Elders must share traditional medicine, lifeways with youth

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Salt River Pima traditional singer Jonah Ray says one of the greatest forms of healing, a remedy for the unspoken sorrows leading to suicide, is talking with someone.

"I was told by the elders that when you keep things inside you, it comes out through anger, violence, or in most cases taking of your own life.

"We talk to each other to ease the pressures inside," Ray said during a traditional medicine workshop at the 10th annual Keepers of the Treasures conference.

"We call it 'the sickness you keep inside.' Not only will it hurt you, but eventually the violent nature will override you and cause you to do things you wouldn't normally do."

Ray said there are sacred songs for those who have gone on, for plants, animals and blessings, for ceremonies and spiritual ways and those to be sung only in winter.

"There are certain songs that tell us who we are as a people. The songs we have are also medicine." But, he added, "If you don't use a song in the appropriate way, you can hurt a person."

The elders say these songs belong to the people. Each person is born with a gift, whether it be for song, dance or traditional medicine.

"We are so closely connected to Mother Earth. We are so much a part of everything around us."

He said there is no death, only the spirit taking another form. "We don't have a heaven and hell, it's just another life and we are preparing ourselves for the spiritual world."

Ray and Tohono O'odham youth adviser Adam Andrews urged tribal elders to spend time with young people. It was the beauty and generosity of his aunts and grandmothers that taught him the most, he said.

When he went to their homes, they would say, "Come on in, sit down and get something to eat.

"They taught me the essence of generosity, that kindness and the thought that went behind it." He learned the hard work of gathering and chopping wood from his father, a rancher. "Those experiences made us who we are today."

In a workshop focused on youths and elderly, Andrews said times are changing. Native youths today must deal with gang involvement, family problems and the availability of drugs and alcohol.

"One thing has not changed. They are still vulnerable and they are eager to learn. We are trying to bring this full circle."

The Pascua Yaqui Nation, south of Tucson, teaches their Yoeme language to preschoolers and offers activity programs for teen-agers.

David Dominiquez, Pascua Yaqui, said it is difficult to retain young people in organizations. "They start partying, start going out. They forget what is really behind them.

"A lot of them don't have their elders to share with them and speak to them. I share with them what I've learned from my elders.

"We do what we do for our Creator and because our elders are teaching us to do what we do."

When young people stray from the Yaqui traditional way, they eventually feel a sense of loss. "They come back because they see it is a dead-end."

He said Yaqui elders are passing quickly. Anselmo Valencia died in 1998 after gaining land and federal recognition for the Pascua Yaqui.

"He always had something nice to say. He would let me know the things I should do and how to do them."

Yaqui elders carrying on the ceremonies remain his heroes. "Because of them, we have what we have today. Hopefully we will have them for a long time.

"Our elders are the key to our success, along with us having the respect to want to be with our elders. If it wasn't for our elders and our Creator, we wouldn't be here."

Among the elders addressing the conference was Danny Lopez, Tohono O'odham, who urged Native people to grow gardens of corn, beans and squash and eat wild foods to halt the diabetes killing American Indian people.

Alcohol "is killing our people. We don't learn. We are not aware of the things that are hurting us."

Encouraging Native people to become more physically active, he said, "We don't build our homes anymore."

Echoing the themes of Ray, Andrews and Dominique, he urged parents to sit and talk with their children and be aware of where they are every day.

Lopez urged grandparents to spend time with their grandchildren.

"Do something with them every day."