Posted by on Feb 26, 2012 in Uncategorized

It’s All of Us: The Changing Face of Native Identity

By:  Twyla Baker-Demaray

I am a reservation girl at heart.  I grew up quite rural, with five brothers in my family, and a mom and dad who both spoke Hidatsa as their first language.  My dad was a college educated man, a high school teacher for most of my youth, and my mother worked at a local convenience store.  My mother followed different belief systems when I was young; she had a strong Christian background, and dragged her gaggle of kids to church each Sunday.  I remember other times listening to her conversing with my father in Hidatsa, and how she would take us to various ceremonies and functions associated with our tribal clan kinship system.  My father’s church was the basketball court; he was a coach and former All-American, and naturally wanted to raise more All-Americans.  He was a pow-wow trail warrior who loved to sing with his brothers and other relatives, and he continues to do so to this day.  He told me once of his ‘healthy respect’ for religion, spirituality, and belief systems, though he couldn’t point to a single belief set he ascribed to.

I don’t imagine my upbringing to be too terribly different from that of my peers on the same reservation; however I found out once I left the rez and stepped onto a college campus, how very different I was from other people, particularly non-Natives.  To this day in my professional life, I find myself being asked again and again, to speak on behalf of the 500-plus Native nations in the United States, on what it is like to be Indian.  In fact, it is deemed an essential part of the work I do inasmuch as it is written into my job description.  Each time I am asked, I find myself delivering the same message; “I can only speak for myself”.  The ‘Indian Experience’, as you might call it, is as myriad and varied as the grasses on the prairie- well, if you are a prairie Native.  You could perhaps say ‘fish in the rivers’ for our coastal relatives, or how about ‘rice grains on the lakes’, for my woodland friends.  Add in the diversity that change over time has given us, and you have thousands upon thousands of different definitions of the ‘Indian Experience’, which many of you continue to define, literally, as you read this.

One of the few universals I have run into in my work with many different Native nations, is the ‘taking of relatives’ custom; a gentle custom of taking as one’s relative, a person who has made an impact, somehow in your life.  I’m pretty grateful for this custom, not only because it gives me a place to sleep or eat on the trail, but also because I get to see and hear about the experiences I’m speaking of.  I have Nez Perce parents who have shown me how they pray and sing, Navajo sisters who have shown me how they cook, Anishinabe brothers who have shown me the best medicines to pick and how to use them, Seminole sisters I’ve traveled to tournaments with; and in turn I’ve shared what I know about my own people and our ways, and opened my home to various people from different Nations as the opportunities arise.  There are for certain, threads of commonality that connect these different experiences; however the differences– the ways we live, work, love, fight, pray, play– are what make their various teachings so valuable.

More and more often, I am seeing younger people take on leadership roles for ceremonial, spiritual, and cultural affairs; I am thankful for and pretty happy about such developments as I feel strongly that it is our responsibility to do so.  Our elders will always have a place in ceremonial lifestyles, as they are the ones who carry and pass on such knowledge in the first place; however I think sometimes younger people get caught up in the thinking that it is ‘not their place’ to take on more responsibility, or even leadership roles, when it comes to sacred knowledge, teachings, or the traditional lifeways of their people.  The question I then ask is, when WILL you be ready?  At what age WILL it be your place, to take on that responsibility?  Amongst many tribal peoples, a young woman or man came of age in their early to mid-teens; a twenty year old would have shouldered much more responsibility then, than perhaps they might now.  It’s heartening to see younger people take on these roles, because I am assured that they will by extension, not die out.  We are defining and re-defining ‘traditional’ as well, in our ever-evolving existences, and in our efforts to preserve what makes us Indigenous.  The advent of internet and social networks allows us to record, research, and teach about our own values, and learn about others’, whether it’s language, song, medicine, the past, the present, or anything in between.  We are defining, and redefining ourselves each day.

Culture is fluid and adaptable, which lends to its beauty.  It is part of the reason our ways survive, and in turn, our people have as well.  As the needs of the people change, so does the culture; this is the way it has been since time immemorial.  At some point in time, the songs I sing today, and many would consider traditional, were sung for the first time, somewhere.  Someone composed those songs, and passed that knowledge on to someone else, and they in turn, did the same on down the line.  I find as a younger person, I am sometimes told that ‘you’re doing it wrong’, or ‘you shouldn’t do that’.  These attitudes can be self-defeating.  It is the quickest way to discourage those who are just learning, and I often find that people with such attitudes aren’t quick to jump in and offer to teach, when I in turn ask “So how SHOULD I do this?”  I find that the best teachers and mentors I’ve ever come across are those who live and model the ways they teach about.  I am thankful for them, and I aspire to live and teach the way they do; as a positive influence.

We are all, daily, defining and redefining what Native identity is in our communities; urban or rural, on the reservation, in the board room, in tribal colleges, on the pow-wow trail, in our prayer lives or in our Christian churches.  It is counter to our purpose to tell someone who is trying to make a positive difference, trying to master a language, a song, an art or an expression; that the way they are doing it is in our opinion, ‘wrong’, or less Indian.  There are those instances in which appropriation, profiteering, and seizure of our ways happens, I’m not going to deny this.  However, I think that the best means of fighting cultural appropriation, is to become educated about your own people; your past AND your present.

In the end, the responsibility for preservation and revitalization of Native lifeways lies within all of us, young and old, if we wish to have a legacy to give to future generations.  I encourage you all to ask questions, pay attention, listen!  Find your voice; and then represent.  Every day.