Letters + Opinion » Original Voices

Our Families



Family above all else. It's a statement with a profound ring to it. When your family is healthy, you are too. When your family is hurting, you are too. I was asked to share my thoughts on what's happening among this area's Native American people and cultures. What I can say is everything that happens in Native life revolves around The Family. We are not different from any other culture in this respect.

What is different is the complexity and the history of what is occurring and what has occurred among our Native families. In November of last year, I took part in a Veteran's Day event at the Yurok Tribe's Visitor Center in Klamath. I was able to hear the stories shared by family members of Yurok men who died on behalf of the United States of America in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. I know every Tribe and Native culture in this area has many veterans among it. At this gathering I was struck by the number of families that brought small children. I was once a child who attended all Native veterans' reunions.

I wanted to start my column by first sharing what Native people have sacrificed and given for the United States of America through participation in the military. Our Families have borne the social and cultural cost of this unique sacrifice for generations. We just don't often talk or write about it. The usual conversation about Native Americans starts with what was taken from us by the U.S. government and the first illegal immigrants (sorry, I meant "settlers"). It's true a lot was taken. It's also true a lot is still being taken. But I want to share what's being done by our people in order to get back to that healthy place of being, that place of connectedness and balance within The Family.

I recently sat among a group of young people at a local Native language conference held at Humboldt State University. As they explained their efforts to learn their Native languages, they spoke in the context of what's happened to their people in the last 160 years. When you are part of a culture that is thousands of years old, 160 years is not a very long time at all. The clothes are different, the transportation is different, the houses are different. But the living memory continues within us as Native people.

I believe this type of memory is what confuses many non-Native people. Why should we care about what happened 160, 120 or even 100 years ago? Can't we just move forward? In a linear, westernized world view, perhaps a person or a people can forget and "move forward." But the way I was taught, and the way many of my Indigenous family and friends were taught, is that memory and time are constructed like a vortex. Add to this the fact that, as Native people in this area, we are living directly upon or very close to our places of origin, and you can see why our memories and our experiences based on those memories are different from all other people who live here. Time and events continually affect us as Native people in a unique manner.

What does this have to do with Family or language? As Native people, our entire history of interactions with non-Native people and institutions in this country has revolved around their attempts to eradicate, break down or re-make Our Families. As Indigenous people, we are the only ethnic group in this country's history that was targeted by the United States government and forced to send generations of our young people to boarding schools that were specifically designed to eliminate Our Family structure. So when we see Native art or hear Native language or feel the power of a Native ceremony, we are experiencing the efforts and the disciplines of a people who are sharing about their Family. Everyone on this earth descends from Families that have a special connection to a Place or Places. I often think some non-Native people are drawn to Native cultures because we may have Family and connections to Place, and many Americans don't have that. I'm not suggesting that Native cultures are perfect or that all Native people have Family and connection to Place. We certainly have many, many challenges, both internal and external. I'm going to write as I see and experience them in this area.

It's important to understand that Our Families and our connections to Place are still being threatened in many ways in this society. But that's the beauty of being able to hear those young people as they shared their desire to use language as a catalyst for becoming healthier, and for standing up for who they are in this world. I view those language speakers and our Native artists and storytellers as the ones who provide the vision for what we as Native people need to do in this life. The discipline that is required to learn our own histories and our own cultural knowledge is the key to building and rebuilding our Native Nations. I believe that all of Our Families will benefit from these efforts.

Chag Lowry is of Yurok, Maidu and Achumawi Native ancestry. He's currently working on a World War I graphic novel featuring the stories of Yurok soldiers.

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