By : Dr. Erich Longie
Who’s going to teach the next generation our values?
One fall evening when I was around thirteen – fourteen years old, my mother let me use an old single shot .22 rifle (that we somehow came into possession of) to hunt ducks. We lived in an old log cabin close to a lake in the Crow District on the reservation at the time. And every fall, the lake would fill up with ducks for a couple of days. Shells were hard to come by back then, so I remember only taking a couple with me.
My siblings and our cousins who lived next to us swam in the lake all summer until it became too cold to swim anymore. Therefore, there was a well-worn path to the lake. I followed this path as I started toward the lake because the part of the lake we swam in was the only part of the lake that was devoid of vegetation. This would allow me to get closer to the ducks. As I approached the lake, I dropped to my stomach and wiggled as close to the shore as I dared to without spooking the ducks. Fortunately for me, there was a big rock we used to leave our clothes on, and I kept it between the ducks and me. As a result, I was able to get close enough to the ducks so that even a poor shot like me couldn’t miss.
Boy was I proud! I took off my shoes, rolled up my pant legs, and waded out to the duck and picked it up. When I arrived back home, the look in my mom’s eyes told me she hadn’t expected me to bring anything home. However, her face changed from one of astonishment to one of happiness and pride, and she quickly said, “My son has brought home his first kill.” I will hold a feast.
Of course she didn’t hold a feast. In those days, we were so poor; we barely had enough food to live from day to day. But I never forgot her happiness, her pride, and her automatic reaction to me shooting my first duck (first of shooting anything for that matter) was to hold a feast in my honor.
Years later, when my son told me he shot his first deer, I immediately thought about my mom’s words so many summers ago; and I thought, my mom may not have had the money to put on a feast in honor of my first successful hunt, but I have the money to put one on for my son. And it did not matter if he used a single shot .22 or a high powered semi-automatic deer rifle, or that he hunted alone or with a group of friends who probably drove the deer right into his gun; I was just as proud and pleased of him as my mother was of me way back when.
I quickly told him I was going to cook a big meal and invite all the relatives in honor of him shooting his first deer. And like I said earlier, unlike my mom, I had the financial means to put on a very big feast for him. But he quickly said, “That’s okay dad; you don’t need to do that.” I could see he was a little embarrassed by the thought of a big meal held in his honor. After a few more words with him, I bowed to his wishes and did not put on a feast in honor of him shooting his first deer.
Looking back, I wish I had insisted on putting on a dinner to honor my son’s killing his first deer. We older tribal members are not passing our customs down to our children; as a result, many of them will be lost. One custom I remember particularly well was how we relatives always stood together. It didn’t matter if we were mad at each other. When one of us was in trouble we put aside our differences and came to each other’s aid. I remember when we shared everything we had with each other. My sibling and I were heart broken when our cousins were put on a bus to Wahpeton Indian School one fall morning. We were lost without them. When they came back the following spring our parents let us stay up late because we were so happy to see each other. This closeness lasted well into our adult years, until lately. Now the only time we get together is when a family member journeys to the Spirit World.
Because I miss the closeness I had once had with my relatives I begin holding family reunions. Unfortunately, those have not gone as well as I hoped. I will try again next year, and then next…until I am the only one who shows up.
And no one speaks our Dakota language in public anymore. We are making attempts to preserve our language by teaching it in our school. We have been doing this for the last 10-15 years; yet, these attempts have not produced any fluent young speakers. A friend of mine, who is fluent in our language, told me “we are going about teaching the language wrong.” He said, “They teach them words they will never use. They should teach the way I was taught, by using words we use all the time. Words like, ‘open the window,’ or ‘close the door.’ ‘What is wrong?’ ‘Do you have to go to the bathroom?’ ‘Come here.’ That is why our children are not learning the language,” he said.
Our reservation was formally known as the Devil’s Lake Sioux Indian Reservation. Sometime ago, we changed the name to Spirit Lake Nation; a move that I thought showed pride in our Dakota heritage (The Dakota word, Mini Wakan, meant Spirit Water, and somehow the Wasicu, the white man, translated it into Devils Lake.). And recently, The Three Affiliated Tribes changed the name of their reservation from Fort Berthold Indian Reservation to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, another move that showed pride in their heritage. On the other hand, I understand tribal members down in Standing Rock Indian Reservation voted down a proposal to change their name from Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation to the Standing Rock Oyate.
My question is: Have we reached a point that now we are comfortable being totally assimilated into the mainstream culture? Is it time for us, who want to continue, to fight against racism or to stop and accept our situation? After all, it is better than 40 – 50 years ago when I was a young kid. What about our traditional values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity? Who teaches these values now? When and where are these values being taught? And finally, are we willing to forget about the sacrifices of our ancestors to hold onto and accept a small piece of land that today is called “reservation status” so we can truly be a part of the “American Dream”?