Even before they take office, President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden have launched their Renew America Together initiative, calling on Americans of all ages to participate in community service. They have asked us to come together on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and celebrate it as a National Day of Service.
As we observe this day of service in Indian country, I cannot help but think of the old Lakota saying, “We are all related.” As American Indians, we should join Americans from across the country in this call to service.
We must act because our history demands it. We must act because our heritage is being diminished. I speak, of course, of the effects of the signing of the treaties between our various tribal nations and the U.S. government.
It has been said the signing of these treaties changed the tribal nation’s entire social, economic and spiritual fabric. Before these treaties, we were societies of hunters and gatherers. In those days, the elders provided the wisdom, the men were the protectors of the people and the providers of big game. The women were the gatherers and the nurturers of the children and the community.
The children were allowed to dream and grow based on the cultural and traditional virtues and values they were taught. These virtues and values were based on service to the entire tribal nation.
But with the signing of the treaties, drastic change occurred that immediately led to the demise of our societies as hunters and gatherers.
My involvement with community service work has been one of the most inspiring and rewarding experiences I have had.
Some children were taken to Carlisle Indian School, where they were taught various trades and homemaking skills and how to survive and prosper in a new social, cultural and economic world. Their spirituality was stripped and replaced with Christianity.
These children were not allowed to return home for 10 to 15 years, magnifying the challenges the tribal peoples were experiencing as they were confined within the reservation boundaries.
By having their hunting and gathering society eliminated, the new generation of elders on the reservation had little wisdom to pass on in regard to surviving, let alone prospering in the new social, cultural, economic and spiritual world.
The new generation of men on the reservation not taken to Carlisle Indian School could no longer hunt big game and provide for their families. They could no longer protect their families. The new generation of elders and men began to break, but not all.
The women, regardless of how destitute the world seemed not only continued to nurture, they also became the source of wisdom, as well as the provider and protector of many families.
Eventually the women began to break, but not all. So today, in some communities, we find an eighth-grade girl trying to provide her own wisdom, protect herself, provide her own basic needs and nurture herself as well as her siblings.
As we observe this day of service in Indian country, I cannot help but think of the old Lakota saying, “We are all related.”
Today, the sad reality is that many of the youth who break under these circumstances do so by committing suicide. Some of these youth are from very successful, caring and nurturing families, thus magnifying the complex changes and challenges we have faced by leaving a hunting and gathering society. The new and rapidly changing world our ancestors were thrust into has only continued to increase its speed of change.
A key factor in overcoming the obstacles we face today is by incorporating our traditional virtues and values in a contemporary way. Only when the virtues and values of our culture, tradition and spirituality are transformed into a present day power that permeates our social and economic fabric, will we meet our truly great warriors of the 21st century.
A National Day of Community Service is a great time to honor our past. For example, honoring our women, who at a critical time in our journey kept our virtues and values alive.
It is also a time to honor our present, including our young women and men who are transforming our virtues and values into a present day power by incorporating them into their careers. They are becoming our emerging elite warriors of the 21st century.
It is also a time to choreograph our future, a future where we all contribute the wisdom, where we are all providers and protectors, where we all provide the nurturing to regain our health; mentally, spiritually and physically.
The new and rapidly changing world our ancestors were thrust into has only continued to increase its speed of change.
We all need to help the youth dream their dreams, implement and pursue their destiny for the betterment of themselves, their communities, their tribal nations and their country.
One way that we can act – we can volunteer our time to organizations such as Running Strong for American Indian Youth. I should disclose that I am the founder and spokesperson for this group.
We strive to build the capacity of communities, grassroots American Indian organizations, families and individuals to leverage their strengths and solve problems. We seek to help American Indians by meeting immediate survival needs – food, water and shelter – while at the same time, implementing and supporting programs designed to create opportunities for self-sufficiency and self-esteem.
I hope that on National Day of Service, many in our community will offer time and support. And I hope they will take President-elect Obama’s call to make this an ongoing effort to heart. If we all commit ourselves, we can better our community and fulfill those dreams. Every dream has a passion and every passion has its destiny.
My involvement with community service work has been one of the most inspiring and rewarding experiences I have had. I act because I hold true to our Lakota belief, “We are all related.” And we all must act.
To learn more about Running Strong for American Indian Youth, visit www.indianyouth.org. To learn more about Obama’s call for community service, visit www.USAService.org.
Billy Mills, Lakota, is an Olympic Gold Medalist and National Spokesperson for Running Strong for American Indian Youth.