Historical Trauma and the Environment

NATIVE LANGUAGE PRESERVATION

I recently had an assignment in my speech class that required us to discuss an important aspect of culture and what it means to each of us. Topics from my peers included family ties, art, food, and other life experiences. I chose what I knew to be true about Native languages—how language is a gift and the basis of who we are, and that it needs our protection. I discussed how Indigenous tongues perpetuate place-based ways of knowing. And finally, I explored how the loss of these Native languages can affect individuals and communities. I believe wholeheartedly that outward actions like language perpetuate generational ties to an individual’s heritage.

I told three stories in the allotted time, but what really hits home for me is how these stories have affected me growing up and now as an adult with children of my own. My father is the one who introduced me to these stories. One story that was told to him by his grandfather while they greeted the sun together is the story of how Creator blessed meadowlark with a yellow shirt and black necklace. The blessing, in short, is a reward for always singing such a sweet song first thing every spring morning and summer day. Meadowlark brings good news and a good start to the day for all to hear. Creator bestowed upon the breast of the meadowlark, a yellow shirt and beautiful black necklace for all to see in gratitude for continuing this good deed. To preserve this story, my father wrote it in a book. I often think of how this may have been lost if he had not told it to me, and written it down as it was told to him. I would not have that connection to my great-grandfather. My children would not have that connection to their grandfather, as he died before they were born. They are enrolled in the Makah tribe of Washington, where there are no meadowlarks. So that place-based way of knowing of their maternal heritage would not be presented to them if I did not know it.

If we expand on this and apply it to collective tribal histories, suddenly it becomes all too apparent how “the lost generation” came to be. My father is a part of this boarding school generation, and yet even I still feel its repercussions. So many years of conflict, removal, termination, and now self-determination have convoluted what it means to be a “real Indian.” This is true for people like me who have a Certificate of Indian Blood (meaning I have the blood quantum to be an Indian according to the United States of America and the Department of the Interior), but no federally recognized reservation, tribal government, or even treaty lands to exercise these inherent rights. My tribe, the Little Shell Chippewa, are often referred to as the “Landless Indians.” If it wasn’t for my grandmother and her strong Pikuni ties, my education and healthcare would be affected. So you can imagine how the identity crisis may ensue for so many others who have grown up out of touch with Native communities.

A couple weeks ago, the University of Montana Law School was hosting “Indian Law Week.” The university is one of just a few to have a well-developed and respected Indian law program as well as an environmental law program of parallel stature. Both of these fields are complicated to say the least and based around mostly case law that requires substantial effort for those who wish to practice them. The talk given by Susan Harness that I attended, focused on historical trauma like the loss of oral traditions and entire Native languages, and their effects. This had me contemplating how historical trauma has affected knowing the environment in all of its minute details—every niche accompanied by a resilient respect for creation. Forgive me for being long-winded, but I feel this is the base of challenges tribal governments face. Some tribes are in such economic despair that concerning themselves with the environment may seem folly to an outsider. But acknowledging, and fiercely and accurately communicating these imperative social ties as ecological relationships is the foundation that needs to be laid and understood. But what do I know, right…

Celina Gray studies environmental science at Salish Kootenai College.

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