I could not ever imagine watching someone come into my home and force me out. I cannot imagine watching someone take away everything I own, or everything I love in front of me with no way to stop it—but my ancestors had to live through that for years. There was pain, suffering, persecution, abuse, and discrimination for hundreds and hundreds of years. In comparison, when I look around today and see the faces of all of our community members, I can see the past. I see the suffering in the lines of their faces. I see the struggle in the white that ties through their braids. But I also see survivors. I see beautiful, strong, people that have overcome the, quote unquote, impossible. Every day I am proud to see that I am a part of something so amazing.
Recently I was lucky enough to receive some insight from an elder in our tribe on the past. One of the things she said that really caught my attention was “In our history, we have had our days of slaughter”. My entire life, I had never thought of the people I see on a daily basis, having to be violent. I have never thought of our ancestors having to fight for any reason. It is then that I look back to recall all of the things our people have been through throughout history.
One of my favorite things is going to any tribal function and hearing the laughter of our elders. No matter what, they always have a reason to smile. They always see the best in life. It is optimism at its very best. I admire that. I am motivated to move forward and be just like the elders I look up to so much.
My grandfather is Chief Roland Petoskey, but more importantly—he’s my best friend. Growing up, I watched him teach everyone around him the native way. There is no better way to learn the Seven Grandfather Teachings than by living them. I will always have the memories of walking across the field, me in my dress, and grandpa in his ribbon shirt. I will always remember him teaching me how to act around the fire. Offer the tobacco to the fire, walk to the left when entering the circle, always be respectful. These are things I can never forget. No matter where I go in life, I will always have that in me. It is in my blood. Being native is something that is a part of me no matter where I go or what I do, because we as a people are that strong. It is in my blood—not just the Native American blood, but the way of life; the culture.
Every culture has had its rough spots. Every part of history includes a weak point in the story. Ours involved massacres, boarding schools, alcoholism, prison, and much more. For many, that would be the downfall of the entire culture—that would be the end. But we have been through so much more, and yet we’re still around. I see living proof of that with every Pow Wow, every language conference, every sovereignty day celebration, every tribal meeting. Our culture and way of life are still here. We have done much more than merely survive.
Recently going to a regalia fashion show at our tribal government center, I was fortunate enough to get to see some of our native craftwork at its finest. I was in awe at some of the beautiful beadwork, quillwork, and sewing that I saw there. I felt so proud myself to see this beautiful work done by people I know.
It is the exact same way at Pow Wows. I see this beautiful thriving culture all around. The way the fancy shawl dancers float like butterflies, or the way the jingles sing as they clash against each other. The way the dancers move exactly to the beat, seemingly effortlessly– it is a beauty unlike any other. Watching the precision in these dances, the detail put into the regalia—it’s breathtaking. There is so much to everything that has been passed down from generation to generation amongst our people.
One of the most beautiful things is seeing our youth as they grow up involved with and surrounded by the culture. There is nothing more heartwarming than seeing this way of life being taught and carried on so young. This way of living– who we are, is already being held onto and survived by the next generation to come. We already have that reassurance and it is such a beautiful thing to know that no matter what challenges we have faced or what we have been put through throughout the years, we will continue to move forward—we always have. We will always have these teachings and way of being.
Often times, one will see things in movies, or read something in a book where natives are abused or broken. It is always shown how bad things have been in the past for us. Everyone always sees the low points of our history. We have many stories of abuse and hardship, but we have many more stories of strength and promise. This culture is one of exquisite beauty and magnificent tradition. Everything has a story, and everything fits together. The way that the same traditions have managed to succeed in surviving not only with discrimination and persecution, but have also withstood the test of time, shows how strong we as a united people are now, and always have been.
My mother has served on tribal council for much of my life, and she attended a catholic boarding school when she was younger. She suffered abuse, and much more I will never even come close to understanding. But today, I still see her smile and move forward. Through her, I am able to see the strength of a true native woman. In my eyes she is a perfect example of how we have survived and moved far beyond the hand our enemies had dealt us. We are so much more than meets the eye. When I was little, I would ride to the government building, help her carry her briefcase—feeling mighty important for being her helper, and sit in the tribal court room watching as the people I knew and loved all discussed the past, present, and future of our tribe. I was fortunate enough to watch where our tribe came together at the seams. I am truly blessed to have been able to watch all those things. I will never forget memories like that. I will always have those feelings of strength inside me. I don’t just personally think that we are doing more than simply surviving, I believe it. I feel it, and I know it. Inside me, I can feel the strength of my people.
One of my all time favorite quotes that I have ever heard, I found on the back of a shirt I bought for my cousin at MSU’s Pow Wow of love, and it could not be any more accurate. The quote itself reads: “After over five hundred years of massacres, exile, reservations, broken treaties, smallpox blankets, poisoned rations, religious persecution, alcohol, prison, and hazardous waste; we are still here.”
~By Brittany Bentley
Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Tribal Youth
17 years old; 12th Grade