What do I teach my children? How do I feed
my family? Why do I live in an abusive environment? What can I do
to make the lives of my children better? Native American women on
most reservations ask these questions daily. A Native American woman
spanning two cultures is comparable to a tightrope walker balancing
forty feet over a bottomless pit of seething, boiling lava. She bridges
the gap between two diverse cultures, one traditional the other white.
Pressured to instill Judeo-Christian ethics in her young and pressured
to keep cultural traditions alive. In the pre-reservation era, men
and women had definite roles that kept family units and tribal units
functioning. Today one tribe dealing with this conundrum is the Confederated
Salish and Kootanai Tribes of the Flathead Nation.Salish are a plains-plateau
tribe; they're considered hunter-gatherers but also had a permanent
camp they used year round. They are a gentle non-warring community
who fought if threatened, but also quickly accepted strangers for
the outside experiences. The Salish are a matriarchal society, many
of their traditions closely following the Iroquois with whom they
freely traded. They raised crops, cultivated fruit trees and grew
bitterroot, the staple ingredient of their foodstuff. Their culture
was rich with a unique language, customs and traditions.
Men hunted and women did the rest; men
governed, women appointed members of the tribal council. Woman gathered
tubers, berries, and cultivated tobacco, corn, and sweet potatoes.
They scraped and tanned hides for clothing and shelter, their vibrant
beadwork also told stories of hunts or the beauty of nature which
decorated their regalia and tepees. To sustain the tribe, they dried
and smoked meat and fish caught by hunters. Women and children gathered
wood for cooking fires and warmth. They utilized animal bladders to
carry water for cooking and drinking, and tended to the needs of their
children and elders assuring the tribe joys of their young and the
wisdom of the elders. When moving camps was needed, women tore down
the heavy animal skin coverings of their lodges and used some of the
poles to make a travois to carry their few belongings.
But being a Native American woman was
not an easy life; there were many restrictions during menstruation
and pregnancy. During menstruation, she was kept apart from men lest
she sap strength needed for the hunt. A young woman reaching the age
of menstruation went through a rite of passage. During her first menses,
she was given to an elder woman of the tribe, usually a grandmother
or other close relative. She was forbidden to speak to anyone during
this time. She rose before dawn to bathe in a possibly frozen river
or lake. She prepared food for her family, but could not eat until
all had eaten, because she only accepted food given by an elder. She
did the bidding of any elder with no question. Next she was sent to
the mountains to fast and find her Spirit Guide. Her Spirit Guide
would then give her true name, a name not known to anyone but her.
Once she passed these tests, she was required to sleep behind her
parents far from the door to the teepee so no man could know her before
marriage. Virginity was desired but as with all young, sometimes ignored.
Marriage was simple; a man would bring
buffalo robes and horses as gifts for her parents. If this were acceptable
to everyone, he would build a teepee close to her family clan, and
they would move in together. If the warrior wasn't a good provider
or was abusive, she would simply place his possessions outside the
teepee and then he left. She simply moved back with her parents until
someone else wanted her, a much simpler solution than hiring a lawyer
and spending money that most do not have.
During pregnancy, she wasn't allowed to
gaze upon a horse because she might steal its spirit. When moving
camp during hunts, she walked because of the Spirit of the horse.
In the Salish tradition, to keep her child from wandering, she was
forbidden to gaze out the tent flap at the sky. Before giving birth,
her husband built a teepee away from camp; her mother, grandmother
and aunts tended her. They scooped out a depression in the earth and
lined it with fragrant moss and soft grass. She squatted holding the
ridgepole or her mothers' hand while giving birth, then stayed in
her own teepee apart from everyone until she healed. Food was brought
to her so she could bond with her child. She used a cradleboard decorated
with beadwork lovingly done by elders and lined with moss and lichen.
The tribe encouraged babies to look around to observe tribal life;
they were bundled securely for safety and to teach them stillness.
Children were pampered, allowed to do
as they wished, the tribe helping to raise each child. Through observation,
they learned to work for the good of the whole tribe. In play, they
learned skills of adults and individual roles each played in society.
No individual was better than the rest; men and women were equal in
Until White man entered their lands and
intruded upon their lives, this simple life sustained the Salish for
many generations. The Indian's sent for Jesuit priests after hearing
Bible stories told by Iroquois Warriors. Several parties sent to St.
Louis to bring back a priest never made it, only one party getting
through. In 1837 Father Peter DeSmet came to the camping place and
during a period of 15 days converted 1800 Indians to the Roman Catholic
religion. Several missions were built on Indian lands; one beautiful
example is the St. Ignatius Mission in St. Ignatius, Montana. Indian
children were sent to boarding schools to learn to clean houses and
glean fields. Warriors were put to work building churches and running
the gristmill, women worked for army officer's wives as washerwomen.
The lives of these people were forever changed by the loss of lands
to gold seekers who followed the priests. Stevensville, Montana was
the first white settlement built on the bones of dead Salish and sustained
by Salish gardens and orchards.
When the Indians were forced onto reservation
lands, all weapons possessed by Warriors were confiscated. No longer
able to hunt for game, most of the Warriors lost their identity. They
no longer had a contribution to offer; they could no longer feed their
families, and they were forced to become farmers, a totally alien
occupation, and contrary to their traditions and beliefs. Whole families
died of starvation because they were given rotten meat and unfamiliar
flour to eat. In Judeo-Christian cultures, a hunter-gathering society
was a society of savages. The delicate balance that had for ages delineated
men and women was torn apart and trod upon.
Men no longer had a purpose, farming was
alien to them and was considered the work of women and old men with
too aged to hunt. When the tribe was introduced to liquor, drink became
for many the drug of choice. Liquor dulled pain and memories of a
life lost forever. The Salish, once a proud nation, were considered
less than human; they were treated like dogs in the gutter; women
were considered shiftless and lazy, children were considered "nits
of lice," unteachable, and throwaways. Strong warriors, reduced
to comic relief, were mocked by Whites and pointed at as being lazy,
dirty and unable to hold their liquor. Many were kicked, beaten, and
sometimes murdered if found in gutters, Devious Whites through gambling
and drink stole Salish lands. Non-Indians own 76% of reservation lands,
but grumbling continues today to disband reservation land to give
control to the state and White ranchers. With no land or means to
sustain themselves, many men started to abuse their wives and children,
a practice that still occurs frequently. For a man on the reservation
employment is at best sketchy. There are few job opportunities and
the white population doesn't employ Indian men or women except in
menial jobs. The majority of the white community looks upon the Salish
people with distrust.
Studies show that 50% of the husbands
and fathers are abusing their wives and/or their children on the reservations.
Successful tribal men work in mills or for the tribe and fight for
an education for themselves and their children. They teach their children
how to hunt and fish, and they instill a reverence for nature and
the land. They take time to teach their children pride, pride in their
accomplishments and pride in their traditions. They look to the past
so they may see the future and teach their children the same. They
know change is slow but they also realize that all change isn't necessarily
good. They keep abreast of national events because what effects us
nationally will eventually effect us locally. They fight public opinion
that reservations are "bad places," and look upon them as
their birthright. Levi's, plaid shirts and cowboy boots are the normal
wear but most men also have buckskin, beautifully beaded moccasins
and feathers for ceremonies. They try and teach their children that
money isn't everything, family is most important and pride in their
culture is what is important.
Women are not blameless, 40% of women
abuse their children because they foresee no future and this is the
only life they've known. Today, Salish women no longer tan hides;
she sews, knits and crochets to keep her family in clothing. She shops
at Safeway or Wal-Mart, she either does her laundry in a Laundromat
or at home in her washer and dryer. Taboos are different; she doesn't
go to the mountain to receive her sacred name, she is named on paper
when she is born. Most reservation women and men hold low paying jobs,
if they are lucky they cut wood or become maids at a local motel.
The white community tries to prove that reservations don't work and
use the excuse that most tribal people are on Welfare. Education for
Indian youth is a problem for the community as a whole.
Reservation schools have all white teachers
who teach the majority of all white classrooms. The dropout rate for
Indian children on reservations hovers near 80%. The Tribe is trying
to get Native Language and traditions taught in the public schools.
They hold classes constantly to keep alive the rich traditions and
proud cultures they almost lost through years of oppression. The tribal
council is working hard to change the image of what people perceive
the typical Indian to be. They realize the key to the future is their
youth. The reservation has its own Community College, the Salish and
Kootanai College. A young person can major in business Administration,
a RN Nursing Program, Accounting, Forestry, Native American Heritage
and other courses. There are only a few computer classes because computers
haven't infiltrated their society as much as they do here. Young women
are encouraged to enter nursing professions or become Social Workers
because traditionally women in the tribe were the healers, the Shaman.
Successful tribal women have learned to combine the two cultures;
they are the ones learning to teeter on the tightrope between the
two cultures. They emphasis the great need for education yet, they
also instill a love for the old ways. Their children belong to either
boy scouts or girl scouts or drum groups and dance groups. They have
learned to compose rich essays and relate tribal folklore. They live
in modern homes but may keep a teepee erected in the backyard to remind
them of the past. They furnish their homes with sofas and chairs but
on their walls are reminders of hunts, dream catchers, and on their
tables sit pottery they themselves possibly made. They may wear Calvin
Klein but almost every woman has dance shawls or buckskin regalia.
They drive cars but also take pleasure in riding horses into the mountains
to feel the wind against their skin.
Technology is far behind what we would
consider normal, yet they are trying to enter the technical age by
having an electronic systems business owned by the tribe that makes
computer components for NASA and the military. Tribesmen make these
components without knowing the function of the product. This business
only employs sixty or seventy people from a population of 6000. Most
of the white-collar workers come from off the reservation because
there is little supervisory training available and the business classes
only graduate one or two each year. Most educated Indians work in
large cities rather than taking their expertise back to the reservation.
They make far more money away from the reservation then they can on
it. Most of the young enjoy the bustle of the city with its many advantages
then on the reservation where a feeling of helplessness prevails.
The Salish Tribe is considered a role
model for Tribal Governments; they have a yearly budget of over $50,000,000.
Most of the money is used to buy back tribal lands and care for families.
The tribal council doesn't want a totally Indian owned society, it
wants lands for their people. Caring for the elders is a part of our
culture and to do an adequate job land for housing is essential, nursing
homes for elders show respect for culture and traditions. For the
first time in Salish history, two women sit on the Tribal Council
elected by those living on the reservation, one an elder who lived
through the boarding school experience, the other, a young single
mother trying to raise her children to be honest, hard-working members
of tribal society.
The Tribe is the largest employer on the
reservation and people hired are those who completed high school.
They don't want to attract big business because of pollution to the
reservation, but they are aware without big business, their economy
becomes stagnant. The Tribe owns and manages the largest buffalo herd
and wildlife preserve in the United States outside Yellowstone National
Park. The people take pride in their herds of buffalo, antelope, elk,
moose and eagles nesting in trees older than this country. Young natives
manage the park with elders overseeing the work. Just as in the past,
young learning from their elders.
It is not the perfect society and may
never again be a perfect society, but it is one that for many, works,
and change is slow coming. The questions asked in the beginning might
never find answers but my people are trying to adapt to a world they
never wanted. The brightest young men are being sent to Universities
to get degrees in Law to help fight for tribal rights through the
Federal Court system. The hunts of the past are finished, never to
rise again except when they cull the buffalo herds to feed the elders
through the winter.
For two cultures to coexist together,
both the Native Americans and the white society must work for a common
goal. Both sides have to see the positive in each culture and take
from it what is important. The Native Americans have to relinquish
their memories of the wrongs done to them as a people and the whites
have to realize that as a culture, the Indians flourished and thrived
long before they set foot upon this land. The whites have to learn
to respect our culture and not dismiss the traditions as savage and
primitive. They must both learn to work together for the common good,
not just what one segment sees as good.
Alcoholism and drug addiction are rampant
problems on the reservation as in most societies, with abuse their
second cousin but traditions sustained for centuries are returning,
and pride is swelling like tides against rocks. Someday the Warriors
cries may again be heard with pride, but for now I can say with my
head held high, I am Salish and I am proud.