At this point – nearly one and a half centuries after the Colville Reservation was formed and much longer after the first missionaries came to the Pacific Northwest to begin their fight against tribal culture – the impacts of cultural oppression are omnipresent.
Sad statistics, such as those related to suicide, diabetes and drug and alcohol abuse, come off as nearly repetitious for me as a journalist who has worked at the Tribal Tribune for nearly 8 years, covering such sad stats again, again and again.
I get frustrated reading outside journalists who share those well-used stats to define the communities of the reservation, often in articles unrelated to the causes or efforts to heal.
I become frustrated on how to keep fresh stories about the tribes’ efforts that use those same statistics for the betterment of the tribal membership.
There is so much more here than statistics: Any group of people is so much more than statistics.
Recently, I was in a conversation with a couple tribal members who are looking to take a grassroots fight against the loss of tribal identity. The conversation was frustrating, but refreshing. There were no statistic shared, rather a common understanding that tribal identity has been attacked.
I want to help. I want to see the group succeed, but their effort doesn’t fit in the linear, consequential format of newspaper journalism. Their fight is so much larger than that, I thought.
Then I thought about that, as a white resident of the Colville Reservation and as a non-tribal employee of the Colville Tribes, “Is the fight for tribal identity only ‘their fight?’”
Wouldn't we all be better for it?
In our discussion, one of the group members made a note about how we define leaders on the reservation. In my position, I think first of the Colville Business Council, tribal administration and culturally leaders.
That group member, who asked to remain anonymous, stopped me. He asked, how about the guy running from the cops, flying down the highway at 90 MPH? He's leading, right? He's a warrior to those kids who look at his actions and say, "Wow."
As they spoke, they expressed how the effect of the oppression, spanning generations, seems ingrained, and I wondered perhaps if the oppression itself is addicting.
In my daily work, I see tribal programs working to battle that oppression. For example, the Colville Tribal Language Preservation Program works to reestablish the three tribal languages of the Colville Reservation that were nearly oppressed to extinction; countless Health and Human Service Programs directly combat addiction, generational trauma and other inflictions; often through the CBC's Management and Budget Committee thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of dollars are spent to uplift cultural activities. CBC's Natural Resource Committee works to preserve hunting, fishing and gathering opportunities. Public Safety Programs, such as the Colville Tribal Healing to Wellness Court, are on the front lines.
In truth, perhaps all tribal programs work toward this goal of resisting oppression, celebrating cultural identity and expressing sovereignty.
Outside of the tribal government structure, you see the same resistance.
I think of a post I read on Huffington Post a few years ago.
Just before Thanksgiving in 2015, Gabriela Maya Bernadett wrote, “Yet despite every attempt by mainstream society to render us invisible, Native Americans are very thankful. We are thankful for our reservations, thankful for our cultures and languages that still persist despite systemic attempts to eradicate them, thankful for our kinship ties, thankful even for our struggles. Most importantly, we are thankful for our existence.
After more than 500 hundred years of colonization, Native Americans are still here and always will be.”
That blog was titled, “Being Native American Is a Political Act.”
I thought of that as well in the conversation about the grassroots effort, which ran so much deeper than my simple knowledge. Their concerns were so much more nuanced than I could imagine.
This is what I can report on their activities to date:
A group of tribal members is looking to bring others back to a shared cultural identity, and they’re looking to do so first through technology.
A Colville Reservation-based grassroots group has formed on Facebook as Sunrise Songs, and they define themselves on their group page as “a group of Colville Tribal members gathering to create, share and sing tribal language songs.”
“As native people, we use songs a lot in prayers and healing,” said group administrator Pete Palmer, a Colville tribal member. “We want to empower people and give them a place, have teachings that help them feel comfortable, share what is in their hearts. Eventually, we want to write our own songs with the help of the [Colville Tribal] Language Program and elders to maybe glorify a horse racer or a new mother. Maybe we will write a lullaby to sing at night to your children. We want to start creating these songs for these people to sing, to empower them, to uplift their hearts and give them a sense of being.”
Though the group is closed, a Facebook designation that means the content is unavailable to view except by members who are approved by the moderators, the moderators state they are open to all participants, tribal members and respectful non-tribal members alike.
“We are trying to put a group of people together with experienced singers to get these ideas going,” said Palmer. “We would like to have it turn into more gathering and sharing our knowledge. We want to create a comfortable place where anyone can come and learn, not be afraid of being scolded, not have someone jump at you and say, ‘You did that wrong.’ We want to feed off each other and share out knowledge, share our ideas.”
The group, which numbers 21 as of the time of this publication, is looking for more participants.
One goal is to gather 40 singers who can join together each Monday, welcoming tribal employees into the building together with song and prayers to start the week.
If you’re even the slightest bit interested, check them out, share what you can or just see the conversation and learn.