ESSENTIAL UNDERSTANDING 4: CULTURAL CONTINUITY
The ideologies of Native traditional beliefs and spirituality persist into modern day life as tribal cultures, traditions, and languages are still practiced by many American Indian people and are incorporated into how tribes govern and manage their affairs. Additionally, each tribe has its own oral histories, which are as valid as written histories. These histories pre-date the “discovery” of North America.
American Indian languages, cultures, and traditions are alive and well throughout Indian country. Indigenous languages are still spoken, sacred songs are still sung, and rituals are still performed. It is not important for educators to understand all of the complexities of modern day contemporary American Indian cultures, however, educators should be aware of their existence. They should also understand the ways cultures might influence much of the thinking and practice of American Indians today.
These histories and traditions may be private, to be used and understood only by members of that particular tribe. Educators should be aware of this issue when asking students about their histories, ceremonies and stories. Certain tribes do not discuss deceased relatives.
Educators should also be consistent with policies surrounding “religious/spiritual activities” and ensure that Native traditions and spirituality are treated with the same respect as other religious traditions and spirituality.
Each tribe has a history as valid as any other belief that can be traced to the beginning of time. Many tribal histories place their people in their current traditional lands. For example, educators should respect these beliefs when teaching about “the history of mankind,” particularly regarding the Bering Strait Theory.
Many tribal histories will be told only orally as they have been told and passed down through generations. Some tribes may only tell certain stories during certain times of the year, and this knowledge should be respected in classrooms.
Elders and children are accorded special respect in many tribes. Elders are recognized as the keepers of cherished cultural knowledge, and are honored for the sacrifices they made for the welfare of future generations. Children and youth are understood to be the future leaders who will ensure the continuation of the tribe and its traditions. Extended family, kinship and clan ties are also extremely important in many tribal communities.
Understand that certain objects, such as feathers, beadwork, artwork, medicine bags, etc., may be sacred, and should not be touched. Clothing should be referred to as regalia, not costumes.
Do not take photographs without permission.
In meeting with tribes, listen and observe more than you speak. Learn to be comfortable with silences, or long pauses in conversation. In tribal communities, any interruption is considered highly disrespectful, and may undermine your credibility. Lengthy monologues are not uncommon. Do not check your watch when tribal members are speaking.
The Southern Ute Indian and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes have Annual Bear Dances and Sundances, powwows, fairs and other celebratory activities. The Denver March Powwow celebrating the heritage of American Indians is one of the largest events of its kind in the country. The Powwow features more than 1,600 dancers from close to 100 tribes from 38 states and Canadian provinces. The three-day event in the Denver Coliseum is packed with singing, dancing, storytelling, food, art and more.