By Kyle Ferguson
We are bound to our ancestors. This, of course, is easy to forget in our modern world brimming with distractions – not to mention the fact that we are in the throes of a pandemic. A pandemic by the way simply means a disease has spread over an entire country or, as is the case with coronavirus (COVID-19), the world. We are bombarded by a never-ending stream of news feeds, social media posts, popup ads, cell phone notifications dinging constantly, and the list goes on and on. It is easy to get lost in the shuffle.
Sometimes modern distractions only temporarily knock us off course. Sometimes, however – through no fault of our own – we get lost at sea – like a canoe without a skipper. The connection to our past is lost, or at least seems so to us. Our brains make such great story tellers!
Losing the connection to the past is especially hard on tribal youth. This can leave youth feeling marginalized, or pushed out of society – held at arm’s length. Losing their connection to their ancestral roots, tribal youth might feel truly alien and alone in this world.
This feeling of alienation for tribal people goes way back. It can be traced back to colonization (i.e., European expansion) and forced assimilation of tribal people. It is rightly argued that social and mental distress found in many tribal communities can be traced back to this incredibly dark period in our history. Unfortunately, that past is not all that distant. For example, it was not until 1978 that tribal parents gained the legal right to deny having their children taken from them and placed in boarding schools (The Indian Child Welfare Act).
Losing the connection to the past, tribal youth – especially males – are at higher risk of mental health challenges compared to non-tribal youth living elsewhere. Mental health, as used here, means one’s sense of well-being in the context of relationships to other people, as well as one’s connection to the sky, sea, and land.
Mental illness, in contrast, has been aptly called by tribal people a “spiritual injury.” Individuals with these spiritual injuries might experience low self-esteem, sleep difficulties, depression, stress- or anxiety-related conditions, and/or engage in problematic substance use when those things are out of balance. The most tragic outcome of modern despair is when youth take their own lives. But there is hope. There is always hope; even when all seems lost.
Connecting with culture and traditions can lower mental health risks and heal spiritual injuries. Cultural connectedness – knowledge of, and engagement with, aspects of Squaxin Island culture – not only help tribal youth survive daily challenges but also helps them thrive as members of this vibrant community, proud of their heritage.
Take a moment to check in with yourself regarding how connected you feel to your tribal roots. Ask yourself: Do I have a strong sense of belonging to my tribe? Have I recently helped prepare for or have I participated in a sacred ceremony? When I feel overwhelmed by life, do I turn to my culture for help? When I feel spiritually disconnected, do I reach out to tribal members for help? If you have answered “no” to any of the above questions, please read on.
How does one connect with one’s ancestral past? Probably the best way is through contact with Elders – who might serve as mentors to teach you about history, traditions, and customs. Mentoring is, after all, a traditional way of learning and imparting tribal values.
Do you have a traditional person or Elder to talk to? If not, it might be helpful asking around. Surely, there is someone near you who would gladly talk with you. In this day and age, however, it is probably best to meet over the phone or through a “virtual visit” (e.g., Skype, FaceTime, etc.). Youth often do not even know they have the coronavirus but can easily pass it on to Elders. So, it is always best to be safe and not potentially expose Elders to this wretched virus.
Language has very deep roots in the past. As inseparable as water is to salmon (not to mention The People of The Water!), how we feel, love, interact with nature cannot be separated from the language we speak; the language we think in. It is with us at all times, even while we dream.
As you no doubt already know, the language of the Squaxin Island people is a southern dialect of Lushootseed, a Salish language. Learning the language, even a few simple phrases, can go a long way to connecting you with your ancestors.
Lastly, in your quiet moments, put down the device and go for a walk in the woods. Place a branch in your palm –squeeze it gently – can you can feel the pulse of Mother Earth, which has nourished the Squaxin Island people for thousands of years? Press your ear to the forest floor and listen for the sound of tribal drums. You might also catch a glimpse of shadows of ancestors dancing among the cedar trees. Kneel at the water’s edge. Peer into your reflection and see the faces of your ancestors gazing right back at you, as if no time has passed between you.
Here a few links for online Lushootseed