Labor Day is more than a weekend holiday but also a time to review the year to date. Taking a moment to see where things are at helps us to know where we are going. Do we plan well for the future or does the talk of the Seventh Generation amount to feel good ideas with a Native twist? Are we prepared to move forward in even rag-tag fashion or has the momentum slowed because the best days have passed us by?
I knew an evangelist from Youngstown, Ohio named Dom Bucci who wrote a book in 1975 that foretold that Native people of all sorts would converge on an area to make it the capital of North American Indians. His descriptions were a little vague, but the thought was thrilling as I sat listening by his nursing home bed in his later, quieter days.
Knowing more of the landscape today makes me question the very nature of planning within and throughout Indian country today. The blame is not exclusive; the problem is much wider and entrenched within the mainstream culture.
Tenets of management litter our basic understandings of success. Plan for the future, save for a rainy day, a penny saved is a penny earned! My Mohawk grandmother kept a small twig of wood in a beaded change purse because she told me that it would never be empty as a result. I never got the full meaning of her example, but it was said with such conviction that the sliver was left in the purse after she passed on, along with a shiny old quarter.
Superstitions that make us feel better in tough times cost nothing and mean everything to the believer. Yet even today, the lack of planning for the future is rampantly tolerated by parents, teachers and students alike. Whereas Home Economics study was a serious step in realizing that high school students needed life skills immediately, the flip side of that table is the absence of the formal instruction of what I will term Futurology 101.
In the 1970s, the future potential seemed so close you could almost reach out and touch it. The weeping American Indian symbolism in conservation commercials struck at the heartstrings of the viewers. More people talk about those commercials with me that are old enough to have seen them firsthand, show me that it was an effective marketing campaign, yet still devoid of implications of follow-through.
That era was the period that amplified upon past statements of Native leaders whose words are now immortalized on Facebook memes shared by friends daily now. I would wonder aloud in my youth if I was one of the “lucky” Seventh Generation children because the world had seemingly been left at my own feet to do the best with that I might. Empowerment is the least of my feelings that I can describe to how I felt then, with my life ahead of me, given such an opportunity.
True, the recycling movement began in earnest following these heady days. I recall UNICEF ads on the back of comic books pitching me to sell seeds door-to-door that could be used to fund raise for the less fortunate in other countries and continents. There was a cardboard donation box that this U.N. youth organization would send you to put change in that had a slot big enough to accept half-dollar pieces, in case a friendly neighbor might really want to reward you with that much for your efforts.
Little did I know then that traveling Native cultural groups, like the White Roots of Peace from the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, were already out there making similar pitches to college students and future decision-makers to embrace the Native way of life as a pathway to anticipated success. The foundation of the potential was being put in place, without recreating the proverbial medicine wheel. The wisdom had already been passed down and was being recalled by the descendants of those who came to know it, despite many obstacles.
So where did things fall off?
Sure, I am clearly short-changing the completely progressive housing projects that I have witnessed online by the resurgent Ho-Chunk Tribe in Wisconsin, as well as the recent headlines of tribal business strategic advancement. Heck, even my own St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has had a planning office for many years now, doing capable work worthy of note.
There are reasons of course. Big government might be the most pervasive reason by far. All too often, however, the federal Great White Father promise proved to be both underwhelming and far-fetched. Washington D.C. was never a be-all savior of the Onkwehonweh (Original People), no matter the treaty that was signed or the scrub land that was eventually allotted. It simply had a far different agenda.
The infighting of our common bloodlines is hard to entirely blame on mainstream conditioning. Certain groups will always harbor the grudges and rushes to judgment that seems to arise among neighbors/rivals.
Still the Dine and the Mohawk tribes, for instance, should be able to find common ground because their common interests are separated by thousands of miles between their current land bases. But is there any emphasis on throwing in together to do great things, or are more excuses in the way of actual collaboration that amounts to more than nodding acknowledgment at national Indian gaming conventions?
I may be whistling in the wind again for all that I know, but as a student of history, the irrelevance of lost people speaks for itself. Sadly, the future looks that way for a good many recognized tribes, as well as most unrecognized groups. The failure to plan for the successful future of culture and tradition shall overtake even our most determined brothers and sisters.
Things do not have to go this way. Language can be resurrected, or even “borrowed” from other Native groups. My good friend on the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, Kanaretiio the Bear Clan representative, told me that clan members had traveled to other intentionally nameless places to “rekindle” their ceremonial fires when the hosts lost track of their own cultural ways. Songs and dances are exchanged, not at any financial cost, but at the price of the frustration of the people who said enough was enough and who reached out for helping hands. Their hopes were met, and that potential remains for any who call to him for the same, as one of many who will not withhold their knowledge.
This column and my stated opinions may offend some, startle others and bewilder a few. Please take heed. The survival of those yet unborn may seem a given by the rising populations of Americans claiming Native connections. The label of belonging to a distinctive culture, however, is just the first step in succeeding where so many others have failed.
My late evangelist friend prayed that Natives would throw aside the differences and unite for their common good, in a central location, possibly by moving to a small U.S. state and using American election laws to their exclusive benefit for once. It may seem far-fetched as well as fanciful, but at least he had a plan. Where will your own “tribe” be in a hundred years, Native North American Indian or otherwise? Or will the responsibility be left to others, to do then what could be emphasized now?
Oh yeah, Happy Labor Day! Take it easy…
Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.