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A NATIVE VOICE: Education: The rites of passage

Editor's note: This is a monthly Pioneer column focusing on Native American issues and topics. Recently, a dialogue started in Bemidji titled "Truth and Reconciliation," which brings the community together to discuss ways to help all communities in Bemidji better understand one another.

Within Indigenous cultures, rites of passage are used to keep individuals connected to their communities, traditions and beliefs.

Birth is the first physical passage one will encounter where typically there is an acknowledgement of the baby, the mother, the father and the family. Depending on what time era you live and who delivers the baby, there is always an announcement by a respected person or relative. The person who introduces the new baby does so because the baby is voiceless; they are a person who cannot talk, although they do see what is happening the baby does not yet understand. In a broader sense, it is a tradition among most indigenous families to gift the baby and wish blessings of good health and a long life.

Adolescence is another rite of passage indigenous peoples take in reaching the road to wisdom. It is a time where young girls become women and young boys become men. Each indigenous nation has its own way of teaching about this rite and most will attest to the power of recreation and the responsibility we have to live in healthy environments beginning with our minds, spirit and bodies.

Adolescents are instructed to be in tune with increasing helpfulness and decreasing harmfulness. At one time, our environments were bountiful and most of teachings reflected the natural world. Now, we must develop the young minds of our children philosophically to make up for our lack of access to natural resources. This means we need to spend more time speaking with them and sharing the way our ancestors thought and how they responded to difficult situations.

The real challenge here is our competition with the digital world, a world that does not have a name in any Indigenous language that I am aware of.

Among the diverse nations of indigenous people you will find different periods and/or stages of life that signal the coming of age that marks adulthood. Naturally, many adolescents are intuitively ready to accept more adult responsibilities usually this stage is met with Indigenous intentions to remember values, practice good works, and integrate spirituality with even the most mundane day-to-day activities. Our young adults need to be skilled, efficient, energetic, earnest, and learned in whatever profession one has; to conscientiously protect one's income and family means of support; to have virtuous, trustworthy, and faithful friends and spiritual aspirations; to be content and to live within one's means. This rite of passage is very critical because young people bring with them the teachings, experiences and understanding of self that they learned as adolescents. They begin to see the different ways that others live and believe; and when instructed with strong, core values our young adults begin their own foundations with secure footings.

One goal of indigenous elders is to live to an old age; an age that encompasses life's works and rewards and to have the ability to pass down the knowledge of the generation before. It was not so unusual in isolated Pueblos and communities for elders to reach the ages somewhere between 96 and 102; I was told by this point in life you are ready to "walk on" and greet the generation before you because you have experienced what life had intended for you. Elders have little or no fear of the afterlife because it is the beginning of another type of awareness. It is a time to put the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental self to rest; the afterlife is seen as a gift and the final rite of passage.

On May 8, BSU held its commencement ceremony for graduating students. For many of our students, this too represents a rite of passage; a time where growth and change is inevitable and where possibilities are endless. It is so humbling to see young adults destined to do life's work. I have witnessed some of my students who find wisdom in the most ordinary matters of everyday life. It is always a great moment to see when students not only demonstrate that they have listened but that they have also internalized what they learned.

In a western sense, many of our students will go on to marry and start families. thus the rites of passage continue and splinter off in many directions. With life's rites of passages, we become more centered, balanced, straightforward, calm, and clear; we learn to stand on our own, needing nothing to lean on. We learn to stand up for ourselves and loved ones, our beliefs, and stand behind our words and deeds. In cultures around the world, we human beings will find that we have more similarities than differences and that it is our core values that make us who we are.

As I have done in previous columns, I asked some others to speak about what education and learning mean to them. Here's another of the responses.

"Hello my name is Daniel DeVault I am an enrolled member of the Leech Lake band of Ojibwe. My mother is from Inger. She is enrolled in the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe (Mississippi band) of Minnesota and has roots from Red lake. My mother has roots from one of the Lakota or Dakota bands, and is also a descendent of Scandinavian heritage. My father is from the Winnie Dam area and is enrolled in the White Earth reservation and lived on the Leech Lake reservation, he is half French, hence my last name. I have lived in other states—Colorado, Montana (on another reservation). But for most of my life, I have lived on Leech Lake reservation. I have worked in "Indian" gaming and "Indian" public health for my reservation. I have an AA (associate of arts degree) in Liberal Education and in Criminal Justice. At this time, I am pursuing a bachelor's degree in Native Studies at BSU. After that, I plan to pursue a bachelor's in the grade school teacher program as a dual degree student from BSU."

What is the earliest education that you remember?

"I can remember my mother teaching me "Ojibwa" by playing a game where she would say "Ojibwa" words. The game went like this she would signal my mouth saying the corresponding word in "Ojibwa" and so on with my nose, eyes and ears. I then learned my families' teachings from emerging into my culture as it emerged and developed my culture. I learned hard work, responsibility, respect, respect for the earth and its resources."

How has western education affected you?

"I had a very difficult time with western education. I was labeled at a very early age as having learning disabilities. In my own life I realized that I learned in different ways. I had dropped out of high school because it had become very boring for me. I attended Leech Lake Tribal College knowing I would never go to a state university college if it were not for tribal colleges. When I had completed my two-year program, I was finally able to identify with people who have different learning styles like me, after that, I learned very quickly."

As a person living in two worlds, what words of wisdom would you like to offer?

"I would recommend keeping your own identity and teachings. Gradually apply what you know to your everyday life with respect and remember who you are."

Did you know?

That Leech Lake, Pascua Yaqui and the Umatilla Nations piloted a federal program (2014-2015) aimed at developing tribal policies for prosecuting offenders who commit violent crimes against women? Recently, the Pascua Yaqui tried their first case against a non-Indian who lived in the Pueblo and who had committed a violent crime against a female tribal member. Due to technicalities, the outcome did not result in a prosecution but it did shed light on issues that affect most indigenous reservations. There is now Criminal and Civil Jurisdiction Analysis information to assist in implementing tribal law and governance. Assessments of the crimes will determine if a tribal nation should implement the Violence against Women Act or the Tribal Law and Order Act; it was noted that neither will expire during the process.

On May 3-7, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe held "Violence against Women Advocacy Training: Lessons Learned from the very first non-Indian Jury Trial in a Tribal Court under Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction."Lessons learned from that event "were that children have no voice as witnesses of domestic violence; nations must let potential defendants know that they can be prosecuted, remove the past stigma that nothing is going to happen to the victimizer, two prior domestic violence offenses will result in federal charges, advocates must support prosecutors and assure that plea agreements will work into the future. Thus, we have learned that we must respect that the solutions for most tribal nations needs to come from within and that self-determination is critical with enforcing and respecting law."