Okoyi: To Have A Home
Banishment was the strongest punishment my tribe, imposed on a member unable to abide the tribal ways. Without realizing it, I had banished myself from my tribe.
Every person’s lifetime is a relationship between the time our life covers, and the space our bodies occupy. There have been countless lifetimes within my tribe and many to come. My lifetime as a tribal member is where past, present and future exists for me. This view allows me to put imposed tribal definitions aside. For example, in our language we are Pikuni; in English speaking America we are the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana. Today many tribal names are not their true tribal language name, but one imposed on them. One of the horrors Indians endure is having outsiders define us based on one-dimensional studies. It is better we define our tribe, and ourselves.
I am one of many lifetimes existing in Pikuni time, and therefore am part of the tribe once and forever. The Pikuni language is my teacher now, and is in my view the truth keeper for future Pikuni generations. This is my vocation and belief. I believe loss of tribal languages diminishes the truth of Indian ways, and dishonors the lifetimes within the tribe.
We should remember imposed tribal identification is insignificant compared to the biological, linguistic, religious and historical continuum tribal essence possesses. Understand this, and imposed definitions of tribal membership become inadequate.
Words such as half-breed, full blood, mixed-blood, and the myriad of others are fragmentary and inflammatory. Don’t use them regardless of any circumstance. Instead seek your home language and use it for knowledge. Allegiance to tribal languages is at present hard to come by, and many people have yet to find the way to embrace the notion. It is difficult because allegiance must come to you through the heart and mean something. Yet, it is the way home, and can still be done.
Historical circles divide Pikuni history into elementary periods such as days of the dog; introduction of horse and gun, and reservation days. It is a weak, biased method, since my tribe is not limited to life in the dog, horse or reservation period. True Pikuni history is identified by stories extending back (and forward) thousands of years, and retold out loud in the tribal language. The archeologist recounts thousands of years of Pikuni People, but only our language remains the accurate recorder of our secrets. Learn the oldest word in a tribal language to realize how it speaks the truth. The true challenge facing future generations, as well as the present one, is revitalizing our languages in order to keep our memory viable for future generations.
Tribal languages contain the tribal genesis, cosmology, history, and secrets within. Without them we may become permanently lost, or irrevocably changed. I am a Pikuni and know why. In our language, I am a nizitapiwa, a real person. It derives from how my language treats the form for I or me spoken as "niz" a derivative of nostum, or my body. When I speak Pikuni my body and spirit speak to kizitapiwa, another real person. My Pikuni name is Apiniokio Peta translated as Morning Eagle, and I belong to the Pikuni translated as Far Off Spotted Robes. I know my family, chiefs, and heroes names (both women and men) from long ago times. I know Apistokiwa, the Maker, placed us on earth in what is now called Montana. The reservation is what is left of our home ground, yet I take comfort in knowing points off-reservation named in our language are part of our heart’s country. This is knowledge we should possess, yet I was not fully informed until studying my tribal language.
The one-room school I attended had a map of the world on the wall. As a schoolboy I learned about distant places. In high school one teacher repeatedly told us to move to one of these places and stay there. He called it the American dream. A small number of classmates and I did go to college, and learned of more distant places. The United States Army drafted me into service in l966, and sent me to a distant part of the world. In time I graduated from Eastern Montana College, Harvard University, and Vermont College. For years I lived and worked in what might be called exotic places, and traveled a lot.
One quiet weekend morning, in the hush confines of a tall city building, I experienced a longing to go home. At first it seemed childish, but the feeling moved deeper into my thoughts during the following days. Banishment was the strongest punishment my tribe delivered to a member unable to abide the tribal ways, and without realizing it I had banished myself from my tribe. My pursuits up until then had been a journey away from my people, my ways, and my quintessential self as a Pikuni. On that morning I began a journey home. For some it may be difficult to find where true home is, but it is there. Relearning, or studying your tribal language is the ultimate pathway home, and it is important to start before the first sign of longing appears. You may misinterpret your feelings and miss the calling.
I have been home now for many years. I share my happiness with those I pray with at our medicine pipe and Okan lodge ceremonies. As Pikuni we thank the Creator for our good fortune and luck, and are glad to share it with others. I learned through language study my original band was called Moxamini within the tribe, and is translated as Those Who Camp By The Lakes. It is meaningful to me since I live most of the year next to a mountain lake in a home I built years ago.
I still travel to many of those places school taught me about. Last year I made a documentary in the remote mountains of Bulgaria, and have visited the people of the Arctic Circle. This year I filmed a documentary about an early day Pikuni campsite where a city now stands.
My first documentary, Transitions: Death of a Mother Tongue, was about Pikuni children in an early day reservation mission school. It was there our language was brutalized and deemed worthless. It won national recognition, but was more important to my tribe’s healing process and paved the way for us to respect our language again.
In my work in Native American Languages revitalization, I visited over 30 tribes throughout America, and met with countless others. Often at training sessions people were thrilled at speaking even a small part of their language. They would recount when their language resounded throughout the community, and emotion would overcome many to the point of crying. The deep emotion came from their love for those past lifetimes we wish to be part of.
I also know when people relearn their language the first thing they wish to do is pray in it. I have been at the deathbed of several tribal languages, and know most are weak and fragile. On behalf of the tribal languages of this earth, I share this dream with you. The dream has a question in it, but I do not know the answer except the one I gave years ago. The answer is in your heart, and belongs to only you.
It goes like this: you are walking in a place you know and love, and come upon your grandparents sitting by the path. Do you pass them by and abandon them, or stop; embrace them, and carry them to your destination? It should be an easy choice, but it isn’t in this day and age.
Tribal languages are the grandparents in the dream, and only the uncaring, unknowing, and those too busy pass them by. If you stop and embrace them wealth and a kinder world will be bestowed upon you. Tribal languages can be revitalized to sooth our children’s hearts again if people stop long enough to embrace them. Our Pikuni language, and yours, can produce healthy kids with choices, and therefore parity.
To embrace our grandparents we designed the Pikuni Nizipuhwahsin (original language) K-8 school for 50 children as our grandparent’s home. No government funds were used to build or operate it. It is the sanctum sanctorum, and sanctuary of the Pikuni language.
It is a beautiful place, and I wish there were such places for every Indian child in this land. Maybe you will build one for your children. My language was a calling I heard years ago that I mistook for loneliness. I cherish every word learned, and my prayers are to be granted time to learn more. I learned a great deal through this calling. I utilize the formal education taught me, although it no longer dictates my definition of knowledge.
I can only tell you this: You do not need permission to study your language. Make your prayers to the Creator for strength, and trust in what is provided. Do not debate with people who question your journey. Make use of the process of self-discovery and follow your Indian heart. It is a difficult, but truly rewarding journey home.
Darrell Robes Kipp