Native Village
Youth and Education news
 December 1, 2010, Volume 2

Children step up as culture-bearers
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Washington, D.C.:  Every Native Nation shares its knowledge with tribal youth. Today, these youth are putting in adult efforts to preserve their cultures.

In May 2011, a classroom-like gallery will open for youth at the National Museum of the American Indian. It features an interactive exhibit about the cultural leadership roles Native youth are taking on today.

40,000 schoolchildren visit the NMAI each yea

Kelly Church is from the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa Tribe. She weaves black ash baskets as her family has done for countless generations.  Church now works against time with tribal children because the Black Ash tree is imperiled.

Black ash trees used to grow from Wisconsin to New York and from Tennessee to Ontario. But the tree may be extinct in 10 years because of imported Asian beetles.  Church says a decade is optimistic.

“I apprenticed two kids who were able to harvest a tree with me, and pound it—that’s one of the most important parts of what we did,” she said. “More importantly, we need these kids to plant the black ash seeds decades from now, when the emerald ash borer is expected to be extinct.”

With a grant from the NMAI, Church held a weaving workshop in Kewadin, Mich. 14 youth attended. Two youth -- a girl and a boy -- volunteered as apprentices to learn how to harvest the tree. Historically, men harvested the tree and prepared it for women to weave. Church tries to divide this knowledge along the traditional male and female roles. The youth are responsible for remembering.

She also videotapes practices because, “I don’t expect everything to be fresh in their minds 30 years from now,”  she said.

Two more children, a pair of siblings, have volunteered to be Church’s next apprentices.

Near the Pacific Ocean

At the summer solstice, the Siletz Tribe performs the feather dance. The tradition draws dozens of young people from ages 3  - 20s.

Returning the Feather Dance to the Siletz people has been a long journey. The tribe had to fight for restoration after the government terminated them.

“The Indian agents burned all our dance houses so the people put on the ceremonies in their own houses,” said Alfred Lane III from the tribal council. “The dance has never ended; it has gone into certain families over the years.  The ceremonial house we built in 1996 is the first one at Siletz in 126 years.”

Lane, 53, walked into 2010's  summer solstice dance holding the hand of a 3-year-old. He told the child, “Stand here,” then took his place as one of the singers. While Siletz children took their turns dancing, the youngest boy stood, sang, and kept time with his toe on the cedar plank floor.

“My kids were real little when they started dancing,” Lane said. “Now they are adults who dance, and my son sings with me.”

Lane and his wife have prayed for a new generation to practice Siletz culture and center their lives on the traditions.  They are seeing that generation today. Young adults discuss the Siletz language. They dance. They gather roots and shellfish for meals even if the wild traditional foods aren't as plentiful.

Patsy Whitefoot is president of the National Indian Education Association. She says Native children have a valuable opportunity to learn their cultures and traditions. Kids often live with parents and grandparents in the same home. The families are usually close-knit. Even students who struggle in school can excel in cultural environments.

“Children soak up information,” said Whitefoot, a Yakama who lives in Washington state. “Often we have elders teaching, and the children feel safe.”

Whitefoot’s family recently took their children to gather the first huckleberries. They reminded the children of cultural protocols such as not to taste even one berry they were gathering for ceremonies. Later, the older children coached younger children as they sat together eating and talking during lunch.

Children from Indian nations have always carried on the culture, Church agreed. In some ways, it’s just more urgent now.

“When we have a meeting of any kind, you will always see our little ones running around. They are always welcome,” Church said. “That is one difference with our culture and other cultures; in our culture, the children are part of everything we do, because pretty soon, they will be doing it as well.”

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