Native leaders revitalize tribal culture after generations of abuse
When Eric Isaac was caught speaking Anishinaabe while being forced to attend a Canadian boarding school, teachers punished him by striking his wrists with a rigid stick.
The language is sacred because it is a gift from the creator, given exclusively to the Anishinaabe people. Despite the punishment he received in the school he was forced to attend known as the “mush hole” — a nickname given by students who were forced to eat mushy oatmeal — he didn’t allow the forbidden language to be taken from him.
Serving as one of six culture and language teachers for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, his grandson Nathan Isaac is one of just a few Native Americans in Mount Pleasant who is able to speak Anishinaabe. Isaac is not entirely fluent in the spiritual version of the language, but as a specialist in traditional stories and language, he is part of a larger revitalization movement in the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribal Education Department.
Generations of Native youth across the country were forced into government-sanctioned boarding schools designed to sever the connection to their heritage. During the last 15 years, tribal leaders in Mount Pleasant developed a plan for culture and language staff members to help the community recover from deeply-rooted historical trauma and begin relearning their past.
“It’s not even two generations ago that all of this was inflicted. Families are still trying to recover,” Isaac said. “Those generations that were taken and put in the boarding schools, they never learned how to be compassionate or express love — that was all stripped away. When that generation came back home, they didn’t know how to raise children; there was no example of a parent for them. Even today, you still see people who are lost.”
According to a 2014 report compiled by the White House to find solutions to intergenerational and institutional problems that confront Native youth, more than 200 tribal nations have created their own education departments.
Isaac, Joe Sryette, Cecilia Stevens, Aaron Chivis, James Day and Matthew Sprague work directly with 150 students in classrooms at the tribal-funded Saginaw Chippewa Academy. Each specializes in an area of study. They also provide cultural support to about 50 students in the Sasiwaans Immersion School and 750 Native students in K-12 schools in Shepherd and Mt. Pleasant School Districts.
An outdoor teaching lodge serves as a space for cultural lessons and activities at the academy, one of the only lodges situated at a school in the state, Isaac said.
“All the culture and language comes from the world around us,” he said. “We built the lodge to go back to traditional roots. You look at the school system historically and how it affected tribal nations across the Great Lakes, that is where a lot of our language and traditional ways were taken away. To have the lodge behind our school, we can get back to reclaiming all of those songs and ceremonies that haven’t been practiced in a long time.”
This year, students in the academy participated in ceremonies like the spirit feast, honoring the spirits of deceased ancestors. In May, fifth and sixth-grade students will travel to Mystic Lake Camp in Northern Michigan to build lodges and perform traditional ceremonies.
“The hope is the kids that are coming up will have a strong sense of self and cultural identity but are also educated in how the modern world works,” said Melissa Montoya, director of tribal education, “Together, they will be able to get things done and make things better for the ones coming up after them.”
Discovering a lost identity
Incorporating Native languages and culture bolsters the identity and self-worth of Native youth, Isaac said. Boarding school teachers renamed many of their Native students — a procedure that symbolized Native children taking a new American identity and discarding their “savage pasts.”
It was illegal to practice Native American religions until 1978, when Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
Many families lost their Anishinaabe names and clans long ago, and have yet to rediscover them. A large part of the revitalization effort centers around each tribal member reclaiming their personal identity.
“We guide students and families to the door of culture,” Montoya said. “It’s uncomfortable and intimidating when you don’t know where to go or who to talk to, and there is a bit of shame involved in that too. It’s like, ‘I’m Anishinaabe and I should know,’ but if we look at our history, there is a reason for that and it is OK.”
There are seven clans, each with several subclans, that serve as a connection to families, the environment and the world. The traits of your family determines what clan you belong to.
Tribal communities cannot be as strong when families do not know their roles, Montoya said.
For example, those in the crane clan are leaders — often the chiefs of tribes and prominent role models. Turtle clan members are mediators — they settle arguments and bring peace, allow everyone to talk and be heard.
Montoya discovered her clan and Anishinaabe name just a few months ago. She had to wait 38 years to learn she belonged to the Nameh, or Sturgeon clan, keepers of cultural knowledge and educators.
“If you don’t know (your clan), you don’t know your purpose,” she said. “You don’t realize that until you get it. When you do it feels amazing. It explains everything you didn’t know about yourself and fills a missing void that a lot of people carry.”
Meanwhile, Montoya said an Anishinaabe name allows ancestors to find members and provide guidance along their life journey.
Her name is Waabiziikwe, or “Swan Woman.” Swans are said to look gentle and nice on the outside, but are very protective of their young, fitting for the education director.
Erik Rodriguez, interim public relations director, is still in the process of learning his clan and tribal name.
“As we have grown, so has the hunger for knowledge,” he said. “It used to be almost an embarrassment. You would feel guilty and wouldn’t want to be associated with it two or three decades ago. It’s something I have wanted to know for years now, but when the time is right I’ll be ecstatic to know that part of me.”
Revitalization is a two-pronged effort. While cultural leaders take roles to improve the community internally, others communicate with external organizations to develop relationships and make the tribe a traditional part of the Mount Pleasant and Central Michigan University communities.
Education in the community
City Manager Nancy Ridley said local government has a responsibility to support the tribe and work toward a mutual respect of their shared history.
Ridley said the entities work together in numerous ways, but highlighted the support of a twice yearly distribution of gaming profits from Soaring Eagle Casino. The first distribution of 2016 will be made in May.
In 2014, Mount Pleasant became one of many governments who chose to recognize the second Monday in October as “Indigenous People’s Day” instead of Columbus Day. Ridley said the more residents learn and recognize the sins of the past, the easier it will be to heal together.
“Instead of dwelling on the past and using it as a crutch, we’re learning and educating (others in the community) and presenting these issues,” Rodriguez said. “(It’s important) to communicate with external organizations — to develop those relationships outside the tribe.”
One of its biggest challenges is getting Native families to trust institutions and places of learning outside of the tribe, Montoya said. Some are reluctant to send their children to be educated off the reservation.
“Even if you weren’t in those four walls (of a boarding school), you were there if your grandmother was. It carries through your family,” Montoya said. “That is why we are working really hard to build our relationship with surrounding schools.”
According to a 2014 White House report, 22 percent of American Indians and Alaskan Natives ages 25 and older have not finished high school. Only 13 percent have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 29 percent of the total U.S. population.
This year, 337 Central Michigan University students identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native, up 52 from last year. The number has steadily increased each year since 2010, however the group only represents 1.72 percent of students on campus this year.
Montoya and Rodriguez are both CMU alumni. They said many leadership roles in the tribe are filled by members who have a degree.
Montoya earned her Masters Degree in Administration in 2015.
“My higher education has helped me learn how (to make change) instead of protesting — and we do (protest) — but to do it in a more organized way,” Montoya said. “There are petitions and systems and those initiatives have helped us do what our ancestors and elders have told us to do — fight for our rights — and how we are doing it in a more academic way. I feel like that is the difference you are seeing.”
CMU’s Native American Programs office helps educate the campus and serves as a liaison with tribal communities. The office organizes cultural events, maintains a Native American resource collection, helps recruit Native American students and provides support services once they are enrolled.
Wilson junior and Student Assistant in the Native American Programs office Hannah Bartol, graduated from a tribal school in her Hannahville Potawatomi Indian Community near Escanaba. She said her generation has come to the realization that their culture will die with elders if traditions are not passed on.
“(My tribal language) was never written down — it’s passed down orally,” Bartol said. “If all that is gone, who are we? I need to learn what it constitutes to be a Native American — learn my language and the ceremonies behind it. They practiced these traditions hundreds of years ago and we need to keep it going.”
Eric Isaac is 85 years old. Elder members of the tribe are the last chance to preserve their connection to the past. Soon he will also be a part of the tribe’s history.
Each year, Nathan Isaac takes a week off work to visit his grandfather and learn more of the Anishinaabe language.
“Some of the words have very deep connections, it is a spiritual language,” Isaac said. “We are all still practicing our ways our language is still living and being created. We are trying to get that message out (and allow people) to witness the celebrations that are still in existence.”