By Richard B. Williams (Oglala Lakota)
Last month, I had an exceptional opportunity to facilitate a convening of several “Native Language Doyens.” A “Native Language Doyen” is a leading figure who works tirelessly in language programs and activities in our Native communities. It was very stirring to see the spiritual essence that comes from our cultural language guardians who are reintroducing and saving our precious languages. The “Doyens” are – through their diligent hard work – producing fluent Native speakers throughout Indian Country.
During my lifetime, I’ve heard elders and medicine people eloquently and profoundly say that our languages are sacred. I never really understood what that meant until I had the opportunity to spend time thoroughly immersed in the Lakota language. The experience left me in awe of what it meant to learn a language. My first experience of understanding that the language was sacred came when, in a dream, I was speaking Lakota. The second experience was when I was cognitively processing the world around me in Lakota first and not English. I remember looking at this “sunka” and I realized that, in my mind, I used that term instead of dog. After that profound experience I would naturally and without dual cognitive processing see objects in Lakota and not in English.
The mysterious part of understanding that a language is sacred had nothing to do with the way we were learning the language. We weren't meditating nor were we praying constantly. We weren’t asking the Creator to help us learn the language. We were just simply immersed and totally focused on learning and experiencing the language. There was never really an “ah-ha moment” where I felt that somehow the experience was a sacred experience. It was an inner sense of knowing our people and the speaking of the language allowed our people to live in harmony and in a sacred way. The profound nature of the experience has changed me and heightened my path to learning more of the language. And even more importantly to understand the inviolability of visions and dreams. The unconscious act of dreaming in Lakota was a significant spiritual experience. One of the sacred ceremonies of Lakota is the hanblecha or vision quest, and dreams have always been a very important connection to the spirit world and Creator. There is no English word to express this feeling. In Lakota, we understand it as “Wakan” – a great mystery.
Tracey Moore is a member of the Osage, Otoe-Missouria, Pawnee and Sac & Fox tribes who aims to help keep their disappearing languages alive by learning, speaking and teaching them. (Photo Credit: Steve Sisney, The Oklahoman)
The opportunity to spend time with the language doyens was inspirational. Their knowledge of the language and its acquisition was complex, and each person had different ways to accomplish the goal of creating fluency among their people, especially in the children. The lifetime commitment made by each of the participants is notable. We had participants who were relatively young, as well as seasoned language veterans. An important message from each participant was that Native language acquisition and Western methodological educational practices are not symbiotic. Contemporary education practices that exist in schools today do not work well, and there is wealth of American Indian experts and current teachers who are very critical of the Western methodology and pedagogy. The message was clear: do not malign language immersion by force fitting it into existing education practices.
Language acquisition is important because, in practice, it has been demonstrated by many studies and testimony by practitioners that it improves and enhances a child’s confidence and self-image. It is well-documented that increasing a child’s self-worth is one of the most important aspects to their future success. The research also indicates that when the educational experience is culturally- and language-based, it produces a greater sense of well-being in a child. This knowledge is so compelling that it should behoove and compel all educational practitioners to alter their work to include language and cultural activities into their daily practices. The caution here is the reminder that the contemporary education system is failing our students, and we will only be successful if we make a complete change to the existing archaic way our children are being taught.
The second compelling reason for language in our schools has to do with enhanced cognitive development. Second-language speakers become better students because they are learning to process information in different parts of their brains. The cognition of language acquisition enhances critical thinking and improved learning intelligence. Recently it has been reported that it is good for the old folks. Learning a second language as an adult can help avoid cognitive decline, and it is reported that bilinguals come down with dementia and Alzheimer’s more than four years later than monolinguals. Although I regretfully inform you that age limits the ability to learn the language even if you were a child who spoke the language fluently.
Other advantages inherent in speaking a Native language is it introduces new words, concepts, metaphors and time frames. People who speak multiple languages tend to score higher on standardized tests in subjects such as math, reading and vocabulary.
We are living in a world that is foreign to us and would not be recognized by our ancestors. As we continue to adjust to the challenges of this changing world, it is comforting to know that to hold on to our languages means that we will continue to preserve our way of thinking and knowing. It is that sacred language and our good ways that will help us secure a place in this world, forever!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard B. Williams is the retired President & CEO of the American Indian College Fund. He now works as a consultant to First Nations Development Institute and other Native American organizations.
Lead Story Photo: The CUNY Graduate Center
Smithsonian's "Americans" Reveals Indians are Everywhere
Considered the most stylish of mass-produced motorcycle models, this 1948 Indian Chief is
now on view in the museum’s Potomac Atrium. Photo by Matailong Du for the National
Museum of the American Indian.
Images of American Indians are everywhere, from the Land O’Lakes butter maiden to the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, from classic Westerns and cartoons to episodes of Seinfeld and South Park. American Indian names are everywhere, too, from state, city and street names to the Tomahawk missile. Beyond these images and names are familiar historical events and stories—Thanksgiving, Pocahontas, the Trail of Tears and Battle of Little Bighorn—that have become part of everyday conversation. “Americans,” a new long-term exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, uncovers the many ways American Indian images, names and stories have been part of the nation’s history, identity and pop culture since before the country began. Not only does the exhibition reveal the phenomenon of hiding in plain sight, it also asserts that such images and words and stories are a powerful way to understand a country forever fascinated, conflicted and shaped by its relationship with American Indians. The exhibition was curated by Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) and Cécile R. Ganteaume.
“Pervasive, powerful, at times demeaning, the images and objects featured in ‘Americans’ reveal the deep connection between Indians and non-Indians, even while their actual interaction may be far less frequent,” said Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “Our hope is that visitors will come away from the exhibition not only more aware of the pervasive presence of Indian imagery and words in their lives, but also with a new understanding of important historical events they thought they knew.”
The exhibition title is a play on words and a nod to the name originally given to this country’s indigenous inhabitants by Europeans. It is meant not only as a reminder of the primacy of American Indians in the territory known as the United States but also of the tangled relationship between Indians and the people now called Americans.
Inside the exhibition’s visually powerful central gallery visitors will find themselves surrounded by hundreds of objects and images from three centuries of American life. In addition to an actual Tomahawk flight-test missile, the panoramic display includes a classic 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle, Big Chief writing tablet, Calumet Baking Powder can, Washington NFL team baby blanket, as well as clips from TV shows and films. Visitors will have the opportunity to learn more about each object and image from interactive screens in the exhibition.
A short animated film, “The Invention of Thanksgiving,” provides a whimsical look at how a “brunch in the forest between Indians and newly arrived people from England” was rescued from being a footnote to history and curiously became this country’s origin story and part of the national narrative.
This Squaw Brand canned peas label features a woman and her infant. Native American
women are commonly featured in advertising as the gatherers of food. Original label
part of a private collection. Courtesy National Museum of the American Indian.
The exhibition upends three stories that are part of American national consciousness and popular culture: the life of Pocahontas, Trail of Tears and Battle of Little Big Horn. Intriguing wall text draws visitors into the three galleries. One of them—“Pocahontas didn’t save John Smith. She saved America.”—invites visitors into a gallery devoted to the young Powhatan woman who played a key role in saving the colony of Jamestown—but not John Smith. Another story opens with—“Trail of Tears: Not what you think. Not even close.”—at the entrance of a gallery that explores the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Signed by President Andrew Jackson, the Act envisioned a United States without Indians. One of the boldest and most far-reaching laws in American history, removal transformed the country—generating great wealth for the nation and catastrophe for Native Americans. The third story opens with the question: “Who really won the Battle of Little Bighorn? It’s complicated.” It invites visitors into a gallery devoted to the story of the battle also known as Custer’s Last Stand. Each gallery features objects, images and a timeline that traces how these events have been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the years.
Officially Indian: Symbols That Define the United States, written by co-curator Ganteaume, is the exhibition’s companion publication. The 184-page hardcover book examines the United States’ use of imagery of American Indians to distinguish itself from other nations and to define itself for its citizens. Officially Indian includes a foreword by Colin G. Calloway and an afterword by exhibition co-curator Smith. It is available in the museum’s store and online.
About the Museum
The National Museum of the American Indian is committed to advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere—past, present and future—through partnership with Native people and others. National Mall at Fourth Street and Independence Avenue S.W.; Open every day from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25); Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and AmericanIndian.si.edu.
National Museum of the American Indian in New York To Open Youth Education Center
The imagiNATIONS Activity Center Debuts May 17, 2018
In conjunction with its annual Children’s Festival, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center in New York will soon unveil its newest educational initiative, the imagiNATIONS Activity Center. The multimillion-dollar upgrade to the museum transforms office space into modernized educational and exhibition spaces. The content embraces STEAM-based (science, technology, engineering, art, math) education and introduces young visitors to Native innovations across history that continue to impact modern life. The project marks the most extensive enhancement to the museum since opening its doors at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in 1994.
“The museum is undertaking a critical effort to enhance Native curricula not just in our own facilities, but in classrooms as well,” said Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the National Museum of the American Indian. “With the addition of the imagiNATIONS Activity Center in New York, we are providing a learning environment suited to 21st-century students that helps us meet this goal. Tens of thousands of students from across the Tri-State area and beyond will experience imagiNATIONS; we aim to create a lasting impression for every one of them.”
The imagiNATIONS Activity Center opens Thursday, May 17, 2018. A press event will be held that morning at 10 a.m. with a welcome reception at 9:30 a.m. Members of the media may RSVP for the event by emailing NMAIpressoffice@si.edu or by calling (212) 514-3823. The opening day will also host an open house for educators. Later in the week, the museum will hold its annual Children’s Festival Saturday and Sunday, May 19–20, 2018, featuring special activities in conjunction with the opening.
The center’s content is the product of more than five years of research and consultation with Native experts in STEAM education. Along with its youth education mission, imagiNATIONS will also play host to teacher training and cross-cultural collaborations with Native communities through onsite and distance learning. The educational goal is to demonstrate the influence and impact of Native innovations and technologies on everyday life in ways that will engage visitors and stimulate their thinking—to convey Native innovations that shape how people live.
Media interactives, mechanical hands-on activities, handling objects and introductory texts and graphics will also stress the holistic Native American approach to innovation, critical thinking, creative problem solving and sustainability. The space’s various topical sections home in on themes of agriculture, physics, chemistry, mathematics, architecture and more. For more information and section descriptions, consult the imagiNATIONS Activity Center press kit: https://newsdesk.si.edu/kits/imaginations-activity-center-will-focus-native-innovation
As of December 2017, lead support for the National Museum of the American Indian’s imagiNATIONS Activity Center in New York is provided by the City of New York, with support from the Office of the Mayor, New York City Council and the Manhattan Borough President’s Office through the Department of Cultural Affairs; Valerie and Jack Rowe; The Rockefeller Foundation; and the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation. Major funding is provided by the Booth Ferris Foundation; The Walt Disney Co.; Margot and John Ernst; the George Gund Foundation in memory of George Gund III; and the National Council of the National Museum of the American Indian. Additional support is provided by Uschi and Bill Butler; Con Edison; the Nathan Cummings Foundation; the Golden Family Foundation; the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature; the Riverside Church Sharing Fund; the Rauch Foundation.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian
The National Museum of the American Indian is committed to advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere—past, present and future—through partnership with Native people and others. The museum’s George Gustav Heye Center is located at One Bowling Green in New York City. For additional information, including hours and directions, visit AmericanIndian.SI.edu. Follow the museum via social media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The Children of Attawapiskat have potential
From News From Indian Country
Photos and story by Danny Beaton (www.dannybeaton.ca)
Brian Martin a Mohawk from Tyendinaga told me to call this elder who was a doctor working up north with people from Attawapiskat and gave me her card, which was the best news I had all last summer while I was researching the events at Attawapiskat that have been unfolding for several years now.
So when I called Dr A.A. Dunlop who was both positive and friendly I asked her if she knew any Natives in Attawapiskat who were using traditional native culture to heal and were there any people who she thought I could connect with after telling her my back ground with Native Child and Family Services, 6 Saint Josephs and Queen West Health Center.
Dr Dunlop gave me the phone number of the Mental Health unit in Attawapiskat and told me to said ask for Jane or Peggy and tell them I was a Mohawk elder who wants to help by bringing native ceremonies to the community for healing and unity with Cree elders who were healing, using traditional Native ceremonies.
When I called the Attawapiskat hospital and asked for Peggy or Jane the person I spoke to said it sounded like I needed to talk to Joe Tipp the head of Health Canada in Attawapiskat because Peggy and Jane were not there that day.
I immediately called Joe Tipp or Joe Tippeneskum, Cree elder and explained that I was being funded to assist in culture and ceremonies and my back ground of organizing healing activities to assist the elders and youth who were suffering in their community was my desire.
Joe Tipp was more than positive for me to connect with and he explained the youth were taking a lead in trying to bring back traditional Cree culture but could use my skills in organizing events that would unite the elders and youth in Attawapiskat. Joe said there were several youth organizing the sacred sweat lodge ceremony and if I was free at night it would be good to join them.
Joe mentioned we could work together in the Secondary School presenting traditional Native culture to the youth in grades nine to thirteen and anyone interested in hearing our message. As it turned out, Joe and I did present at Vezina Secondary for one morning last October.
Afterwards I gave the Traditional Iroquois Thanksgiving Address, a prayer like poem honoring creation by giving great thanks to the plant life, waters, and relatives, addressing creation and everything that moves on Mother earth, in the sky and all that is invisible.
My understanding of our Thanksgiving ceremony is it is equivalent to smoking the pipe for the Lakota or any Indigenous way of giving thanks or respecting the gifts of the universe and Mother Earth.
We answered questions that the students had later and I shared several songs on my native flutes which I play for healing and meditating the spirit and mind.
The students I could see were glad to see a Mohawk and Cree elder working together for the protection of Mother Earth and the future of seven generations to come. We explained that we were working for the benefit of all children not just our own and that every child deserved to be treated with respect and dignity.
Then I explained how our Mohawk spiritual leader Tom Porter viewed all men as brothers and all women as sisters in our way of life in our country and that it was no different in Attawapiskat. I explained that in the Indigenous way of life in North America, the first law of the land for Indigenous people alike, is respect and that respect was the first law of the land.
We talked about art and the sacredness of healing through communicating through all forms of the arts writing, drawing, singing, photography, film making even talking.
When my partner and I go to the bush down south we rent a car and leave Friday night or Saturday mornings just to get to the forest, but in Attawapiskat you are surrounded by forest and bush.
Down south when we leave Toronto for Georgian Bay there are one hundred thousand people with us leaving the city.
In Attawapiskat there are only two thousand Cree, no one else except non-native teachers and nurses who are also care givers trying to help the community in every capacity.
You have the cleanest and freshest air in the world right here in Attawapiskat I love it there. It is so quiet I can fall asleep any time you lay down to rest.
We are living in a concrete jungle back home. People have forgotten how to live simply down south in Toronto and my wife was the best person I ever met who tried to live like a Zen monk. But you can still live a good life right there in Attawapiskat.
Once you finish high school in Attawapiskat you can travel down south to get a college or university degree if that is what you want, then you will have the education and freedom to earn a good living.
But you need the tools to earn a living or express yourself and to communicate for yourself or community. In Attawapiskat you are surrounded by animals, water, forest, birds and natural life. Sometimes it is hard to see what you have when it is right in front of you. I love Attawapiskat and I love the Cree people because they too are pure in their own community, but here only drugs, alcohol and trauma hurt you.
When my mother was put into residential school and she lost her culture and my uncles and my aunt too all Indian people in Canada lost their culture when it started. Mohawks, Ojibway, Cree, Inuit, Haida, Algonquin, etc... Indigenous people down south recovered in a big way and many indigenous people healed from residential school down south, but I see the Cree are still suffering from Culture Shock and residential school trauma.
Our elders say when you take away the ceremonies and way of life for natives you are taking away their wisdom and connection to Mother Earth Once a person has been traumatized they need help or healing by therapist or native ceremonies.
Personally when I see how happy our people are, it usually is when they were raised with ceremonial parents. There is something beautiful in every culture once you take out the alcohol and drugs, so in that way, we all have been wounded a little.
In Six Nations, our ceremonies are still going and there are may social events that bring our people together for honoring Mother Earth and Creation. Today I see many young people and adults looking for their native roots and culture because they see how broken and lost society has become.
If the Cree people can get their ceremonies and cultural roots back, then they will not be hurt or broken.
People have to be reminded just like our elders had to remind us here over and over again until we started learning and healing, we are all learning till our last breath but we have no right to take our own life, only our Great Creator can take a life when our time is up.
Life is so sacred every minute, when times get tough we need to seek help to work out difficulties and what seems too hard to bear. If we had the positive teachers and healers in our life things would not get so bleak. We all need positive energy positive thoughts and beauty, love, respect, companionship, creativity and peace without this in our world, negativity gets in and destroys our health.
The residential school system did not take care of native youth or people and it broke the culture and our way of life.
This has to be said in the case of Attawapiskat because I heard it from the people, community and nurses and teachers too! Many northern communities need healing and resources fast!
When I look the faces of the children I worked with I am ecstatic from the Cree beauty! The idiosyncrasy of the children come from the earth, wetlands, marsh, moose, bear, wolf, deer and wounded parents. When I study trauma this is what I see in Attawapiskat!
Many aspects of a child’s health physical and mental development rely on this primary source of safety and stability. Drug and alcohol abuse are a symptom of the pain never healed from residential school and it creates all forms of mental trauma for Indigenous people everywhere.
We need our native values and culture more than ever to fill our mind, body and spirit with that kind of medicine.
Like my uncle said, “Danny the kids need to see us laughing and having fun. They need to see us working together singing, starting a sacred fire, loading our pipes, eating together, praying, doing our Sacred Ceremonies in unity the way it was before residential school at the beginning.
In Memory of Alicja Rozanska