WASHINGTON – Kelly Church, a weaver of black ash baskets, is working against time to teach the children of her tribe, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa, about the imperiled tree.
Black ash trees across a vast swath of the continent – from Wisconsin to New York and as far south as Tennessee and north as Ontario – could be effectively extinct in as little as a decade because of an infestation by the emerald ash borer, a voracious imported Asian beetle. In her home state of Michigan, Church said, a decade is optimistic.
“I apprenticed two kids who were able to harvest a tree with me, and pound it – that’s one of the most important parts of what we did,” she said. “More importantly, we need these kids to plant the black ash seeds decades from now, when the emerald ash borer is expected to be extinct.”
American Indian children across North America take on grown-up responsibilities for cultural preservation. Every Indian nation has its own way of sharing its ancient indigenous knowledge with its younger generation. But now, the speed of that transfer of knowledge has increased under pressure from insect infestation and climate changes altering the natural environment.
At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the renovation of a classroom-like gallery space into an interactive children’s exhibition, opening in May 2011, will show the 40,000 schoolchildren who visit each year the leadership roles that children from many tribes play in carrying on cultural knowledge. In August, Church, whose family has woven black ash baskets for countless generations, participated in a panel discussion about her efforts via teleconference with the museum.
With a grant from the National Museum of the American Indian, Church, 42, held a weaving workshop in Kewadin, Mich., attended by 14 children. From that group, she asked for volunteers to become her apprentices and learn how to harvest the tree. Two children stepped forward, a boy and a girl. Historically, men harvested the tree and prepared it for the women to weave. Now most weavers do every part of the process. Still, Church tried to divide the knowledge along male and female roles, if only to help the youngsters share the responsibility for remembering.
She videotaped the practices because, as she said, “I don’t expect everything to be fresh in their minds 30 years from now.”
Now two more children, a pair of siblings, have volunteered to be Church’s next apprentices.
Near the Pacific Ocean, the feather dance of the Siletz Tribe at the summer solstice draws dozens of young people, from 3 years old to their 20s. For the tribe, which 33 years ago won its restoration after termination, bringing the dance back to the public center of its nation has been a long journey, said Alfred “Bud” Lane III, Siletz Tribal Council vice chairman.
“The Indian agents burned all our dance houses so the people put on the ceremonies in their own houses,” Lane said. “The dance has never ended; it has gone into certain families over the years. The ceremonial house we built in 1996 is the first one at Siletz in 126 years.”
Wearing regalia he made himself, Lane, 53, walked into the 2010 summer solstice dance holding the hand of a 3-year-old. He told the child, “Stand here,” then took his place as one of the singers. For the next hour as Siletz children took their turns dancing, the youngest boy stood, keeping time with his foot on the cedar plank floor, and singing.
Lane and his wife, Cheryl, prayed for years to see the new generation of Siletz practicing their culture, with their traditions in the center of their lives, and they have seen it happen in this generation. Young adults discuss the meaning of words in the Siletz language, and join in gathering roots and shellfish for meals. Even if wild, traditional foods aren’t as plentiful as they once were, the people are dancing.
“My kids were real little when they started dancing,” Lane said. “Now they are adults who dance, and my son sings with me.”
Patsy Whitefoot, National Indian Education Association president, said American Indian children have valuable opportunities for intergenerational learning because they live in close-knit families, often with parents and grandparents in the same home. Children, even those who struggle in school, can excel in cultural environments.
“Children soak up information,” said Whitefoot, who is Yakama and lives in Washington state. “Often we have elders teaching, and the children feel safe.”
Recently, Whitefoot’s family took their children into the mountains to gather the first huckleberries. On the way, they reminded the children of the cultural protocols, such as not tasting even one of the berries they were gathering to be used in ceremony. On a break for lunch, the children sat together eating and talking, the older ones coaching the younger.
On that same trip her granddaughter began imitating the call of crows, making Whitefoot think about how her ancestors are remembered as children who did distinctive things, who learned to fish and hunt, and who were known to be able to act heroically in a crisis.
Children from Indian nations have always been the ones who would carry on the culture, Church agreed; in some ways, it’s just more urgent now.
“When we have a meeting of any kind, you will always see our little ones running around. They are always welcome,” Church said. “That is one difference with our culture and other cultures; in our culture, the children are part of everything we do, because pretty soon, they will be doing it as well.”
The American Indian News Service is produced for the National Museum of the American Indian by journalist Kara Briggs, Yakama/Snohomish. All content is free to publish or post. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the American Indian News Service at www.americanindiannews.org.