Mel Rising Dawn Cordeiro
Being Native in a modern world is difficult. Most Natives in the New England area live in urban areas, follow urban laws, have urban jobs and attend urban schools. Sure, there are reservation lands around here. There is the Wampanoag reservation in Fall River, Massachusetts, the Narragansett reservation in Rhode Island and the Penobscot reservation in Maine, among others. But what about the rest of us, those of us who are not “Rez Indians?”
I am Annishinabe. I am the odd person out. There are not many Annishinabe in this area. Growing up with very little knowledge of my culture was detrimental. I knew about the Massachuset and the Wampanoag, but I knew not a single person who shared my nation. In a way, I was made to feel like an outcast among Natives. Whether intentional or not, no matter who I associated with, there was always a gray cloud overhead of not fitting in. I sometimes felt like that scene in a movie or music video where the outside world is on fast forward and I, the main character, am just standing there, in the middle of a road, letting time pass.
The Annishinabe are First Nations Canadian. At some point in their history, they traveled down to the United States and integrated with the local Natives. There are many settlements along the US/Canada border, especially in Michigan, but here in New England, it is rare to find an Annishinabe.
It has been to my benefit to have other Natives of other nations as mentors; however, I could never truly be sure if what I was learning was “mine” or not. At the core of it, the basic teachings are the same: honor Creator, honor Mother Earth and walk softly upon her, honor your elders. It’s the finer teachings, the language, the traditions, the stories, that get lost.
Though, being an urban Native means that there is a lot more than just personal culture lost. Our ways of life, whether we like it or not, are almost entirely gone. There are few people who speak any tribal language fluently anymore. Our knowledge keepers lose more knowledge with every generation. We still have the ability to maintain a sense of community, be it intertribal or tribal, but the finer aspects of our lives are gone.
Medicine people have been traded in for doctors. Herbs and tinctures were replaced by modern medicine. Wetus, longhouses and teepees are now permanent housing structures. Hunting and gathering now involves finding your favorite products at the grocery store. English is now the language of the land and European government models are now standardized.
For someone like me, who longs to learn more about what it truly means to be Annishinabe, these are all bad things. It signifies that assimilation is real and even though I personally did not live through the persecution of the Natives as a people, or as a “political party,” the effects are felt generations later. I know that I would never have survived back then as I am now, time and integration has changed us all, but sometimes I wonder what my role would have been.
Walking in a modern world is not easy. I still maintain what I call “Native brain,” meaning that I approach some topics with confusion, simply because I don’t understand the ways of the non-Native thinker. I like to think that this is a part of me that reflects my heritage, my Ancestors, that somehow, the effects of colonization have not taken a complete hold of me.
In some ways, I am freer than my Elders. I am allowed to practice my spirituality, which has only been allowed by the government for the past 60 or so years. I am allowed to vote, to go to powwow, wear my regalia, dance my dances and sing my songs. I am not forced to forget who I am, though in many ways I am still struggling to figure that out. Yet I consider myself one of the lucky ones, because I still have the capability to express my heritage.
But, all of this, at what cost? The cost of our very existence. City Natives, you are not forgotten.