By : Ruth Hopkins
In the United States, November is Native American Heritage Month. Thank you, U.S. Congress. This completely makes up for the systematic genocide of my ancestors, the theft of our lands, the fact that you’ve broken pretty much every treaty that you’ve signed with us, and hundreds of years of oppression (yes, that was sarcasm).
Really, though- I appreciate their tip of the hat. But why are we relegated to remembrance for only one month of the year? Every day is not only a good day to be Native, it’s a good day to remember the rest of humanity and learn more about them.
Since I’ve started writing commentary, I’ve received some interesting email from readers (for the time being, I’ll spare you from my creepy stalker travails). One inquiry I’ve received repeatedly from non-Natives is, “How can I learn more about Native Americans?” Then the reader will follow up by asking me what the best books are to read to learn about ‘real’ Natives (i.e. last real Indians) and our experiences. Books by Lastrealindians, Inc. writers aren’t out yet, but they will be soon. Until then, may I suggest getting to know an actual Native person? There are good books out there, anything by Vine Deloria Jr. for example, but there’s no replacing face time. For the non-Native person who says they’ve never met a Native, we’re everywhere- especially in North and South America. In the United States, you don’t have to go to the reservation to find a Native. There are a lot of urban Indians. Places like New York, Minneapolis, and other major U.S. cities have populations of thousands of Native Americans living there. Even if you’re from a foreign country, having internet and social network access means you have no excuse for not getting to know a Native and issues that are important to us. There are fakes, but a good heart and a keen eye will guide you to the right places, like this site.
Sadly, I’ve met some non-Natives from the Dakotas, where Natives are the largest ‘minority’ group, who’ve never bothered to get to know a Native person- and who are even scared to drive through a reservation. It’s true that reservations have their own problems, but it’s a shame when anyone allows stereotypes to rule their perspectives and behavior so much that it stops them from experiencing new things and meeting new people. I should probably warn you though, Natives are quite adept at sniffing out insincerity from outsiders, so don’t come at us with arrogance or looking to take advantage. That’s where dealing with the federal government for +200 years will get you.
By talking to an actual Native you will learn some things. For example, dressing up like a Native for Halloween is not only offensive and disrespectful, it’s an incredibly inaccurate portrayal of us and just plain tacky. You’ll probably also learn that many of us are still defenders of Earth. We take the environment seriously. Many of us still believe in connectedness. The Earth and every natural thing upon it is our relative. You’ll also learn that we’re not all the same. We don’t agree on everything, just like people from other cultures and races.
What may surprise non-Natives most to discover is that in some ways, we’re a lot like you. It’s 2012. Natives watch movies and we listen to some of the same music as you do. My daughter dyes her hair a different color of the rainbow practically every month. Most of us drive cars, have Facebook accounts, and live in houses instead of a tipis. But that’s not what makes Natives unique. You see, we are modern- we can do everything that you can- but we’re Indigenous too. We’re grounded in thousands of years of tradition established by our ancestors, who were the first people on this continent. We haven’t relinquished our culture, our languages, our sovereignty as Nations, or our immutable right to practice the sacred ceremonies that sustain us. We embody our ancestors, through our bloodlines and by practicing our values, like the Oceti Sakowin values of Wocekiya (Prayer), Waohola (Respect), Waunsila (Compassion), Wowicake (Honesty), Wawokiye (Generosity), Wahwala (Humility), and Woksape (Wisdom). We haven’t lost our sacredness. We are the ancients of old, alive and breathing, here today.
I wish more Natives realized that. Speaking of Native appreciation, if I could have one wish granted this day, it would be that my own people, the American Indians of this country, would have a better understanding of just how miraculous it is that we’ve not only survived, but thrived as a People. The Federal government pushed a policy of termination and then, assimilation, in an attempt to wipe Indigenous Peoples from this land. They failed- not only at the Battle of Little Big Horn, but since then. While the bodies of many of our ancestors were broken, their spirits were not. Many perished from starvation, disease, and outright murder, but they could not kill us all. Our ancestors knew the secret- that human beings are more than flesh; we are souls, guided by the Creator and spirits who predate all but Earth and the Universe itself, and western civilization’s so-called ‘knowledge,’ industry, and technological advances are put a blemish on Ina Maka (Mother Earth) with no breadth of wisdom in comparison to that of the Great Mystery. We carry all this and more, within us. It’s in our DNA.
Just look at yourselves, Natives. You’re beautiful. Your bone structure alone is the envy of Nations. Perhaps it’s because I’m on the pale end of the spectrum, but I’ve always greatly admired the variety of lovely red and brown skin tones among my relatives- and in this humble writer’s opinion, there’s nothing like a good- hearted, traditional Native man. Especially ones with long hair and Lakota lips. But I digress…
Embrace all things Native, and each other. Be humble in spirit, but proud of your Nativeness: our colossal extended families, our intricate beadwork and artistic inclinations, our inborn athleticism, our unique and contagious sense of humor, our ability to sustain ourselves, our connection to the land and each other- and the fact that as a Native woman, you have the privilege of bearing the lineage of Native Chiefs, brave warriors and Holymen- Native children with your grandfather’s eyes who look just like the chubby-cheeked, healthy infants your grandmothers bore over a hundred years ago. Appreciate one another. Appreciate yourself. Hold your head high and represent. I’m thankful for you. Not only in November, but every minute of every day.
Now I want wojapi. I think I’ll make some this weekend.