Deepening Our Awareness of Local Indigenous Cultures and History, Avoiding the “Ethnographic Present,” and Initiating Indigenous Connections Here and Now
In our language and visual imagery, it is important to avoid speaking or presenting Indigenous peoples as if they only existed in the past, or as if they continue to exist in ways that were true long ago. Whether considering a story, worksheet, video, or other educational materials, it is good practice to keep an eye and ear out for such representation.
As a rule, avoid depictions and activities related to generic “historical” “Indian” clothing, shelters, household goods, hunting and gathering methods, etc., unless you are presenting a history lesson and being specific to the people, place, and timeframe. Saying Native Americans/Indians or even a particular tribe “live close to nature” or “Native Americans used a talking stick” are examples of speaking in the present or past verb tense to overgeneralize inappropriately.
One practice many outdoor and nature connection programs have begun is to recognize the local Indigenous peoples whose ancestors have been among those to tend the lands and waters of that area. Mindfulness around concepts of “ownership” vs “caregiving” and “tending the place” might be helpful cultural considerations.
This online map is an excellent way to begin to explore the Indigenous connections where you are.
You can also begin to look into what the Indigenous language names are for places, land features, water, and various species such as plants, animals, trees local to where you are. Ecosia.org is a search engine that plants trees, and there are a number of online resources related to Indigenous languages you can explore on the internet.
One placename to start with could be to mention “Turtle Island” as an alternative name for “North America,” and share a local version of a story how Turtle Island came to be, if it applies where you are (not all indigenous cultures of North America share this name for the continent).
When looking to connect with local Indigenous people, consider deepening an existing connection - or reach out to a cultural center or other organization whose mission includes connecting with the general public. Inquire about the best first steps toward creating a long-term relationship with Indigenous mentors who have chosen to be point persons of intercultural connection.
One way to celebrate Native American Heritage Month is the 35-mile Walk and Learn Challenge presented by the American Indian College Fund. This is a fun and educational way to combine what you already do – exploring nature outdoors with children – while advocating for Native American communities. Registrants get access to weekly “Learn” segments that help deepen your knowledge of Native students, their culture, and their communities. You can join the Facebook Group and engage with fellow challenge members by sharing pictures and/or thoughts about where your walks have led you. Once you join the challenge, you can ask your community to donate in support of the American Indian College Fund.
Harvest Celebrations & Honoring the Ancestors
Coming together at the end of the growing season to celebrate the harvest is a common practice in many cultures around the world. In Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, this is linked to the West direction: a time to gather and celebrate. It is also a time to “catch one anothers’ stories,” a practice we feature in an ERAFANS webinar, related to the core routine called “Story of the Day” in Coyote’s Guide.
We now know that the familiar story of the “Pilgrims and Indians” coming together for such a celebration is historical fiction. Yet we can still find ways in integrity with our own heritage and the practices that emerge naturally from a relationship with our food sources, our local place, and our ancestors.
At this time of year, consider holding some form of Ancestor / Harvest Supper, Feast, or Celebration for the families of your students, or the wider community. Here are a few ideas from regenerative culture design mentors Honey Sweet Harmony:
Create a large basket or paper mache cornucopia / horn of plenty for your class/community. Invite each person to contribute one small item that symbolizes something for which they are feeling grateful from the past year. Then either in an extended time together, or over multiple circle times, take out 1 item at a time to return to that person, and invite those who wish to take a turn sharing what their item is and how it represents their gratitude. These shares can be about something very specific or something very broad, whatever comes from the heart.
Invite families to send in photos or other items that remind them of those who have gone before, and create an artistic Honoring Our Ancestors display in the (indoor or outdoor) classroom space. Fabric, shells, sticks, leaves, nuts, bones, feathers, and anything else the participants gather with consent from and gratitude to nature can add to the decorations. Candles can be a beautiful addition if age-appropriate. Make sure the personal items are name-labeled and appropriate to have exposed to the hazards of weather and handling.
Hold a community/class Ancestor Feast in which food from the participants’ ancestral heritage, or food loved by someone dear who has died, is shared with everyone, and an Ancestor plate is given a dollop of each dish. Create an Ancestor Chair decorated with special items from nature, and a Storytellers Chair for anyone who wishes to sit and tell a story about the food and ancestor before passing it around for those who'd like to sample. It's important to ask that the recipe for each dish be written up and provided, to allow for any dietary restrictions. Songs, music and dancing also add to the whole experience.
Coming together to weave community connection in gratitude, food and story sharing is a beautiful practice. As with the familiar but imaginary story of “The First Thanksgiving,” harvest and ancestor celebrations can have profound effects, especially for a community that might feel fragmented in some ways.
This post is part two of three in a series, "Thanksgiving & Native American Heritage Month as Invitations”. ERAFANS staff has taken great care and sensitivity compiling this blog post in a way that honors Indigenous peoples and helps others do the same. If you have questions please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org