Saturday, January 08, 2005

Natives in Place

I got a lasting lesson from a particularly feisty Julian Lang one day at the Seventh Generation Fund office. Julian is a Karuk scholar, writer, artist, activist, musician, performer and participant in ceremony, with an office at Humboldt State University for his various activities, including the Institute for Native Knowledge.

I've gotten to know him better since, but on this day I was still learning about him. He was complaining that I hadn't interviewed him yet for the Native Performance Fund grant proposal I was working on for Seventh Gen and the Humboldt Area Foundation, and when I asked him when I could do so, he said he didn't have the time. So I wound up asking him a couple of questions and following him around the office with a tape recorder. In the years since then I've quoted his statements that day so often he must be sick of them, but for me they remain touchstones of eloquence and relevance.

The goal of funding for Native cultural projects, he said, shouldn' t be to finance more "feathers and beads, but get to the crux of life. Let's work towards creating of a consciousness in our people about Native traditional identity--that we are part of a place. This is the original purpose of our languages and stories. They tell you, 'Now I am Wiyot, I am a Humboldt Bay person.' Or I am an Eel River person, a Mad River person. I am a person from this village site, I am a person from this place. I am an ocean person, a bay person, a mountain person. Really connect people with their environment."

"We must find ways to enable ourselves to share our cultural understanding about the land we live in. To create an authentic, mythic experience for everyone, that is indigenous to this place. A shared experience, so we are able to talk about it, to come to a mutual understanding about the sacredness of the land, which is contrary to most of what American society tells us." The goal should be "not only an intellectual understanding, but a cultural understanding, which is different."

In Native culture, identity and environment are connected at the core. The tribes of this region developed within a specific natural context, as "river people" or "ocean people," for example. The diversity of landscapes and conditions (like all the micro-climates that exist so close to each other) probably defined the diversity of indigenous peoples, for this region is characterized by a number of small tribes living close to each other, sharing aspects of their cultures and stories, but remaining distinct.

Their dances and stories referred to animals and plants around them, and their creation myths and other stories include prominent features of the local landscape.

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