Celebrating Indigenous People in My Life and Stories
by Maggie Lynch
October 13, 2022
There are Millions of Indigenous People Around the World
I am always surprised when I hear people say that there are very few indigenous people in the U.S. The reality is, according to the 2020 census there are 6.79 million Native Americans living in the U.S. According to the World Bank, the world population of indigenous people is estimated to be 476 million people. Though they represent 6% of the world population, they account for 19% of the extreme poor. In the U.S. Native Americans have the highest poverty rate among all minority groups at 25.4% in 2018. Black or African American poverty rate was 20.8%, and Hispanics 17.6%. The White population had an 8.1% national poverty rate during the same period. This is what happens when any group is thrown away, ostracized, forgotten, forced off their land. It is systemic and takes a long time to make right.
When I lived in Utah, I worked with a Native American driven project at old boarding school buildings that had previously been used to create assimilation of native children. They were then using it and repurposing it to provide more opportunities, programs, training programs for jobs, and legal advocacy for indigenous people living in Utah. Then, I’d never known of the boarding school programs implemented in the U.S. and Canada, harming many young children by removing them from their families, their culture, and their identity.
Because so many don’t personally know Native people, their knowledge is derived primarily from the lens of movies and television as ThoughtCo discussed in this article. Those views include the belief that indigenous men are bloodthirsty warriors like in The Last of the Mohicans. The women are beautiful maidens like the many remakes of Pocohantas. Medicine Men are simultaneously magical, wise, amazing healers, and/or con men. Of course, there is also the well-worn “stoic Native” stereotype based on the many black and white photos taken in the early 20th century.
It is these stereotypes that unfortunately have often driven politics, national policies, and have damaged the lives of indigenous people throughout our history as a country. Fortunately, in the recent past I’ve seen some promising changes in awareness, education, and policies based on understanding that indigenous people are not one monolithic culture and therefore cannot be expected to all think, act, feel, and walk in lockstep.
Recently I was discussing this with a young person who said: “I don’t get it. All Indians live on reservations and they don’t want to be part of American society.” I had to get out my handy census data spot to counter that patently untrue statement. According to the U.S. Health and Human Services offices, based on recent census data, only 22% of U.S. indigenous people live on reservations. Sixty percent live in large metropolitan areas, and the remaining 18% live in rural areas. As with any group of people who we label as “other” or “different,” there is often a desire to put them into a neat little, easy-to-describe box that can be then put away somewhere and ignored. However, that is a mistake.
All of us lose when we don’t take the time to learn and understand at least some of the highly differentiated histories and experiences of Native Americans. I’m a true believer in diversity and a multi-cultural democracy. Every time I learn another Native American story, another culture’s nuances of belief and socializing and communication, I am also enriched as a person.
In the U.S., the last statistic I saw was that there were close to 600 recognized tribes and many more that are not “officially” recognized by the government. That means that though they exist they are not deemed large enough or organized enough to be eligible for government funding. In Canada, there are more than 630 First Nation communities, which represent more than 50 nations and 50 indigenous languages. At our other border, in Mexico, there are 68 different indigenous groups recognized, each speaks a native language of their own with 364 dialectal variants.
My Own Extended Family Indigenous Experiences
My uncle was from the Yukon, part of the Tlingit people. He was adopted as a small child. I think he was three or four. I don’t know the reason for the adoption and neither did he. The woman who adopted him had been working in the Yukon as a nurse. My uncle was told he was an orphan. He had little memory of his life before adoption and his only memory of a mother is the white woman who adopted him and took him to California to live. She was a single woman and he her only child. At that time, the 1940s, it was very common for indigenous children to be removed from their tribal homes and be adopted into white families or, if they were older, forced to go to a boarding school so they could learn to assimilate into the dominant white European American culture. Though many indigenous people have a a belief in tribal responsibility or a child, it appears that was not allowed by many governmental entities in both the U.S. and Canada.
My uncles personal experience as an indigenous person was primarily one of wishing he wasn’t different from the children he grew up with in California. He lived through bullying and racism in school. He kept to himself, even as an adult, not being comfortable with social situations outside the family. As a businessman (he owned his own construction company) he also fought an uphill battle of discrimination in getting licensed, getting credit for his business, and finding customers. However, because of his high-quality work, he was able to eventually become well-respected as a builder in Big Bear, California. I remember visiting as a child and being awestruck by the beautiful cabin he had built for his family.
Also because of his experiences he never wanted to visit or learn more about his culture and heritage, even though he was strongly encouraged by my aunt. I think he had spent so much time trying to prove he was the same as everyone else that he saw no reason to explore differences. He died having never gone back to visit.
Another aunt is a Havasupai woman from Arizona. When she met my uncle and they married in southern California, she never talked much about her past or her culture. She was his partner in a painting business. Smart, organized, and I’m certain it was she that kept the business in the green. Later in life, she returned to Arizona and to the reservation to reconnect with her indigenous culture. When I see her today at family reunions or special occasions, she talks about how fulfilling it was to reconnect with her roots and how it helped her to heal and feel whole again. Today, she no longer lives on the reservation but is very close by. For her, some of the prescribed living as part of being on the res was not what she wanted. She was still in-between that world and the world she had adopted for most of her adult life.
A third indigenous person in my family was my brother-in-law. He immigrated from Mexico in the 1960s. He knew his father was indigenous but not much more about his background, as his father was not a big part of his life. He was very poor, pretty much on his own as a teen, and his life was living hand-to-mouth without much direction before he came to California. He and my sister built a successful business consisting of several dry cleaner stores. Though he did have some interest in learning about his past, he could not conceive of a way to do so. Most of his family was dead and he had never learned the full story of their past.
Though every experience is different, I believe that these three experiences of my relatives are not at all unusual. Indigenous people around the world have often been exploited, land taken from them, and in effect thrown away or left with nothing but the will to live. If not living with their culture, their tribe, finding identity is very difficult. One is always pulled between assimilation, fitting in to the dominant culture, and wanting to know more about their past. These three relatives are also from a different generation than today’s children. It was a generation where the politics expected and sometimes forced assimilation. Whereas today, politics (at least in some states in the U.S.) have changed to not only recognize but to celebrate different cultures. Many children are encouraged to understand the beauty of their own diversity, while perhaps having the opportunity to incorporate their culture into their lives moving forward. Even with that change, it is not easy or fast to undue all the harm of the past.
The Importance of Indigenous Languages
According to the U.N. 40% of the estimated 6,700 languages spoken around the world were in danger of disappearing and that a majority were indigenous. I believe this is a direct result of oppression, exploitation, and assimilation of indigenous people around the world. Language is culture and losing it means one loses a part of their culture. As a global society, we also lose the ability to understand the past.
I admit, until I was well into my forties, I always took language for granted. I grew up speaking English. In my world English was the only language. Even when I started traveling to other places in the world in my forties, there were always people who spoke English. It seemed that English had become the global language. Though it was easy for me, I was a bit sad about that because language is power. It seemed unfair that the international language was not one that had the most native speakers in the world. Both Mandarin Chinese and Spanish surpass English in that regard. When I was in college, I remember learning Esperanto. It was supposed to become the global language– a language that didn’t exist but took parts of many languages so that no one culture would dominate in conversation. Unfortunately, perhaps only 100,000 people speak it today. It never caught on. I believe it is because it didn’t have a cultural connection.
What I’ve learned recently is that language and culture go hand-in-hand. Language and personal, spiritual belief and identity go hand and hand. Language fluency requires immersion in a culture, thinking about the world and your role in it as if you grew up in that culture. I wish someone had taught me that in school when I was learning Spanish. Think about how, even in English, there are different words for things in the U.K. than the U.S. The same for Canada and Australia. Even with the U.S. there are colloquialisms for the south that are based in that culture. The northeast has their own as well, and the west coast. Culture influences language, location influences language. Even the weather influences language.
In the past year, I’ve been attempting to learn K’iche’ –an Indigenous language based in the broader Mayan culture but unique to approximately 2 million people from Guatemala. As I worked on my current novel, I learned that the nuances of the language are not only used as a tool for communication, education, social integration but also as a source for each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions.
As I struggled to learn K’iche’ the emphasis was on thinking like a K’iche’ person. Understanding how the world is not binary for the Maya. Cognitive dissonance is almost non-existent. Understanding that helps to then understand the structure, forms of address, and the nuance of cultural communication. After a year, my understanding and definitely pronunciation is not even close to the nimbleness of a five-year old K’iche’ child. Although I intellectually can appreciate the non-binary thinking, I struggle to infuse it in my brain. But the few times I can, I can see the thread from ancient beliefs to the changing language and culture as it is spoken in today’s world. I suspect that many indigenous languages require this same complete embrace of the past to begin to move forward.
How Indigenous People and Culture are a Part of My Newest Novel
My recent work-in-progress is a middle grade novel about a young girl who is a first generation American. Her grandparents and her mother immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala in the 1980s when there was a mass migration of primarily indigenous Guatemalan people (why I’ve been learning K’iche) who were being killed during the civil wars. That time in the 1980s was characterized as a genocide of indigenous Guatemalan through massive destruction of rural villages and farmlands, and often murder of anyone who would dare to stay and try to live.
Each of the grandparents and my protagonist’s mother made three very different decisions about how much of their culture would continue in the United States. They each made specific decisions on how to best represent themselves–Hispanic, K’iche, only American or some mix of that. These different ways of processing that experience have an impact on my eleven year old protagonist as she tries to find her own identity.
The mother decided to ignore and never talk about her indigenous roots because of how they were treated during the migration. She was only fifteen at the time, and still held many secrets about her past and the difficult migration. She believed what had been drummed into her during that very frightening time. That is that she was worthless as an indigenous person, barely human, expendable. She believed that to get ahead it was best for her to pretend that part of her personal history didn’t exist.
The grandmother recognized her indigenous roots, but chose never to speak her native K’iche’ language because it had been drummed into her that speaking it was dangerous, that it showed her as the unsophisticated, uneducated person she was. She believed that it was best to only speak Spanish, and then English once she was in the U.S.
The grandfather celebrated his indigenous roots, kept his K’iche’ language alive and taught it to my eleven-year-old protagonist from the time of her birth to his death. He also embraced the need to speak Spanish, and in America to speak English. He accepted there was good and bad in all three cultures. However, he was the one who shared the stories and the past of the K’iche’ people. He asked his granddaughter to continue to speak the K’iche language and share the K’iche’ stories so that when he was gone their important and beautiful past would never be forgotten.
As with many first-generation immigrant children, she weighs both the burden and the beauty of being K’iche’ against the desire to fit in and not be different. She also sags under the weight of trying to keep a language and culture alive when there is no longer anyone around her who knows it or seems to care if it is remembered.
I won’t give away the ending, but I will tell you that she finds a way to move forward with confidence but it is a difficult struggle, and will continue to be as she needs to continuously meld the important of the past with the present and forge her own unique identity.
May we all have the blessing of integrating the good from our past with the learning of today. I truly believe that will bring us all the best future.
If you have more interest about my multicultural family and how I’ve incorporated them into my life and other stories, you may want to read my blog on how windows and mirrors help open diverse possibilities.
Maggie Lynch is the author of 26 published books. Her fiction tells stories of people making heroic choices one messy moment at a time. Her novels span women’s fiction, SF & Fantasy, suspense, and romance. She is currently working on a Contemporary Upper Middle Grade children’s series. Her current nonfiction provides authors with information and tools for self-publishing from the basics of creating a professional book package to getting books distributed around the world. You can check out her personal website at maggielynch.com