Day 14: Retaining Indigenous Culture

{DISCLAIMER: These reflections are solely my reflections from my journey as a Potawatomi woman. They do not reflect the journey or stories of every indigenous person, and it should not be assumed that every indigenous person has the same experiences. Thank you for joining me here. May we grow toward unity together.}

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One day, after being invited to a “Tigerlily” themed birthday party for a neighbor, I went into the kitchen to do the dishes (because that’s what I do when I’m stressed). I stood there scrubbing and washing, the hot water baptizing my hands with soap suds. The longer I thought about the birthday party hosted by our really kind neighbors, the more upset I became. I pictured myself, in my adult body, seeing children running around a yard with war paint on their faces, hollering “like Indians do.” I pictured myself breaking down in front of my neighbors and running out of the yard. I pictured my two little boys saying, “We are Native American!” and the other children either not believing them or laughing at their truth.

My five year old son one day told me that he doesn’t want to tell people he’s Potawatomi, because he’s afraid they won’t like him. Maybe he’s been listening to my stories and my heart and he’s projecting what I’m struggling with onto himself, but the reality hit me like a ton of bricks: if I raise my boys to be indigenous, they will have a hard life. So standing there at the sink, doing our dishes, it became more and more clear that the path I lead them on will be a difficult one. What is so beautiful will not be understood by the outside world, and what is valued by us won’t be valued by others. Tigerlily themed parties will just be the tip of a huge iceberg filled with misconceptions and stereotypes about our culture.

And yet.

I do not give up hope on those beautiful spaces in which we get to retain our culture, and in doing so become better listeners of other cultures. Hopefully, it teaches us to be better global citizens, to expand our thinking, to love others better every day. To the people around me who ask and listen and work to make the world a better place: thank you. We do this work together.

My boys will learn our Potawatomi language with me as best we can, we will go to powwows and learn our tribe’s stories. We’ll keep pushing forward and we’ll educate others along the way, because that is how we retain our own culture. At church when they hear creation stories from the Bible, we’ll think of our own creation stories, of Turtle Island created on a turtle’s back, and when we hear about the prophets, we’ll think of our own prophets along the way.

That is how we teach the world that we are still alive today, still thriving.

And with every language lesson, with every story told of our ways, with every dig into learning who are ancestors are, with every hike into the woods and every quiet afternoon on the lake or in the garden, we retain something for ourselves.

We quiet our hearts and remember that we belong to this land, and it has things to teach us. We remember who we are called to be.

And that voice is louder and clearer than anything else.

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