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"The past is alive in us": The Imperative for Cultural Stewardship  

12-09-2015 17:35

I am delighted to be here today as an ambassador for my tribe and for other tribes as well. We are the very physical manifestations of the dreams and prayers of our ancestors. Those of us who come from cultures who have survived much genocide and termination and holocaust understand what those prayers were. We repeat them ourselves.

I am here today because I want to celebrate the survival of our people. I am here because I care about the future of our people and your people and the places where we live.

It is hard sometimes to tell people about why it’s important to remember. We have been accused of living in the past, of being desirous of times that cannot be revisited. Tribes have been called primitive for a long time. But we do not live in the past; the past is alive in us. It is alive in us as we carry the ancient knowledge of our homelands forward. But without our languages that ancient knowledge is lost. Languages are a window to the world that you do not know, that I do not know, that my grandfather always spoke of and I imagined. Today, we want others to understand that our traditional ways are not holy customs or curious traditions. They are the lifeblood of a people.

We want people to understand these things so that they can help us protect them. But protecting culture for us is a goal that has no walls and does not require buildings. It is our job to teach our children and children yet unborn about the past. Why? Why is that so important to us?

Identities arose from your village and your family. Your relations, your kin were derived from your language, your diet, and where you traveled and lived. There were not a lot of categories of people. You were either relatives, friends or allies, enemies, or strangers. The divisions of people were not by color or by class, but by how we lived. Knowing who we were in ancient times is critical in answering today’s problems, because that knowledge tells us how the world is supposed to work when the world is right, when the world is in balance.

As a director of a regional tourism anchor, I have been asked to talk about balancing economic development with preservation. Let me tell you one of the cardinal rules: Decide what you don’t sell first. Decide what you don’t tell first. Write it down so you remember the agreement about what is not for sale and keep it private. Use it in staff only meetings, but don’t tell anyone else, including the press. Choose that which is sacred and that which you must hold close to your heart and protect it from exploitation —because our people know for the last 200 years what that exploitation costs. It’s a grave expense.

When you want to balance preservation with economic development, remember that we are human beings first, not Indians, not travelers, not visitors, not attendance counts. Humanize the discussion. If you humanize the discussion then we can begin to talk about who we truly are.

We are people who emanate from the land. We do not come from somewhere else. Tribes come from the land and do not intend to ever be from anywhere else. We have been where we are for thousands and thousands of years, and intend to keep that tradition of being in our homes in our homelands—not in the wilderness of Thomas Jefferson’s imagination.

We have no word for wilderness, nor a word for art. In order to live, we had to take the lives of other things: grass, tree roots, animal hides. The responsibility that goes along with the right to take that life is to make it beautiful. It is an ethic to some, a principle to others, but it is balance. You have taken a life. Do not waste it or throw it away. Make it beautiful out of respect. It is the manner in which you do things that matters.

Repatriating Our Knowledge and Culture

Anthropologists, when my uncles and mother were in college and in the armed forces, predicted our cultural extinction. It has not occurred. We do not intend to allow that to happen. How do we tactically prevent it? Since genocide and termination have not succeeded and assimilation is still an ongoing experiment, what are we doing at the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla and at Tamástslikt? We are repatriating knowledge.

We have held convocations of scholars, tribal elders, and tribal students to bring the scholars who have studied with our previous generations back to our community to meet with elders—the children or grandchildren of the people they met. They took down our language and recorded place names and fishing sites and data. Many of these scholars are quite elderly and some have recently passed away. We re-created these relationships between students of our tribes and scholars who have studied our tribes and elders of our tribes. We value the ancient knowledge and it has to come back to us.

Most people think of tradition and culture for tribes as songs, ceremonies, dances. For us it is much more than that. It is the very cradle of our existence. It is the land and the foods that grow naturally from that land, the animals that sustain themselves off of that natural landscape.

For us to preserve our culture, our tribes had to restore a species to a river, but before we could do that we had to restore water to the river. Preserving a culture does not stop with buildings. It does not start in language class. It is the entire landscape. Our tribes had to work to put spring and fall Chinook salmon back in the Umatilla and Walla Walla Rivers. We have reintroduced lamprey and are helping to sustain river mussels. Our culture requires that we have these foods.

When we restore the water and these species other things happen, just like in economic development—osprey come back, cougars abound, bears go fishing. There are other results from restoring part of the ecosystem, but what they do for us is give us back our culture. The core of our culture is salmon, as buffalo is for other tribes. We could not live without roots or without berries, including those that have the highest antioxidant properties on this continent. We have to have them so we have to restore them. They are part of our cultural landscape without which we cease to be tribal people. To preserve our culture and to balance preservation in modern times, we are protecting and perpetuating a land that is different than the one the grandparents spoke of, but that is nonetheless unique.

Our languages are being taught and are being documented. They will be published as we present to the public a native place–name atlas to perpetuate the use of these names. These native place names are only abbreviations for a story about how that landscape was formed, because our stories go back to the forming of the mountains, the melting of the glaciers, the coming out of the cold times, the living in the cave times, the times when the mountains were hurling rocks and fire at each other, volcanoes. We are publishing our knowledge because we have to have a consistent form of instituting this information in our tribal school system as well as for public school students and boarding school students who do not live at home with their grandparents or parents.

We will publish the first book of our history from our perspective next year. We will publish a counting book in four languages, one of which is extinct. We are—as tribes all across this continent (with or without casinos) are—trying to rebuild nations, trying to restore landscapes, trying to protect species, and trying to teach our children why all of that is important.

In order to keep our children there where they can learn the language, practice their traditions, help us gather and protect the sacred foods, we must provide jobs for them, and those have to be meaningful jobs. One of the jobs at our Institute in visitor services interpretation has at the helm a young man who cannot get enrolled in our tribe, one of the arbitrary externally imposed systems that hinder us today. He is a carrier of ancient worship songs, a championship dancer, and a teacher of one of the four languages. Indubitably he is a member of our tribe whether or not he is enrolled. The knowledge that we carry that sustains us matters most.

Responsibilities and Opportunities Going Forward

How do we go forward from here? How can we face the future when we have fairly insurmountable odds? With certainty and confidence— sometimes with pain and anger—because our people have been from these places forever and we will be from here forever. We can endure racism and tolerate poverty and survive because it is our home, and now, we share it with you. With the right to our land comes the responsibility of stewardship for the cultural landscape and the species that belong here, that the creator put here and that sustain us all.

My greatest hope for tribes is that we are able to restore our tribal pedagogy. What might that look like? What would that be? It would be more than a cliché that it takes a village to raise a child. We would banish people who put us at risk, drug dealers and batterers; and we would rid ourselves of soda pop, given our propensity for diabetes and high blood pressure. There would be no orphans. Children and elders would never know hunger, especially for traditional foods that are very healthy for us. All of our people would understand how to pray and cleanse themselves before they take the lives of the animals that sustain us. We would reinvigorate the spiritual and physical athleticism of our people. Our people’s personal power has been unsurpassed historically. We could endure much that was very, very difficult because we were raised to do that. We were physically athletic, not in the condition we are now, and the standards of our people would once again be restored.

You can help us by delivering clear messages of stewardship wherever you are. You can help us with site protection by teaching people to respect land as well as buildings. You can insure that our cultural sites and information about cultural sites is protected as much as possible. You can adhere to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act in selling merchandise. You can help protect places where there are no buildings and where there should never be any buildings. I want you to understand that our tribal lands, sacred places, are holy lands, and acts of desecration and vandalism are terrorist acts against us. They are against our people.

You have enormous opportunities. Wherever you are, you are in someone’s tribal home land, every one of you. You have the opportunity to encourage and orchestrate and promote the welcoming back of tribal people to their landscapes, however changed they are. I can guarantee you from our work in the Wallowas, in the Walla Walla and Umatilla basins, and all over this country, the land is happy to hear our songs and welcomes our prayers for it.

This year is the 150th anniversary of our treaty. The Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla ceded more than six million acres in 1855 to the United States government. We reserved to ourselves a half-million acres that has been diminished by many acts to 172,000 acres now. In that treaty are solemn obligations, solemn promises from the United States government to us; the balance of rights and responsibilities. Without our treaties you do not hold legal claim to our land. It would behoove you and all citizens of this country to honor those treaties today.

Publication Date: Winter 2006


Author(s):Roberta Conner

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