Identity often comes down to decisions. Every single one of us has, at some point, made a concession regarding our Native identity.
Media coverage surrounding the Navajo Nation language controversy speaks directly to these concerns. One headline read: “The Dark Side of Navajo Traditionalism.”
Traditionalism for indigenous people has often been portrayed as the dark side. Our relatives in the boarding schools were ingrained with the belief that our cultures had no value. The capitalist system continues this assimilation effort today.
What is a successful Native person? Often, we think of diplomas, job titles, and/or some type of ownership of an organization or business. Perhaps we imagine a significant salary or a big house.
We have bought into these capitalist ideas. By valuing material goods over cultural acumen, we have embraced assimilation and our own cultural depletion.
Native men and women often cut their hair stating reasons of opportunities for better jobs. We dress up in business suits without question because we want to appear “presentable” in our careers. But whose standard are we attempting to meet, and who determines what is deemed presentable?
Often we forget that many of these career standards were put into place well before people of color were ever able to pursue them. Thus, we are conforming to a system which was designed to exclude us entirely. Despite understanding this, we continue to allow others to choose the standards for us.
We need to openly challenge these imposed standards. Simple acts like wearing our hair long while continuing our exemplary work in our chosen fields can be powerful acts of resistance. Truly “being” in these fields as Native people means that we should be influencing the status quo on all levels.
In school, we expect our children to pay attention, listen to the teacher, and earn good grades in math, science, history, and English. If they do not earn good grades, we find out what the problem is and take disciplinary measures to ensure they understand and thrive in these topics. Do we do the same when it comes to our own culture? Do we expect our children to know our creation stories, speeches, or ceremonial songs in the same manner we expect them to know their times tables, U.S. history dates, or the U.S. Constitution?
When our children have a good report card, we are so proud of them. However, we have also seen parents proud that their son was asked to do the opening address, or proud that their daughter was selected to sing some ceremonial songs, all the while never repeating a song or missing a word. When your child is one of the very few selected to be a buffalo dancer, they would be selected because their community knows that they practice and participate in these ceremonies. They know these children are versed well enough in their culture that they can answer the call to lead, to dance, to speak, and to sing. Do we stress these accomplishments as much as we stress academics? Do we encourage our children to learn the culture so that when the time comes, they will be ready to fill an important spot in the continuation of our way of life? It is a different kind of success because individuals do not aspire to be in these positions, but should be ready and capable if called upon.
When debating this topic, consider this scenario: A group of Native people are discussing political candidates, and deciding one of them was most qualified because of his education as a lawyer, engineer, and experience within state politics. Look at the underlying assumption here: Traditional Native people with traditional knowledge are not qualified to run their own governments. In other words, our value as leaders within our own communities is now based on our success on Westernized standards. This from a tribal sovereignty perspective is deeply heartbreaking.
This is by no means an attack on those who have achieved success via the western framework, it’s merely a challenge to those who do not hold traditional knowledge on the same pedestal. We continue to push Western education upon our children year after year, just as it was pushed upon us, and those before. We tell them education is the future. You must be educated. It has been said that we must know our enemy if we are to defeat them, to beat them at their own game. We can appreciate that sentiment, but what about the other side? We might know our enemy now, but how well do we know ourselves?
Some suggest that incorporating Native language requirements or other cultural knowledge to our requirements for success in this day and age is unreasonable. We reject this argument.
Imagine if Native leaders in history had asked themselves: What is feasible? instead of asking, what is right? Would our communities exist today?
At what point did we decide to do what was easy?
Chief Sitting Bull said: “If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place.” This quote resonates in our being. It says that our lives were not meant to be easy. To maintain who we are and remain distinct in our tribal nations, we must struggle.
It would be a powerful statement for our future generations if we dedicated as much effort to success in our own tribal institutions as we dedicate to the Western one.
Emmy Scott (Winnebago/Spokane/Arikara) is from the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska and is a first year law student at Michigan State College of Law with a passion for Indigenous rights. Twitter: @EmmyNawjoopinga
Damian Webster is Onödowa’ga’ from Buffalo, NY and studied at Haskell University and the University of North Dakota. He also studies Seneca language, Haudenosaunee history and culture, and resides in Oneida, WI.