Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Trying to Keep Native Culture Alive: Angela

Angela was filled with pride as she addressed my son's fourth-grade class at the National Museum of the American Indian. She shared with us a beautiful hand-loomed Treaty Belt whose symbols offered up the laws set up by her Haudenosaunee people hundreds of years ago. But then her pride turned slightly to anger as she told a story of when she was six, picking blueberries with her mother and brother on native lands protected for them under long-ago treaties.

She told of coming out of the woods to find a policeman, a modern-day law enforcer, who didn't subscribe to the native treaty, who told them they had no rights to the berries. "We poured them on his feet and ran," she said.

Battles over berries and other things picked and fished and hunted on lands protected for Angela's people according to their tradition are being fought every day, in tribal courts all over, she said.

It is not an easy thing, balancing history and tradition with modern ways that render the rules of a beautiful culture moot. I gave Angela a gold star for trying, for teaching us with her personal story about the ongoing struggles in our midst.

Angela took the star proudly, being, as she is, from a culture of symbols. She felt acknowledged by the star and by the picture I took of her holding the many handcrafted items of her beloved heritage. As she offered her e-mail so I would send her a copy, she acknowledged her personal struggle to reconcile tradition with living in modern America.

She was married to a Jew for 27 years but recently divorced. "It was difficult," she said. "The Haudenosaunee is a matriarchal tradition, egalitarian..." Now, she is "trying to live as traditional a life as possible, my mother's way." I wish her much luck.

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