Posted by on Jun 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

What does it mean to be Indigenous?

By:  Renee Holt

In today’s society, we are becoming more socially connected online.  Before I go any further, I’d like to preface I read timelines on Twitter and Facebook from people throughout Indian country.  Without any political borders the online Native community has grown and connected Natives from as far away asOntariowith Natives from Southern California toNew ZealandtoChile.  I also follow family and friends who live on both sides of the imaginary borders created by colonial governments. I connect with Indigenous people who are First Nations, from Mexico, New Zealand, and the Hawaiian islands.  One thing that I’ve observed is the consistent knowledge base from the Indigenous people online.

While reading social media updates I observe interactions between people from Indigenous communities that are unique to their languages and culture.  Based on these observations, when it comes to Native people, it is apparent that being Indigenous is reflective in how one is rooted in a cultural way of life and consciousness.

When it comes to self identification, aside from Elizabeth Warren (and the many others we don’t read about in society) it’s important to note “Indigenous” is a relative term for some.  Of course there are fancy colonized words used in the academy that define what cultural knowledge is and define it as Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Place Based Education, or Multicultural learning, one fact remains solid, “Indigenous” means being connected to land and ancestors through language and experiential knowledge.

As I observe social media interactions and through participation, there is a familiarity when it comes to shared cultural knowledge.  Whether through shared family history about what living on the Rez is like, versus one who actually resides on the Rez, the Rez is an experience in itself.  Juxtapose that familiarity with a formal setting such as a classroom and the Rez may seem limiting or coined as a boundary for the unknowing individual.  For Natives across Indian country, the Rez is one of the most endearing places, especially for those who live off the Rez and make treks home.

Anytime I listen to Natives talk about the Rez as home, I hear pride and can relate to the love of a place that may be described as “impoverished” by capitalist standards, but it is one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Pretty much, every Native you meet will believe their Rez is “Gods country.”  For many Natives, the Rez is a sacred place and can only be felt, especially if they live off the Rez.  The peaceful feeling that overcomes an individual is the ancestral connection one has to the land.  Essentially, that spiritual connection is what connects Natives to their ancestors and why the Rez is a stronghold for many, even if they live 100 or 1000 or 3,000 miles away!

As most Indigenous people prepare for the summer harvest of Indigenous foods, many of our Lakota/Dakota/Nakoda relatives are preparing for their annual trek home to the Rez partly on a spiritual journey, but more importantly because it is a way of life.  Just as Muslims make their pilgrimage to Mecca as a part of their religion, Indigenous peoples throughout Indian country have ceremonies that are held in the same high regard and make pilgrimages to the Rez.

For others, the Rez is “home” while they make a living off the Rez, not because they had a choice to, but because circumstances may require them to leave for employment.  Natives who have to move away for employment come “home” for a visit and struggle with leaving just as much as they did the first time, especially after a beautiful weekend or week long visit with family, which is the foundation of Indigenous culture.  During a visit or trek “home” family is at the core.  Indigenous oral history is shared, children are blessed with Indian names, foods are eaten, friends are made, and a connection to Mother Earth is restored.

Native families whether through Indian Relocation in the early years, job prospects, or education opportunities make a home away from home and when back on the Rez and instantaneously, remember the sights, smell, and scenery.  To the many Natives who live off the Rez, there is a context within our home communities that we appreciate and value when it comes to making family memories.  The Rez is where Natives go to connect and reboot if they live off the Rez.  Whether through ceremony, eating Indigenous foods, fishing, hunting, gathering, teasing, laughter, or story time, we need these things to know what it means to be Indigenous.

When one is living off the Rez, “going home” for ceremony, family gatherings, or fairs, is the time when off the Rez skins will eat foods they wouldn’t normally eat.  For the Fancy skins, this is when the palette of food appreciation can also be viewed as an exploration of gourmet foods.  Indigenous foods with succulent flavors that include unique ingredients any foodie or connoisseur would consider an ultimate adventure and source for the world’s best food.  Things like buffalo tongue, intestines wrapped around stomach fat, bone marrow, salmon eggs, moss pudding, sheep head, and fresh salmon for days to name a few things is what being on the Rez is about and experiential.

Buffalo Tongue


As I reflected on what was indeed Indigenous, it was not hard to think about the Rez in terms of experience.  The teachable moment happened for me when I was atRapidRiverwhere my family recently honored a relative who has gone on without us.  As my uncle shared family and oral history related to our family and how long our People had been fishing at this site “for thousands of years” I knew at that moment, to be Indigenous meant more than being rooted or connected to the land and ancestors, it is a way of life.

Nimiipuu dip net, Rapid River

Rapid River 2012, Brian Holt, Sr.

Rapid River 1978, Raymond Eagle, Sr

Indigenous is an experience nobody can learn from a book no matter how well read an individual is, no amount of scholarly research can help one connect to the land of the ancestors.  Indigenous is experiential, rooted in land and place based knowledge that is connected through the language of our ancestors.  The teachable moments have shown me that practice and immersion in traditional ceremonies is paramount, especially because they are not Pan-Indian as the pow wow, which is a great place to connect and meet other Natives, nevertheless, it is widely known as a social event for obvious reasons.  Social media or real time has not been able to replace that physicality that is needed as Indigenous people.

The same way Indigenous knowledge can be heard and expressed as “what my mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, Aunty, uncle, or relative” taught or shared Indigenous people still share cultural knowledge on real time because being Indigenous is relational.

As a dear friend and I discussed this subject, she asked about individuals who were adopted without a choice and did not know their relatives.  Without a real or simple solution, I could only channel what I believe is inherently woven into our genetic makeup and that was prayer.  Prayers to the ancestors for help with guidance and the truth is simple because Indigenous people are prayerful.  As hokey or sunshine and rainbows as that may seem, it was a spiritual answer, and not as practical as one would like, still it made sense to me.  As Indigenous people, it’s important to note being connected to the ancestors is a spiritual balance of humility, humbleness, thankfulness, gratitude, and one of prayer.  The spiritual journey is one that can include (but not limited to) singing, dancing, sweating, running, hiking to the mountain top, swimming, walking, meditating, and listening.

With federal boarding school’s that stripped Indigenous children of their right to live freely speaking their language, our grandparents were forced to stop speaking their language and any remnants of their culture were denied.  Being shamed, abused, and forced into assimilation, our grandparents were left with cellular memory of suppressed language.  Today, language immersion projects throughout Indigenous communities are prevalent and are not a new occurrence.  As elders share the value and importance of connecting to the land on which their ancestors died fighting, younger generations of Indigenous people are responding to this call to action and learning their language.

Indigenous identity unrelated to Elizabeth Warren is more than checking a box or an enrollment number.  Indigenous is being of the land where the ancestors once lived, speaking ancestral language and sharing cultural knowledge that connects us, not only to one another, but to our community, not for those we see, but for those yet to come.

Nimiipuu tipi during Rapid River protest of U.S. Fish & Wildlife, 1978