Note: This post is lovingly submitted in recognition of Native American Heritage Month
It’s so a matter of fact when English Americans speak about American History. It becomes focused on the “Discovery” of America and the influx of immigrants from across the world and their founding of a “new” world. It is the reality of the conquerors to believe that North America was void of culture and intelligence, as if America were a blank slate. This is a version of a momentous story and it is celebrated by many every year as Columbus Day, or Founders Day, but many Americans have a different story.
American Indians and Alaska Natives have a dissimilar story that is equally as momentous and certainly tragic when it comes to the “Discovery of America.” As an American Indian woman I grew up learning English, being tested in school on “American” History, and learning a narrow perspective on many things beyond the reservation–from the television. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I truly began to see myself as different.
It is easy to take for granted all the beauty that our individual cultures contribute to the progress of America. Native people have contributed a tremendous amount of value not only to America but to the rest of the world. American Indians and Native Alaskans are progressive thinkers and creative and intelligent people, just like any other human beings. We are still here, although we are few in number at 5.2 million or 4% of the U.S. population. To some we have all but vanished into the stories of the Wild West. Many mainstream thinkers compare us to mystical creatures like a “Unicorn” that once walked the American frontier. We are alive and evolving, just like other cultures.
I grew up on one of the many 566 Tribal Nations recognized today by the federal government. In this far off place somewhere in the middle of America, I learned many wonderful things from my grandparents.
My maternal grandmother was a quiet woman. We called her, “Ma’sa na’. She spoke very little English but was very clever with our Tribal language. She loved to clean and keep things tidy. She was never lazy but always doing something productive. I remember that she would wake before the crack of dawn. She would go outside to greet the morning mist, the “Holy People” and offer corn pollen and gratitude for the well keeping of her loved ones.
Then she would enter our rooms to wake us for the day. Of course we were children so her calls to wake us up were not always welcome. The laziness would overtake our bodies. Grandma would say in our tribal language, “Wake up! A’dee dah!” Again in our language she would say…“The ugly nasty creature of laziness is in your bed with you holding you down. The Laziness Creature is licking your face with its smelly breath, get up hurry!” Our Tribal language is deliciously descriptive so I could feel and smell every word she spoke. This would get us to our feet quickly because she was seeing this Laziness Creature, we could not see it, but she made it appear to be real. She used other unsavory descriptive words in our language to describe this creature that was making us so lazy. She would say that if we get up it will go away, but the longer we lay there the longer it will stay.
To this day, when I stay in bed too late in the morning hour, I can hear her words. I look around the room to see if the Laziness Creature is in there with me. I smile and think to myself –“I better get up!” Just like grandma said, once up, the laziness disappears.
My paternal grandfather was a person of example, not of harsh discipline or a man of extreme temper. He was a person I have always respected for his leadership and most notably his compassion for all things made by the Holy People. He was a rancher, a farmer, a railroad worker, a stone mason, a builder, a story teller, a singer, a prayerful person, and worked hard for everything he ever attained. His hands were like sand paper and his eyes were warm like sunshine. He had special names for all his myriad of grandchildren. He never called us by our English names. He called me in the Tribal language, “lady that is always dressed up and looking pretty”… “Asdzáá ha’di’tehe’e”. He would hug us with his welcoming arms and look deep into our eyes for a smile. He lived to the age of 65 and passed away from complications related to diabetes. He was far too young to leave us because once he left so did the farm, the livestock, the stories, some of our spiritual and ceremonial ways, the naming of unnamed grandchildren and the memories that could have been.
What grandfather left me with is what he exemplified; those values are: Do your best to be kind and respectful to animals and all human kind. Learn all you can and do your best. Be prayerful and thankful for your abilities and skills. Work hard because nothing is free and nothing is easy. Love your family and pay special attention to each and every one.
Being a person in this United States of America and a nation of diversity, it is easier for me to cope with what life holds ahead, because I have purpose and understanding of who I am. I know where I am going and where I came from. The majority of Americans only know what they see; so often, American Indians are misunderstood and more often not seen. In honor of Native American Heritage, month learn something new about your American Indian or Alaska Native brother and sister. Be open to learning about your own heritage and your own culture because it gives value to life in so many beautiful ways.
November is Native American Heritage Month, preferably referred to as American Indian & Alaska Native Heritage Month.
Randella Bluehouse is the Executive Director of the National Indian Council on Aging, Inc. (NICOA).
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.