The following are elders’ thoughts on what they think is important for younger generations of American Indians to know.
One of the first things that elders want young generations to know is, as Bill states, “the Indian ways teach you how to live life.” The traditional ways teach the basics of how to be a good person and how to get along with others. This is a way of teaching and learning that is lived, rather than stored away as information. It is always happening. Margaret says, “It is not just a seasonal thing like, ‘Summertime is here, I should go to the Sundance.’ You live that way all year round.” Carol emphasizes:
Unlike other kids, our kids can’t afford not to learn their traditional ways. We depend on the children for our survival. And it isn’t something that the kids can just “practice” a few times a week. It has got to become part of them, it has to be sincere. You can’t just go to a Sundance once a year and think that you’re maintaining the traditional ways. It has to be a part of your life everyday of the year.
It is important to understand the traditional way of life is grounded in spirituality. Dan relates, “There is always a spiritual connection.” The traditional way of life is lived in a spiritual way. Joe states, “One of the hopes the old people have is that the younger generations will return to the spirituality. That they can live in a way that they respect the earth, giving freely, avoiding wars, and living equally with the creatures and other people.” This return to spirituality entails learning to respect life and to give thanks to the Creator. Sam explains, “We give thanks to the Creator for the things that we have in this life. When things happen, we don’t question it. We don’t say, ‘How come me?’ That way we keep it natural and life goes on.”
Many elders do not believe the traditional American Indian spiritual practices should be combined with Christianity. Carol relates, “Nowadays priests and nuns are using some of the traditional ways. They are incorporating sage, cedar and sweetgrass into their ceremonies. Our traditional ways should not be mixed with Christianity.” American Indian spiritual teachings is integral to Indian culture, and pieces of it cannot be integrated into other ways. Ray states:
American Indians need to learn about our own spiritual teachings… To learn about the traditions we need to practice the teachings of our people. For example, if you make a mistake, you do not get down on your hands and knees and ask for forgiveness. That is not our way. We have medicine and sage to cleanse ourselves of our mistakes, of our bad thoughts, and of our bad feelings. When we get up in the morning, we light sage and smudge our bodies. This purifies it of our bad feelings. To do what people have done for generations back. I want Indian children to begin to learn that — the basic fundamentals of good living, about how we deal with the frustrations of life.
American Indian traditions teach the basic fundamentals of good living. Many elders want the younger generations to learn that being healthy and a whole person is essential to leading a good life. Carol says, “I think of the four parts to the medicine wheel — the spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional. Spirituality underlies all aspects of the medicine wheel. Those things are supposed to be in balance to be a healthy person.” Maintaining a healthy life involves keeping all aspects of the medicine wheel in balance.
Nancy points out how drugs and alcohol can disrupt this balance. She states, “One thing that is difficult, it is a negative and I don’t want to dwell on the negatives, but it is something that needs to be taught. We need to help young kids understand that drugs and alcohol are not part of the natural ways of life, that there is a natural high to life.” Eating a balanced diet is also important. Frank comments, in the old days, “[American Indians] were healthy, big, they ate properly. The diet back then used to be about 80 percent fruits and berries and about 20 percent meat. Now the Big Mac’s I eat turns that around, 80 percent meat and 20 percent vegetable and fruit. That’s not really a healthy diet we have now.”
Frank also connects his experience in working with persons in alcohol recovery to what he believes the younger generation should know. He relates: I always talk about a person recovering in four areas: They need to recover physically, or to start getting the proper rest, the proper diet and exercise of their body to feel good.
Next one is spirituality, because spirituality determines our attitude, our thinking, our behavior. We need to be naturally alert, learning as much as we can about life and the way to live, a positive way to live. And emotionally, we need to be able to have some management of our emotions like anger and frustration that affect how we think, feel, and all those things. So we need to be constantly valuing and taking care of these things. When we take care of ourselves, that’s what we’re taking care of — our emotions, our intellect, our physical beings, our spiritual, so that we’re a good, solid, healthy person spiritually.
Those are the things that the children should know. I smoke cigarettes and that’s not good for me — for our health, for our muscles especially. I couldn’t get out there. Long time ago a guy my age, 62 years old, would still get out there and run out and chop wood, run up and down. I can’t do that. I weigh too much, I smoke too many cigarettes, I drink too much coffee. So I’m not really a good example of what a warrior’s physical, mental and spiritual capabilities are. I [just] sit here and think about it.
To live the traditional way with the four aspects of the medicine wheel in balance requires learning how to listen to the Creator and to oneself. Dan states, “If you want to learn you start with the root, the root inside of yourself.” Dan relates, “I think the biggest question we have to face is ‘Who are you?’ We are searching for who we are… If you know what you are, you can see anything in life and the spirit will guide you.” Younger generations need to know who they are. Dan explains, “The most important thing is that I have to know myself… It is not egotistical. You were chosen to do certain things in life with that group of people that you walk with. This answers the question of ‘Why me?’”
Listening is essential to understanding who you are. Margaret states:
Kids need to listen more, to listen to their inner selves. The younger generation should be listening. Some elderly people have the knowledge and they know how to survive and teach the old stories. Kids today have to listen more. Kids today say, “I’m bored.” I say there’s plenty to do, all you have to do is sit down and listen — listen to themselves, to have confidence. We as adults have to encourage them to sit and listen. We need to teach them to take pride in things.
Learning how to listen takes time and practice. Deb describes, “We need to teach the young people to value their senses. We have two eyes, and two ears, but only one mouth. We listen. We don’t have any ‘why’ questions. We were taught to use our brain.” Sam tells a story of how he helped a group of kids to learn the importance of observing and listening. He recounts:
We live in a fast world and we don’t stop and listen. When I worked as a camp counselor, I took a group of kids out one morning for a hike. I took them on a trail and we hiked hard and fast. We hiked that way for a couple hours and then I had them turn around and hike back, hard and fast. When we got back for lunch everyone was so tired. We sat around for a while, ate our lunch and rested. And then I told them that we were going to go on another hike. They all moaned and complained that they were too tired, that they couldn’t do it. So I told them we were going on a different kind of hike.
I took them out on a different path this time. We went out and I stopped and asked them for a volunteer to sit down where we were standing. Finally, one of the boys stepped forward and said he’d volunteer. I asked him to sit, be quiet and listen. Then I took each one of the other kids and spaced them out so they couldn’t see each other. I told them to sit and listen, to see what they could hear and see for fifteen minutes and then we’d talk about what they had seen. So they sat like that and when fifteen minutes was up I had them all get back together. I asked them how this was different from the hike we had done in the morning.
They said, “This morning we were moving too fast and we couldn’t stop to see anything. But now, oh, we heard a lot of things.” They said, “I saw the little bugs that crawl around on the ground,” and “I heard the birds singing, and I saw a bird fly over us,” and so on. This teaches us to stop and listen. We need to be more aware instead of trying to move too fast where we are always looking ahead of ourselves and grabbing at the things in front of us. When we are always reaching in front of ourselves we can’t keep up. We need to stop and listen. Indian kids need to learn that.
Learning and living the traditional way of life is not easy and it sometimes involves sacrificing comfort. Dan explains, “Everything he’s given you, you have to walk through, you have to experience it. You can’t always walk in the grass, sometimes you have to walk through the sagebrush.” Frank describes:
It’s hard to have a good cultural education in the classroom…You can read about it, you can talk about it in a classroom. Once you get out there in the garden and plant something, dig that plant up, you know there’s some work to it…. But I know there were some kids that went out to Wilder Forest for gardening out there. And you know they did it, it was kind of a novelty for about two to four days. Three or four trips out there, pretty soon that got old. The ground is hard, it’s hot up there, the weeds keep coming. “I don’t want to do this. It’s easier to go to the store and get it.” When they hit reality, that’s just like going out to the sweat. “Yeah I really want to sweat.”
So you go out there and you say, “Well, you know the sweat begins with building one. Building the sweat [lodge], going out and picking some rocks, cutting up some wood and splitting it.” All that’s work. They say, “I just want to sweat. I don’t want to do all that work…” When you find out how rigorous the lifestyle is, the lifestyle of spiritual living is, you get discouraged. Like me, I thought I could go into the air conditioned church, I don’t need to be suffering like this [in the sweat lodge]. Those young kids think the same thing. And so a lot of them drop out.
Even though it is sometimes difficult, there is satisfaction and connection found in spiritual living. Frank states:
A lot of the kids come to sweats and the fire’s going already and somebody carries the rocks in. So they really haven’t had a chance to experience [the sweat]. You get a good feeling when you come out of a sweat. It’s a better feeling when you know you built that sweat, you built the fire, you brought the rocks, you chopped the wood that heated the rocks, you hauled the water. And those things are the sacrifices for something good. To be able to connect them to those things, to have them do that, to experience it, is the best teacher.
Almost every elder stressed the importance of young American Indians learning their native language. Carol states, “Language is key to learning the traditions.” Language is essential for understanding the traditional culture. Sam indicates:
I think our number one tradition should be our language. Indian language is so poetic. When I hear the old people talking it is so descriptive and poetic. They way they talk paints a beautiful picture, so rich and so colorful. So these young people don’t know what they’re missing if they don’t speak their language.
There is much the younger generations cannot know without their native language. Cultural, spiritual and other things can only be described and understood in the native tongue.
Elders want the younger generation to live and learn according to American Indian values. Deb states:
The younger generations need to learn about the value system. They need to learn the values of fortitude, industry, generosity, love, honor, respect, courage, wisdom, leadership, duty and reverence. They need to be taught to respect — not taught to fear. When you are respectful, there is no fear.
Respecting all life as sacred is a fundamental American Indian value. This involves being humble and thankful for the gifts in life. Margaret says, “We were a sincere and humble people. Traditional men and women will talk humbly about life and they are very thankful.” The traditional values are linked to caring for other living things because everything created by the Creator is sacred. Caring for nature is a reciprocal relationship. Sam indicates, “Working with the land is good for anybody. That’s where the tradition lies. If you take care of nature it will take care of you in a good way.”
Elders also want younger generations to learn the value of sharing. Joe relates, “This is tied to the traditional Indian value of life and respect for all living things. [You are] to use only what is necessary. [You are] to give thanks for that which you take, and to give to your neighbors.” Nancy explains, “Kids need to learn to share with others. We used to do it out of necessity and poverty. We had communal values for everyone to help each other survive.” Nancy describes how this happened in her community:
…everyone supported one another. If somebody died, nobody asked about what they should do. You just did it. There was sharing and giving. Everybody was poor and you put together what you could. As we pick up the ways of mainstream society we are not like that anymore. Sharing with guests was very important. There was always something to give to people who came over. Grandma never turned anybody away, they’d never leave empty-handed. She’d always give them something.
The value of sharing manifests itself in the American Indian practice of adopting people into their families. Bill indicates, “The Indian way is to take a child who has no parents, an orphan, into their hands.” Sam recounts, “My wife and I took kids in, kids who needed a place to stay and parents to take care of them. And we never asked for anything.”
Sharing and helping others are values and qualities especially important in American Indian leadership. Margaret states, “If you are a leader, you take care of the people. You show respect. For example, in the old days, if you were a leader you saw that everyone else was fed before you and your family.”
The story of American Indian history told in mainstream educational systems is incomplete and often inaccurate. Many elders want the younger generations to learn the true and accurate history of American Indian peoples. Deb says, “The younger generations need to learn about their history and the contribution we’ve made to America. They need to learn about their history and they need to learn about who they are. To learn about how valuable they are. Their life is sacred and they have a purpose here.” Tim maintains, “Younger American Indians should learn about themselves and our own history. We need to learn the specifics of who we are because the historians generalize too much.”
It is fundamental that younger generations learn the traditions specific to each tribe. There are many differences between tribes. Bill states:
Indian kids need to look at their history. A central part of the history was living in the world and dealing with the seasons. Indian people were brave. Indians lived differently depending on the tribe; it was a function of where they lived. For example, the Navajo who lived in a warm, dry area lived differently than the Ojibwe who lived with the four seasons.
Learning about the traditional ways of each tribe involves understanding the names and the different clans within a tribe. Deb relates, “The younger generations need to learn about who they are, their history, where names come from, and the clans that they’re from.” Learning the history of tribal names is one aspect of learning the history of a tribe. Sam recounts:
Back when Europeans came and were doing what might be called genocide, some of the Indians assimilated into the melting pot. Some Indians felt really strong about themselves and about who they were. They kept their Indian names after the Europeans came. A lot of the names that Indians have right now are artificial names that they took on because Indians didn’t used to have a last name. The Indians who needed names often adopted names from the European people around them at that time.
That’s why the Ojibwe, for instance, now have a lot of French last names; because the French were around them at the time they needed to create new names. But this was really an artificial naming ceremony. [Indians] have a traditional spiritual naming ceremony. This is a very important part of Indian life. I would encourage the young people to change their names to Indian names, to come back to their Indian names.
Understanding the history of different spiritual practices is also important. Tom states, “The Big Drum ceremony is a teaching that tells you who you are. A lot of people don’t understand it yet because they don’t have the old people to explain to them what it is about.”
In addition to learning about the specifics ways of one’s tribe, many elders believe it is important the younger generations receive a modern-day education and become skilled at a profession or a trade. Ray explains, “On top of all that [the traditional teachings], there is a need for modern day education and learning about living in modern day society. There needs to be some Native Americans, like myself, who can go and talk with Congress, and who can teach the modern day skills.”