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It takes a tribe to raise an Indian

Whoever coined the phrase “you can’t go home again” was surely referring to how you can’t return to a place and expect things to have stayed as you left them. Time does not stand still; sometimes, even places do not stand still. Indians, even with the passage of time and even with forced removal and relocation, have somehow transcended the above axiom, at least in a “frame of mind” sense.

We, as tribal people, have learned that you can go home again because home is a concept rather than a place. It is a concept of family, of clan, of community, of tribe or nation. It is that sense of belonging, security and discipline and power (in its positive sense) that we experience when we walk into any gathering of Native Americans. It is that sense of kinship that we feel, even when we visit communities of indigenous people half a world away. It is that sense of deja vu when we go to the communities or homelands of tribes or Native groups a continent away. It is that knowledge of “the rules” that we instinctively know and follow as our price of admission to the fraternity of Native people and particularly, Native American people – and even more particularly, our tribe. We know that the power of individual and group survival is based in the discipline of observing “the rules” within our communities and within our homelands.

“The rules” go by many names, such as “the great words,” “the great law” and, more contemporaneously, “the Indian Ten Commandments.” The latter term is more a reflection of our dual Indian Christianity/traditional spirituality mindset that sees the diversity of religion merely as one continuous spectrum of communication with the Creator. We recognize that spirituality is quite a different horse than religion. (Religions can cause wars; spirituality can end them and heal their scars.) It is these rules, based in our spirituality and culture, which set us apart as distinct and unique people whether that distinction is based, usually by the observer, on race, culture, religion or origin of nation.

This is true whether our homelands are ancestral or those we were forced into, including urban Native enclaves. “Indian country” is not just a legal definition. It personifies a community even though the members of that community are scattered across a continent or two. It is what drives the inevitable question when we recognize, by appearance, by speech or demeanor, another Native person. Introductions are inevitably followed by the query, “Where are you from?” We are not asking just what city one lives in: we are asking you for a mini-biography complete with pedigree, so to speak. We want “bloodlines” and we want “upbringing” and we want to know who you know, so that we can make a connection. When one Native person talks to another for any significant length of time they will usually find that they have common acquaintances, common experiences and, perhaps, even common relations. Our Lakota brothers would tell us that mitakuye oyasin (all my relations) is not just an imploration; it is a statement of fact.

For Native Americans, like many indigenous peoples, our sense of place may be tied to a reservation, a community, a colony, a nation, a rancheria, borough or ancestral areas that have meaning to us and are essential to our spirituality.

Those of us who have chosen a profession or career that has taken us away from our home base inevitably experience a sense of longing. Sometimes we can’t quite put our finger on it, but it has to do with the comfort, warmth, safety, security, insulation and maybe even isolation that we feel when we are with or within our community or homelands. It is especially poignant when we periodically return to our home base for ceremonies, for cultural events or gatherings, or to family gatherings, sometimes under unfortunate circumstances.

It is that understanding that we live in a “parallel universe” within a world in which we have to survive, but at the same time within a Native world that no one who has not lived it can truly understand. This is not vanity, this is not superiority; it is the foundation of our survival as a distinct people, a distinct and unique species of the human race, the foundation of our Native community.

Tribes and Native communities have struggled to understand the dynamics of the present generation that has glommed unto the culture of other groups and sometimes engage in a gangster culture that provides to them a semblance of the sense of belonging, power, security and discipline described above.

We in the preceding two generations have failed to pass that sense of belonging, power and discipline that we have experienced on to the new generation in any kind of systematic method. We seem to have expected our children and grandchildren to somehow absorb that sense of belonging, that sense of community, of clan and of tribe, by osmosis. We have left a generation’s Indian education to chance and now we are paying for it.

A modicum of success has been realized by some communities that have dedicated adequate effort and resources to educating children, especially pre-adolescents, as to who they are and from whence they come. This effort is mostly led by Native educators and also utilizes traditionalists, those who continue to live by “the rules.” Traditional families – meaning those who retain some acumen for Native language and traditions, culture and religion – have had to extend the benefit of their experiences beyond their immediate and extended families. They have been called upon to save a generation, and some have responded well to the call. We are asking them to repair damage that started when our fathers and grandfathers were pulled out of their communities and sent off to boarding schools, mission schools and public schools to “educate the Indian out of them.” Sometimes, when they returned home they refused to endorse anything Native and refused to even pass our languages on to the next generation. Left within a shell supposedly cleansed of their Indian spirit, yet left void by a sense that they did not belong in the world they were expected to embrace, they drank and they isolated themselves from their families, their clan and their tribe.

Exacerbating this loss was the attitude of traditional families willing to pass on their knowledge only to the immediate family or clan and not to extend the benefit of their experiences to the “half-breeds” or the members of perceived non-traditional families. Some of us, though wanting in the worst way to learn and absorb their experience and knowledge, were too afraid of reproach to intrude upon their world. However, some of us did manage our way in, by persistence or by being so lucky as to find mentors who opened doors for us and, more importantly, opened our minds so that we came to the realization that no one owns our culture, our religion, our language or our community. We realized that we were entitled to belong, it was our blood right.

Once we crossed that threshold, we eased our way into a world in which we had always had one foot but, either because of the prejudice of our own people or self-imposed barriers based on fear, failed to take the next step. For some of us the process happened very quickly, and for some it took decades.

Sen. Hillary Clinton said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, it takes a tribe to raise an Indian, it takes a clan to raise clan member, and it takes a Native community to raise a community member. If we don’t raise our children and grandchildren to know who they are and from whence they came, they will look to others for the sense of belonging, security, power, discipline and safety that is instinctive to our survival as human beings.

Indian country cannot afford to lose another generation. We must put our efforts and resources to work to “raise” our children and grandchildren as Indian or as Native. Half-measures will simply slow the erosion, not stop it. We must show our children that their tribe, their nation, their clan, their village, their community offers them the identity, the belonging, the safety, the security, and the discipline and love that they seek. They don’t need to join a gang when they already belong to their people and the people belong to them.

Harold Monteau, Chippewa-Cree, is a founding partner in the law firm of Monteau & Peebles, a nation-wide majority Indian-owned law firm engaged in the practice of federal Indian law with offices in Montana, California, Washington, D.C., Nebraska and South Dakota. He resides and practices law in Missoula, Mont., and can be reached at