Last Real Indians

Remember the Elders, By Twyla Baker-Demaray

My family and I have had a rather difficult spring this year.  I am just now catching up on rest and getting back into the routine of life, with work and my kids’ activities; the day-to-day buzz of activity is comforting, considering the hardships of the past few weeks.

Coming from a small community as I do, death and loss of loved ones can be devastating; multiple deaths more so.  In the past few weeks, my community has had tragic accidents and a number of elders pass on, all in the span of days.  In my own family, my father has lost a brother and a sister within days of each other.  From a clan with 13 siblings, he is now the last living member of his immediate family.  Prior to these losses, a tragic accident claimed the lives of young community members.  I had initially returned to my home community to support friends and loved ones mourning their loss; I ended up staying to mourn losses of my own.

Death, as it will do, causes you to become introspective about your own mortality.  I thought a lot about the things I haven’t done, whether it was learning to make quilts, or learn my tribe’s language.  Things I’ve pushed off for another day, while I get the dishes done, or feed the kids, write a grant, watch Netflix, read the paper, etc.  I thought of all the places I’ve wanted to go to, and haven’t yet; the researching into my own history and identity that I have yet to accomplish.

Then my aunt and uncle passed on.  They were older, but that did not make their passing any easier for me or my family.  I thought of the wealth of knowledge they took with them upon their leaving.  I thought about how they grew up, the world they knew amongst my people.  It made my heart ache.

I think to the dominant society, it would appear to be something of a paradox that I consider myself quite lucky to have grown up the way I did.  My parents had me when they were older.  They came from the generation just before the generation that birthed most of my contemporaries.  Both my parents had attended boarding schools in their youth and spoke Hidatsa as their first language.  We weren’t desperately poor, but there were a lot of us kids, and my brothers and I know what hungry felt like.  My dad taught high school history and coached basketball; mom worked at a convenience store.  Growing up I never really knew the treasures who were raising me.  They were just mom and dad, the folks who fed me, clothed me, got after me when I misbehaved, and fixed me when I was broken.

Twyla and her father.

As I’ve gotten older and started looking into my own history and that of my tribe, I’ve begun to understand what and who it was I was born to.  The simple fact of my parents’ first language being Hidatsa is a treasure unto itself.  So many of my contemporaries are at least two generations removed from a language once spoken everywhere in our homelands.  Conversations in Hidatsa were regular occurrences between my parents.  The things I was taught and how I was taught them, the way my family functioned – it was all from another time.  My history was not as far removed from me as perhaps it was for many of my friends.  My dad grew up in a time when speaking English was the exception, not the norm.  His father was an interpreter for anthropologists who came and studied our people.  HIS father, my great granddad, fought in the Civil War (!).  History, to me, was right there – immediate and alive.  My dad could take me to places on the reservation and tell me about the people who lived there; the old villages and towns where he had gone with his parents and that had been flooded by the Corp of Engineers and Lake Sakakawea.  He showed me the place where he was born, delivered by his grandmother in a house with a dirt floor – or at least what was left of it, as it is also now underwater.  Society, and sometimes even Indigenous people push to remove ourselves from the things that happened to us ‘all those years ago’; however for my dad, the joys and pains, the happiness and the injustices, played out in front of his eyes and are just as relevant now as they were then.

The culture in which we live is youth-centered, and this has deeply infiltrated the way Indigenous people think.  For sure, Native people were also centered upon children and youth, but as an extension of the whole, a part of the cycle.  Ours were the people from which thinking ‘seven generations into the future’ originated; however our elders were also an integral part of our societies, the source of the very knowledge, languages, customs, and world views we hold precious.  The youth are our future, they will be the means by which we live on; however without our elders and the knowledge they possess, what will that future look like?  Will they know who they are?  Who will teach them?  What will we teach them?

I see conference after conference, projects stacked upon initiatives focused on our youth, ensuring their futures are bright and that they have opportunities that past generations perhaps did not.  I see our youth reaching out, attempting to find out who they are, and not always having someone to turn to and ask.  In my work I see elders who are lonely and unable to care for themselves; storytellers who want to tell their story, but who have no one to tell it to.  There is a disconnect between these two ends of the spectrum.  I feel that it is part of my responsibility, and that of my contemporaries, to address that disconnect.

Twyla’s cousins, nephews, and brothers, all descendants of the Mandaree singers (and one original singer, Angus Fox).

For the past decade, it has been my great luck to work with Indigenous elders.  Oftentimes I will see in the conferences and activities I am involved in, the same faces and people, over and over again advocating and educating, researching and working with and for our elders.  I find that very often, these people are elders themselves, and that I am the youngest person in the room.  While I feel blessed to work with these amazing people I am concerned that not enough of our young people know or understand the dire need that exists within our communities, for elder care workers, researchers, helpers, & knowledge keepers.  We have adopted many of the silos we see that exist within the dominant society, mistaking it for our own way of living.  ‘Youth’ and ‘elders’ are separate departments, and never the twain shall meet.  I cannot begin to stress how fallacious this thinking is, and how it endangers our people, our world views, our history, our languages, and who we are as Indigenous people.  And when I say endangers, I truly mean it – elder abuse, once such an enormous taboo and unthinkable in traditional societies, is now infecting our people like a sickness.

So how do we re-build?  I try not to point out problems without offering at least a small suggestion about how to address it.  As solutions often do, the answer starts small – with us.  Spend the time.  Visit an elder.  Drop in.  Ask how they’re doing.  Make them a meal, shovel a walk, do some dishes for them.  I now make a conscious effort to do these things, not just with my parents, but other elders as well.  Small talk turns into stories.  Stories turn into history.  I can’t begin to express how often a quick visit to see an elder has spawned some of the most informative, amazing conversations and storytelling sessions it has been my pleasure to be a part of.  I get to walk away knowing more about who I am and where I come from, and the elder gets to share a meal, a joke, and maybe a little bit of themselves (not to mention the clean dishes and/or swept floor).  I now take my own children to visit when I go, as they are old enough to help out, and listen in on a great story or two.  I have seen it said that our youth are our greatest resource; I agree wholeheartedly.  I must add however, that our elders are no less important a resource for the future of our people.  They hold the vestiges of who we are, and are the key to who we will become, again, seven generations into our future and beyond.

“You are the dream that the old ones dreamed.” – Madeline Cerese Baker, MHA Nation (my mother).

Editorial Note: Yesterday, we lost a Lakota elder who fought tirelessly to preserve Lakota language and culture, Albert White Hat Sr. Lastrealindians sends his family and friends love and support during this difficult time. Join us in keeping his loved ones in prayer. He will be greatly missed.  Let us honor the memory of this great warrior by following his example.