A Colorful Culture: Reviving Native Traditions
By Sarah A. Miller
Many of Mount Pleasant, Michigan’s 23,000 residents live only a few miles from a world completely different from their own unique with its own history, people and traditions. Many of them don’t even realize that they live right next to a foreign country—the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Nation.
The Saginaw Chippewa Isabella Reservation is home to over 3,000 tribal members. In the United States there are 3.3 million federally recognized Native Americans. As time has passed, these people have been forced to adapt to the modern world.
“I think one of the hardest struggles when you are a youth growing up is how do you find that balance of knowing your culture and really having that strong identity, but learning how to thrive in the 21st century,” said Judy Pamp, Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways assistant director.
The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe has its own private school for kindergarten through the sixth grade; however, the students must then finish their schooling at public school. Both Pamp and LeeAnn Ruffino, cultural instructor at the Seventh Generation/Elijah Elk Cultural Center say that it is a difficult transition.
“Being on the reservation feels a lot safer, it’s more comfortable. It was your family, it was everyone you knew. When you live in town, like when I was younger growing up, it was very scary. It was very scary to be in town, it was very scary to be in the schools because you were not on the reservation. You didn’t get to go to school with all the other kids. They usually singled you out... You felt alienated,” Ruffino said.
Because city life is not for everyone, the Tribe maintains many institutions of its own for Tribal members to feel welcome and at home.
The Ziibiwing Center offers language immersion classes, traditional dance classes and special events. The Seventh Generation/Elijah Elk Cultural Center offers spiritual services, woodworking, traditional cooking and more. The language classes are very important because there is currently a Native language crisis. As of right now, only four elders can speak Anishnabemowin fluently.
“By learning your culture, your language, the history and the arts you know that you are uniquely Anishnabe. We are unique because of those teachings,” Pamp said.
Also, there is a casino—a subject both good and bad for Native people. The casino brings in a lot of profit and a lot of jobs for people on the reservation. Colleen Green, Director of Native American Programs at Central Michigan University said that it also brings in more misconceptions about Native people.
Misconceptions about Native peoples is a big problem. Ruffino said that when she goes into schools to talk about Native culture often hears rude or ignorant comments from children. She says that it is not their fault because they only know what their parents tell them. Pamp reminds people that the problem goes both ways. She says that it is a two-sided road. Americans may complain that the Natives never come into town, never become Americanized or modernized, but she points out that those people never come to the reservation and never experience Native culture. She says that reservations are the only nations Americans can travel to without a passport, and they are always welcome to visit.