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TAIDA - Tennessee American Indian Development Assoc.

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The Elders give to us their wisdom from the past to help us live in a good way today, and  they will also counsel us from the Spirit World in the future. We must listen to our Elders. Our Elders are a Living Treasure, the most valuable resource we have for learning our cultures.

The Way It Was, from

The Way it Was

Learning about American Indian life starts before the child is born. Ray states, "I am called Anishinabe. My learning about the traditional ways began in the womb of my mother. She took care of herself in a spiritual way. She participated in spiritual ceremonies that have to do with pregnant women. The ceremonies are for the women and the unborn child. So, I began participating in Ojibwe spiritual nurturing before I came into the world." Ray further describes, "When I was in the womb, my father sang to me at certain times of the day or when he desired. These songs were to help the child grow and be healthy." Tom elaborates, "The man is supposed to treat the pregnant woman well. He sees that she eats strong food and he doesn't yell at her or say anything that could scare the baby. Then, when the baby is born it has an easy time. Children are raised and learn these things as they go along in life."

American Indian traditional ways of life are learned through experience. Mike states, "It wasn't anything I studied. It was how I was raised because those before me were stingy and clung to the culture. They had an intrinsic resistance against assimilation. The people hung onto the beliefs in the face of adversity." Deb relates, "I didn't learn about the traditional ways, I was raised that way." Even those who were not raised in a traditional home relate that they returned to the traditions by learning about them as a way of life. As Frank, an elder who returned to the traditions in his thirties, says, "Practicing the culture and the traditional ways is a way of life rather than something that you carry around as knowledge."

American Indian learning occurs through observation, listening and doing. American Indian culture is taught through practice. Nancy states, "Our parents taught us by example. They taught us that you always feed guests and practice hospitality, share and respect elders. They taught us the importance of the family." American Indians learned not just from their parents, but from their entire family. In thinking about how she learned the traditional ways, Nancy relates, "There was no distinction between extended and nuclear family, everyone was family. One of the most important persons in my life was my Aunt Susan. These are relationships of the heart." Dan also explains:

I had an adopted mother, too. One of the traditional ways is to make a relative. Her boy died when he was 12 and she asked my mother if I could be her son. So she was my mother too. I had three mothers. She came from the old way, from the Mdewewin and I got a lot of teachings from her. I used to listen to her for hours, to her teachings and her stories. Sometimes I would ask questions and sometimes I wouldn't have the answers.

Nancy explains how children learn to drum through observation and doing. She says, "When I think of the drums, I think it is the purest form of teaching. The drum sits in a circle, in the sacred circle. The boys stand next to those who are drumming and watch while they practice. The younger ones learn by doing it and by paying attention."

Another elder, Frank, describes how he learned about the sweat lodge from his spiritual mentor . The first time Frank went to sweat he said to his mentor, "You'll have to tell me what to do." His mentor replied, "I'm not going to tell you what to do, I'm gonna show you." Because teaching is through example, learning the traditional way of life involves observing, and learning through trial and error. In learning how to sweat, Frank recounts, "I went, [and I] didn't know what I was going to do.I hauled 24 stones that were red-hot. I learned to keep my pants on because I put my swimming trunks on and had everything off, barefooted, and I'm trying to haul those stones, close to that fire. I figured one thing - leave your clothes and shoes on as you haul in all the stones and you don't burn so bad. That's how you learn things. I had other sweat ceremonies that I went to, and I learned to leave my pants and shirt on to haul in all the stones."

Storytelling is another way of learning about traditional ways. For the Ojibwe and Dakota, stories were told only when there was snow on the ground. This was because certain stories and words are too powerful to be talked about at other times of the year. Once the harvest and hunting were over, and the wood was collected, people sat around, told stories and talked about their ways of life when they were growing up. The storytelling tradition is still integral to American Indians. Stories were for entertainment during the long winter months, and they also served to hand down values and beliefs. Grandparents are often looked to as storytellers. Bill states, "Grandmother could tell me stories and stories. She'd tell stories to make us kids laugh, and all other types of stories." Bill tells how, "She [my grandmother] taught me to respect older people and people that are handicapped. She told me these things in Indian. You have to respect the older people because they know much more than you do. Grandmother talked Indian fluently. She always told me in Indian to try to do the right thing."

Traditional winter storytelling was absent for those sent away to boarding schools. Many American Indians raised in boarding schools report that they learned about the traditional ways at home during the summertime. Margaret states, "The traditional ways were taught to us in the home in the summertime. We learned about food preparation, drying corn, picking berries, sewing and making quilts for the winter. These were the things you had to do for survival."

Childhood is not the only time to learn. Learning is a life-long process. Many people raised in the boarding schools returned to learn about the traditions as adults. Learning occurs throughout life, even for those not sent away to school. Nancy, a woman in her fifties raised on the reservation, explains, "I am still learning about the traditional ways."

American Indian elders are teachers for the younger generations. Dan states, "The old people were what you'd call a 'blueprint in life.' You never learn those things in school." Older American Indians have a distinct way of looking at and living in the world. Dan indicates:

The old Indians have a different type of thinking. They have an appreciation for what you've been given. They have a connection to the spirit. We live with things we don't know anything about. Elders carry some of that stuff from the generation before.

Older American Indians understand all life as connected to the spiritual and natural worlds. Dan further relates:

One thing I liked about the old people is that they had Indian thinking. For example, my mother and I were driving down the highway and saw a stand of dying birch trees. She asked me if I knew why they were dying. I probably would have explained it as pollution or some other technical explanation. She said the birch trees are dying because no one is using them anymore. They are sad because they no longer have a use. Now that I think about it, this is kind of like the elders - no one is using them anymore. That's what I call Indian thinking. They would relate themselves with the connection in nature.

Interestingly, today, learning is also passed up through the generations. Nancy is learning about the drum from her son. She relates, "My son is teaching me and his dad because he belongs to a drum group and because of the obligation that goes with keeping a drum." Moreover, tribes are attempting creative ways of revitalizing the traditional way of life. In the Red Lake school, for example, they have instituted learning about Ojibwe language and culture as curriculum requirements. This is not only to help children learn the Ojibwe language and culture, but to also help transfer the knowledge to adults. Jeff reports, "We are hoping that by teaching the children the language and some of the traditions in our schools, that they can bring that information back into their homes and teach their parents."

Finally, the younger generations learn from, and teach each other. According to Nancy, when young children start getting into trouble, ".some of the older kids, such as those who belong to a drum, will take them under their wing. The younger people don't just learn for the elders, they learn from everyone."

Knowing the native language is central to the traditional way of life. Nancy relates, "I can't stress enough the importance of language. If you can't think in your language you lose some of the values and beliefs." Certain things can only be expressed and understood in the native languages. Deb reports, "The language was used in our house. I think everything I teach today came from elders who don't speak English."

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