Heirloom Jewels: Utterances of our Elders

The thing I love about my job(s) is how many different conversations I have with my mentors. The other day I was getting ready to come home and my mentor and I sat down to discuss abstracts for some of the upcoming Native science conferences in the fall. Naturally talking about writing brought up my passion for it and how that stemmed from my father and the many books he put out and the papers he wrote for. My mentor said to me, “All that matters in this world is what someone is willing to put on paper [about] you.” She continued, “You can show up every day, on time, and do awesome work here in the lab, but if one of us [mentors] isn’t willing to write that for you in a recommendation letter then you have no proof.”

As I nodded in agreement I couldn’t help but wonder how colonization would (if at all) have been different if all the tribes already had one written language to warn each other about the dangers of this new group moving west. There still would have been widespread disease that tribes had no immunity to, but if only there had been another side to the story that was written down for all to understand. Parts I’m sure would have been destroyed, but just for the sake of 8th grade history bookPRESERVING ORAL TRADITIONSs, it’s nice to think that it wouldn’t have been solely the colonizers who recanted the events of that era. Coming back to reality, I thought more on my father’s legacy.

He was older when he had me and passed away when I was young still, eighteen in fact. Even though he did write, I have always felt like that didn’t scratch the surface of a man I barely knew. It’s emotionally trying to search out people who knew him just to ask (sometimes I don’t have to) about their experiences with him, even with family this is something that feels like I must tip toe around the subject. I guess that’s the part of grief that never goes away. So naturally I thought of my own children next and how they are affected by the lack of a grandfather—on both sides of the family. Could I change that feeling for them? How could I scratch the surface? My mind also went to the living; their paternal grandmother is a strong embodiment of their Makah culture. Could I make a difference by writing down the things she knows? Uh, duh.

We then started talking about databases or lack thereof, but my mind was still on this sudden urge to become a historian. I was thinking about data that was much more precious to me and my little family. Honestly, I wasn’t sure at that moment, if I even agreed with what she had said. Oral traditions are still alive, some are in disrepair but overall person-to-person communication is part of the reason why we know what’s in history books is not the Indigenous perspective of colonization. I have some recordings of my father’s brief stint in radio and I cherish them. Certainly the process doesn’t have to be all written, as my mentor said. After this conversation though I want to do more to immortalize knowledge for my children so that they don’t have to wonder like I do.

Celina Gray (Blackfeet and Little Shell Chippewa) is a student at Salish Kootenai College studying wildlife and fisheries.

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