Then he went to Heaven, but they wouldn't let him in because he was an Indian. Then he went to Hell, but they wouldn't admit him there either, because he was so good. So he came alive again, and he went to the Buffalo Dance and the other dances and taught his children to do the same. ________________- As I've said before, NDNs have no need of a heaven with streets lined with gold and if we're ever admitted to that heaven it will only be to clean the streets.
Michael Madrid
Two Bears Growling's picture
Michael Madrid, I appreciate what you had to say today with this post. Now if we could encourage so many of our brethren to stop all this waschichu foolishness & look at all our ancestors have to offer them instead. We have all we need if we incorporate the ways, beliefs, laws & diets of our ancestors. All the sadness across Indian Country could perhaps stop or at least be much lessened & be replaced with happiness & families that are healthy in all ways of their lives. We do NOT need anything of the Invaders & at the rate they are coming to our various business establishments we are going to have more of their money! Ha! So glad it is starting to be powwow time! I never feel as complete in my spirit as when I am with our many peoples, our ways, foods, worship, etc. Take care my friend & may He who made everything bless you & keep you & those special in your life. Kind Regards, Two Bears Growling
Two Bears Growling