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News | Nov. 19, 2015

Native American observance reflects on history, celebrates culture of tradition, respect

By Beth Reece

Characteristics like strength and honor are cornerstones of the Native American culture, a member of the Tuscarora and Lumbee tribes said during a Native American Heritage Month Observance at the McNamara Headquarters Complex Nov. 18.

“Culture makes us who we are. We’re all human beings, but it’s our background and values that make us unique from others,” said E. Keith Colston, administrative director for the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs.

Decked in Native American dance regalia, Colston described his culture as one that prizes respect and tradition. At traditional events, members of his tribes dance, sing and dress as they did in the original powwows. They also lean on the wisdom and knowledge of past generations while making decisions that will affect their communities in years to come.

“Even though people sometimes say Native Americans only want to live in the past, we just want to hold on to what makes us who we are as we progress with everyone else in society,” he said.

The culture of European immigrants who came to the Americas in the late 15th century was so different from that of the Native Americans that conflict prevailed between the two societies. In 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was created.

“In the beginning, it was nothing more than a watchdog agency concerned with what American Indians were doing. Were they on the reservation? Were they not on the reservation? And if they’re not, how do we get them back on it?” Colston said.

In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, allowing the government to move Native Americans from their homelands to plots of inadequate, dry land. Eventually, children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools, far from aunts and uncles who could pass on Native American values and language.

“When they realized they couldn’t kill us off, they decided to try a different tactic. They decided, ‘Let’s remove the Indian from the person, and let’s do that through education.’ They wanted to strip away our culture,” Colston said.

Native Americans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1924. By then, many had fought alongside Union and Confederate soldiers in the Civil War, and others continued to defend America in World Wars I and II. Today, more than 22,000 Native Americans serve in the military.

Per capita, Native Americans “have served more than any other ethnic group,” Colston said. “The commitment of Native Americans to protect our homeland is unquestionable,” he said, adding that it is a tradition in powwows and other Native American social events for the group to honor Native American veterans, past and present.

As opportunities for Native Americans continue to increase at state and federal levels, Colson said traditional teachings will still be passed to younger generations.

“Our young people must understand that a path has been laid for them, and a price has been paid for them to enjoy the opportunities they have today,” he said. “It’s about looking back to our elders for their wisdom and knowledge and carrying on the things they taught us.”

Tribal language is just one aspect of the Native American culture that must be kept alive, he continued.

“It’s such a powerful piece, such a self-esteem builder, for our young people to know that they have their own language—a language that started not somewhere else, but right here in North America amongst our own people,” he said.

Before ending his presentation with a traditional Native American dance, Colston encouraged the audience to forgo skin color as a method of identifying others.

“In American society, we are taught that we are people of color,” he said. “We are not people of color. We are people of culture. If you think about it from that standpoint, that’s what will bring us closer; that’s our common characteristic.”