The Modern and the Ancient
Once when I was a small child, my school took a trip to a local museum in Chicago. I love museums and I always have (though if push came to shove, I always prefer a planetarium). While my classmates ran screaming through the dark exhibit halls, their footsteps and laughter bouncing off the hallways, I wandered in solitude, gazing up at the exhibits and imagining myself among them. In my head, I studied the movement of dinosaurs, helped figure out the logistics for moving stones for the ancient pyramids, covered my ears for the Big Bang. At one point, one of the chaperones (I think it was a teacher) called me over to a particular glass case and drew my attention to it. The sign said “Menomini,” and it hung above a display of Menominee cultural dress adorning a faceless mannequin.
It was hard for me to reconcile in my head this image of a Menomini with the Menominee people that I knew. I thought of my Uncle Neal in his denim jacket, my grandmother in her stylish blouses, my mother in her Chicago Cubs shirt. I have always been one who appreciates a good story or a concept. I understood being Menominee as a perpetual state of being—something Chief Oshkosh was a long time ago and something that I was right then, standing in a museum in Chicago in my little light-up kid shoes. I had no real visual references apart from the things I knew, having visited the rez, gone to powwows, the American Indian Center for beading workshops, and the occasional fish fry. Although I knew that we were an ancient people and I could recognize the regalia, it was hard for me to visually draw the line between the everyday life of this figure in the illuminated glass case from some indeterminate point in time and the little girl who stood staring quizzically up at it in the early 90s.
I have learned a lot since then. My mother made it a point to connect this line more clearly for my brother and I as well as for herself, and there have been others who helped fill in gaps. Over the years, I have come to understand a lot about where I am from. I have walked in the grass where Menominee women generations ago have celebrated life. I have stood on the banks of our ancient civilization. I have learned our name from long ago and come to understand, both historically and in the much more casual way, how we have come to be called something else. I know when not to talk about certain things, how to properly spell and say certain words, why I need to introduce myself when I stand to speak. I know what my responsibilities are on this earth and how to show gratitude for the entities to which I am responsible. I know what hand to hold tobacco in and why. I have felt things for which there is no practical explanation. I have tried to describe the pure visceral pleasure and aliveness of tasting the wildness of certain traditional foods to frustrated friends who had managed to grasp the concept of “terroir” only to get that some things just have to be lived. No matter where I am in the world, the smell of wood smoke on cold air and cedar boughs fills me with feelings of completion. I have come to understand who I am as a wanderer and a dreamer, a resistor and an adapter, a link between what has occurred and what is to come.
But I have never stopped redefining this definition. As I grew older and was introduced to the concept of decolonization, I began to look inward for how much of me was, well, “really me,” and how much was the result of my experience with colonization. It was hard to hold all of it together, sometimes. I learned about how people felt about the American education system and why, and what it had done to us. I reflected on my role as a student at a tribal college and what my education meant in light of these things. I valued the scientific explanation of climate change and the understanding it gave me of the world’s inner workings and mechanisms, but I was keenly aware of some of the ways in which science had contributed to colonization. I love video games and movies and I can’t seem to get anything done without my laptop, but much of what I thought I was doing was devoted to removing the influence that had brought me negative associations with my cultural experience as much as it had brought me my Playstation 4. I have been told by people whose opinions matter to me that my job as a student right now is to learn how to walk in between these worlds—to learn the ways of one without forgetting who I am as a Menominee.
So, what of decolonization for those with a foot in both worlds? There is a saying I am fond of: “you can’t unring a bell.” In thermodynamics, I think you call that entropy. No matter what you call it, time moves forward and once something has occurred, everything you do thereafter occurs on the same path as that previous event. Even if we could take our society back to the ancient days, there is no way in which we can remove the impact that the present has on that future—you cannot decolonize if you have not once been colonized. It’s possible then, that we as individual Indigenous nations will never be able to fully decolonize. Even if we forget all English, move back into wigwams, subsist only on what the land provides, what we will have will not be something ancient—it will be something new, informed by what is ancient. And if that’s a thing that we can work toward, we can choose what that’s going to look like for a world that has changed a great deal.
To me, the ultimate decolonization has always been what happens in your heart and mind. Are the values that you hold and act upon the values that have kept your people together through the eons? Is your heart in line with an Indigenous way of life, whatever that means for your nation? Do you bring those ethics into your work, into your household, your relationships? Are those the teachings that you let guide you? I don’t think that decolonization means we have to pretend that the last couple hundred years didn’t happen. If anything, I think that we should allow it to inform us, so that we can avoid some mistakes in the past and keep moving the lessons forward.
After thinking through this, and in conversations with some friends who have helped offer their perspectives, I have come to prefer the idea of “indigenizing.” We can use the tools of the moment to help bring the values and lessons of the ancient into everyday life. We already do this to some degree with solar panels and virtual communications and even lights, cars, and modern housing techniques used in Indigenous planning. We do this in our daily lives without even thinking about it. We can educate ourselves on what is timeless and what is historical and use those to inform our dreams of a thriving, living, ever-growing Indigenous future.
Jasmine Neosh is a student at College of Menominee Nation.