As October transitions into November and many of our young people prepare to honor the Thanksgiving holiday, we can avoid hurtful and false tropes of “friendly Natives” and “gentle Pilgrims” enjoying a tasty cooperative dinner while we give thanks for our blessings. Instead, we can follow the model of organizations and congregations who partner with Native voices and celebrate November as Native American Heritage Month. We can support our young people in seeking to understand more helpful versions of truth with learning-based stories and first-person perspectives that respect both the historical and contemporary realities of Indigenous Americans. Particularly in November, we can see Native cultural values that enrich and empower the lives of our children and youth.
Jess McPherson spent a number of years teaching a youth culture program at Native American LifeLines of Baltimore. This partnership with students and community members allowed Jess to center common contemporary Indigenous values: the importance of speaking up for and seeking to protect and preserve your family legacy, building strong and interdependent relationships with community members, practicing sacred truth telling, and delighting in history and culture through art, dance, clothing, food, spirituality, and other ways that do not harm or denigrate another culture. I asked Jess what learning non-Natives might glean from the wisdom of her work with First Nations young people.
Jess said, "It is unfair to categorize the spiritual beliefs of 574 federally recognized tribes, 63 state recognized tribes, hundreds of unrecognized tribes, as well as their ancestors and descendants, without recognizing the vast array of different and complex traditional beliefs and practices. It is important to note that colonization and genocide have a dramatic impact on our ability to pass on this knowledge and maintain these traditional ways of being. Acknowledging this, we can begin to consider a number of core concepts common to a number of tribes, nations, or groups, or at least commonly observed when in community with one another that are safe to explore.
“Indigenous people, the original people, the people, share diverse creation stories telling the stories of how we came to be, how we received our teachings and medicines, and informing the ways we understand our place in the world. Orienting ourselves to the world means for many of us acknowledging and understanding the relationships of reciprocity and balance, understanding the gifts given to us and the responsibilities required of us in the world for all life to prosper. For many of us, the world includes spirits alive in all things and those unseen, so it is important for us to be ‘good relatives’ to life around us. Among those spirits, some tribes designate a ‘great’ or more powerful spirit, sometimes referred to as the creator. Many tribes understand distinctions between this world and the spirit world. For many, beginning from a place of gratitude is essential. We may give thanks in many ways and hold many things sacred, so many actions are a form of prayer. It may be the time and care we take to tie our hair in the morning, it may be in our dances, in the items of clothing we wear, it may be in the way we greet one another, or share food, make art, sing songs, tell stories, care for one another, it may be in the way we hunt, fish, gather, or plant, in the way we build our homes and in the way we dance. However they take shape, it’s important to know that our spiritual practices carry the knowledge and original teachings on how to live in a good way as a part of the place we’re from."
As youth educators, we can use teaching tools such as cultural awareness and history months to begin selecting storybooks, artwork, and videos, or invite special guests that give us a first-person perspective from a cultural background different from our own—though it’s important we do not stop doing these things when cultural awareness and history months end. During these months, children and families are particularly receptive, materials actually created or curated by members of the named culture or ethnicity will be easily available, and affordable community events are more likely in accessible distance. This November, I pray you and your young people can learn from the wisdom of America’s first neighbors.
Jess McPherson (Susquehanna/Shawnee/Pennsylvania German) is an artist, educator, cultural preservation advocate, and social impact strategist working at the intersection of culture and wellness. She currently serves the east coast Native community as executive leadership at Native American LifeLines (Baltimore, MD), through Circle Legacy Center (Lancaster, PA), and by teaching traditional crafts and skills.