He looks like he could be 60, but Baron is probably about 75 years old. No one knows exactly when he was born and neither does he. “We need you again for our drum group, we need to practice for the powwow,” said Baron. Then his face became sad and he added, ”That chairman, he won't allow us to practice in the tribal building any more. He believes that powwows are sinful, it goes against his Christian beliefs.” For a couple of weeks, we practiced in Baron's living room but his neighbors justifiably complained about the noise. We asked the local college if we could practice in their gym but they never got back to us. The powwow was approaching and we simply had no venue to practice. Then Baron found an elegant solution to our problems. Each Friday, we loaded everything on Baron's pickup truck, drove about 12 miles on a dirt road up a desolate canyon where we practiced to our heart's content.
Tribal traditions are under attack in Indian country because of assimilationist pressures. But traditionalists are finding novel ways to cope and in the process are becoming healthier and better off than before. Many young Indians all over the United States, Canada and South America are increasingly embracing tradition.
When Faith was disenrolled by her tribe over casino per-cap disputes, she started learning her language from her grandma. “I don't need the federal government or the tribe to tell me I am Indian,” she says, “I get my Indianness from my language.” And she has a point. The Sapir-Whorf theory says that a language affects the perceptions of reality of its speakers and thus determines or influences their thought patterns and worldviews. This theory tells us that if we speak in an Indian language, we also start thinking like an Indian; likewise, if we speak in a European language like English, we think like a European and eventually become one. If this isn't a strong enough reason to learn our languages, we don't know what is.
Nineteen-year old Elizabeth strives to emulate her ancestors. She refuses to have her picture taken; and like her ancestors, she even refuses to point. When Elizabeth received a $250 award at the year-end party, she immediately gave the money to a needy elder who was sitting next to her. Her ancestors would have done the same thing. We always valued giving over receiving. Wealth was measured by how much you gave away rather than how much you had: a man with one horse who had given away three was wealthier than someone with ten horses who hadn't given away any.
A friend, Tyler, sews elaborate traditional clothes when a person dies. In three days, these clothes so painstakingly sewn by Tyler are burned in the traditional ceremony. But that does not deter Tyler. He still puts enormous effort into his sewing and makes the very best clothes even though he knows they will be burned three days later at the funeral. This is the traditional way of honoring his departed tribal members. Following tradition has given Tyler inner strength and helped him kick his heroin habit.
Carlton makes cradleboards. He used to keep getting into fights and would end up getting arrested until he found solace in making cradleboards the traditional way. For his cradleboards, Carlton does not buy thread from Jo-Ann's or Walmart; rather he makes his own cordage by splitting willows. Carlton is now working on completing his MBA program.
As for Jason, his triglyceride levels were in the 1000s, putting him at very high risk for pancreatitis. He needed to get those levels below 150. The doctor put him on Slo-Niacin. The levels dipped by a few hundred but still remained over a thousand; cholesterol levels remained off the charts and his sugar also remained high. And he started having many other side effects with Slo-Niacin, including his AST level shooting high. That’s when Jason decided to eat the protein-based diet that our ancestors ate. He started using his fingers, instead of using a spoon or a fork. And he also began to eat while sitting on the floor like ancient Indians. If you use your fingers and sit on the floor, you tend to eat less.
Next, Jason researched the ingredients in Lovaza, the medication that is prescribed to control triglyceride levels (465 mg EPA and 375 mg DHA), and made sure he got those omega-3 fatty acids through natural means like fish, flax seed, etc. He completely gave up on his daily addiction to fry bread (which is not a traditional food anyway). Jason also started running each day like his ancestors. Within only three weeks, his triglyceride, cholesterol and sugar levels amazingly dropped to normal range and have remained so ever since. Jason's physician was convinced some other doctor was treating him but Jason was only following the traditional path of eating protein-based foods and running like our ancestors. Three weeks is all it took for tradition to take effect.
Give tradition a second chance and see the miracle for yourself. When we follow tradition, the spirits of our ancestors smile down on us. Tradition helps. Tradition soothes. Tradition heals. Tradition cures. Tradition certainly does not mean rejecting modernization and scientific progress. But it does mean recognizing that traditional Indian values are vastly different from the values of the shallow and materialistic society presented to us by the colonizers. Indians have admirable traditions. Family-orientedness, courage, loyalty, sacrifice, generosity, honoring elders, being respectful to women, never interrupting, being tolerant of all people whether they are gay or of some other race, not focusing on material values, forgiving others, helping our fellow humans, being gentle with children, giving thanks to the Creator every day, being kind to animals, treating the Earth and the environment with utmost respect – these and more are all part of our sacred traditions.
Indians are not made like the white man. When we eat the white man's foods, we get diabetes and other illnesses. When we depart from the red road and follow the white man's path, Indian society pays with consequences like alcoholism and suicides. When we aspire for what the mainstream society aspires, our social and moral fabric breaks down and Indian families are ripped up by jealousy and material selfishness. The Great Spirit never told us to value money and accumulate wealth; the media tells us that. When we start valuing what the colonizers value, whether it is casino wealth or financial gains from oil drilling on reservation land, we pay with consequences one way or the other.
Sometimes these consequences are obvious and immediately evident to all, as in when a tribe recently waved a final goodbye to Indian tradition and constructed a casino over the bodies of their buried Indian ancestors. However, the most serious consequences of departing from tradition are not immediately evident; the price will nevertheless be paid by our children, grandchildren and our seventh generation who may no longer be Indian as a result of our actions.
Mike Taylor is a student in the ALB program at Harvard University and hopes to serve as a physician on isolated and remote Indian reservations. Amy Moore is passionate about saving as many Indian languages as possible. If your tribal college or university would like to offer your indigenous language class online to a much wider audience through avenues like Coursera, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.