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  • Writer's pictureTribes Team

Tribal Americas before 1492 - a fantastic world experience we should study and learn from

From Tony Skrelunas's Presentation to Northern Arizona University Native American Graduates

Good afternoon honorable graduates:  I would like to ask you – how many of you have ever lived in a Hogan?  How many of you have sheep? How many of you plant?  How many of you grew up with no shower or running water?  

Tony with his great Grandmother on Big Mountain

When I was a child, most of you would have raised your hand if asked that same question. 

As a kid, I only had a two pairs of socks, two good pants, one pair of shoes I wore for every occasion.  No tv, cell phone, internet.. Read by the light of a lantern.  Our nicest piece of furniture was an all wood kitchen table.  I was so proud of that table, especially when we had visitors. 

Now I would like ask how many of you live in a multi bedroom house, have your own bedroom, take showers daily, have multiple sets of clothes of the style of the moment, maybe a 60 inch lcd, wireless internet…an Iphone?   

All over the world, this is happening to once traditional peoples.  I was talking to a group of 4th graders the other day.  I told them that when I was a kid, most of them would have been like me.. and answered yes to all the first set of questions and no to the 2nd set.   This type of phenomena, improvements in standards of living is aspired to by most societies of the world.  Most Nations have bought into the idea that this is the way to go... to do all we can to increase our incomes, to improve our communities, so we too can live in constant comfort.

I like you have achieved, starting with bachelors and masters degrees, working to gain a full filling career, achieving much.  Yet, recently, with the unprecedented events of global warming, economic instability, high gas prices….. I have been thinking about the direction of our tribal nations and how we are working to develop our economies.  As Economic Director of our Nation, I felt the pressure of politicians and entrepreneurs to work towards a western economy.... to become like Phoenix or Flagstaff…. you hear it daily in Window Rock, “we have to reduce the redtape”, “build big shopping centers”, “marinas, casinos, hotels”.

I have spent many years working on these.  But through the years, I have also noticed some real changes in our communities.

Tribes gathering on the Colorado Plateau

Wherever you travel in the world, as a Hopi, Apache, or Navajo, you will be proud of who you are and where you are from.  If you travel to the South African desert or the Swiss Alps, you will run into someone that wants to know what makes you unique, of your land and people.  You proudly will tell them about your uniqueness.    As I Dine, I will proudly talk about our hogans and shepherds, of our ceremonies and language.

I have in the past, asked our tribal leaders to ponder the direction of our world and of how we are building our tribal nations, there may be a time in the future we no longer have shepherds herding in the old way, of men and women not wearing tsiiyeel (hairbun), a time when our people no longer speak or sing in the old language.

If we do not have sheepherders and weavers, hogans .. what would we put in our tourism brochures? 

Our economic systems, which we are adopting from the western culture, doesn’t value our songs, dances, teachings, hogan builders, plant gatherers, shepherds, and farmers that adhere to our ancient knowledge. 

As young serious professionals, you are our future Tribal leaders.   I ask you to ponder these changes as you go into your professions.

We as tribal nations making our way in this world have few role models, there is no modern road map to solve this predicament we are in to raise our standards of living and keep who we are, our way ancient tested way of life, and protect the earth.  But perhaps, just maybe, there is a role model, a path that we can study of the past.  Hmmmm?!

As a kid growing up on Big Mountain, at a place called Liinh Hadit’iinh (horse lookout), I would herd sheep and take breaks to climb every appealing hill in the area.  This might explain how I often lost a sheep now and then.  On almost every hill, I would see many pieces of pot shards.  I would wonder of how many people must have lived in the area, what kids back then did on these same hills.  This was not just the case in one area, but others we would periodically moved to.   We would move the flock to let the land rest.  We also rotated planting areas.  We had temporary homes in these areas and thus, many new places to explore, and always the pots shards.    

Tony's great Chei

On summer nights my Chei and I would lay outside and watch the stars and he would recite stories of civilizations before us.  Of what he had heard of their experiences.   The thought of how things must have been has stirred my imagination over the years. 

In school, like most of you, I was taught the Western teachings about our Native history.  In almost every book, our history starts at the coming of the European.   

I have heard stories of how the peoples of my great grandparent’s generation and their parents thrived in this region... the evidence that strong civilizations existed is everywhere – the knowledge of medicines, of the land, of water systems, weather patterns, the seasons, agriculture, architecture, song, ceremony, prayer.

Let me paint you a picture of how things were before 1492:  over 500 years ago, there were between 90 to 100 million people living in the Americas – more than in Europe and over 1/5 of the world population at that time.  Our ancestors have lived on these lands for over 30,000 years. 

Your ancestors settled the lands, built family and communities, discovered the best ways to utilize the environment and improve their standards of living.  Our lands were the furthest thing of a wilderness waiting to be filled by European settlers and we were furthest from what has been described as nomadic savages … nomadic savages do not create some of the most colorful languages, medicines, advanced agriculture, and figure out how to ensure that future generations, you, would know the stories of our peoples that date back 30,000 years.  Our ancestors of these lands cultivated over 70% of the food the world now consumes.  Beans, corn, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes are just a few of the foods that were first domesticated by them for thousands of years.  Some of my favorite foods: shrimp, popcorn, turkey, sweet potatoes, strawberries were created in the Americas.  Over 200 plants, tested by tribal scientists for thousands of years to heal, has only in the past 100 years, contributed to our world’s medicine.  The American system of government, with three branches and checks and balances, are based on tribal systems of democracy.  Your ancestors created advanced astronomy that they could forecast rare celestial events, such as a solar eclipse and movements of stars and planets. 

Of most importance:  Our ancestors, as tribal societies, had figured out how to live sustainably.  They had built large cities, some with over 15,000 inhabitants.  They had created regional trade networks from Alaska to the Southern tip of South America. 

The tribes were very dependent on the natural resources for food, clothing, and shelter.  Thus, each tribe developed unique living in concert with the places that they lived.  Each tribe and region developed unique ways of living that took advantage of local resources.  These divergent resources resulted in varied cultures, religions, and material uses.   All tribes had to know precisely which plants and animals were available at what time during the year.   They had very intimate knowledge of their land, seasons, and community.  This knowledge was important for sustainable harvesting of these resources, for survival of the future generations of people, and all living animals and plants. 

For example, over thousands of years, the Inuit had discovered the social characteristics of caribou.  Thus they knew the role and importance of the elder caribou in calming and leading, and of the need to hunt younger caribou.  This same type of knowledge applied to grasslands, agricultural lands, and plants.

This intimate knowledge was so critical to a tribe’s survival that it became a major part of social structure, religious beliefs and ceremonial cycles.  The tribal society’s survival depended on strict adherence to rules of proper interaction between the 5 fingers, humans, and nature … ni hxi ma (mother earth).  

Each Tribe developed their societies in a way that accommodated their region and land that they lived on.  Almost all tribes have a similarity that ensured sustainability - they placed intimacy with the land as vital to survival and regarded the land as a living being.  Around this common thread could be built regional economies and trade networks.  Some tribes specialized in fishing, in harvesting acorn, wild rice, others in agriculture, cotton clothing and blankets, rugs, bowls and food storage, tobacco, hunting and food processing tools, medicine and healing, architecture, others in hides and feathers, and minerals.  

There are well known regional trade gatherings that happened all over the Americas.  In the Great Basin, the Shoshone put on a big one that attracted tribes from the Plains, the Great Basin, and Columbia River regions.  Just down the road, for 1200 years the Hohokam traded with the central Mexico, plains, and California tribes.

Tribes also depended on their differences in livelihood and cultures for economic trade and a type of cultural tourism.  For example, the Navajo and Hopi have lived close to each other for a long time.  Some of us younger ones are brainwashed into thinking that our tribes have never got along.  I hear stories from elders of how they really got along in the past, constantly mingling at festivals and dances.  Hopi elders miss the time when large groups of Dine would come to dances with meat and would set up camp below the villages – at night sharing their songs, dance, and foods.  The next day, the Hopi would reciprocate.  Many friendships and interdependence developed. We all know the two tribes are different.  Yet, the difference between the two tribes actually created a complementary that brought them closer.  Hopi life is connected to farming.  Navajo life is intertwined with health and well being of their animals .. horses, sheep, goats.  This creates an sustainable economic symbiosis between them… meat, wool for corn, squash, and melons.  It became a business connection as well as social. 

Recently, through a unique project, we have begun bringing elders from Colorado Plateau tribes together.  We have witnessed the revitalization of this ancient tribal sharing – of song, dance, food, seeds, stories, prayer.   It brings you to tears when such sharing takes place and stories pour of how our tribes used to be together, not separate.

As you embark on your careers, I would encourage you to study the history and teachings of your tribe.  As you have gathered by now, there are some time tested teachings that were very effective among your ancestors.  Teachings on how to live a good life – praying in the morning, positive thought, respectful debate, building a life of meaning, raising an honorable family, thinking about your community, listening to your elders, knowing the land, plants, and animals, knowing the drumbeat of the earth … these will take you far whether you become a lawyer, teacher, or engineer.

And most important, as you become our leaders, please understand that development that reinforces culture … to ensure without a doubt that our societies will continue for many more generations, our teachings and ceremony will continue in a good way,  .. that we will always be physically, mentally, spiritually strong, that we will continue to live in concert with our mother earth; should be the goal of our communities and governments.  As it was 30,000 years ago, as it will 30,000 years from now, this is a formula that works. 


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