The concept of being traditional lies at the heart of being a pretendian. Learning the traditions and being traditional should be the stated objective of all of us who find ourselves being labeled as pretendians. The way that I encounter the word “traditional” being used most prominently in Indian Country refers to an exclusive adherence to the original spiritual aspects of Native life. But there are other ways that the word can be applied to living in the Native community.
Similarly, those individuals who have the genealogy to qualify as enrolled members of a Native nation like to use the concept of “traditional” as a designation to separate those who grew up in their respective culture from those who grew up separated from Native culture, for whatever reason. This can be used to disparage urban Indians, people who no longer possess the blood quantum for enrollment, and, of course, the enthusiast with no discernible connection to the Native community.
Thus, I would suggest that there are ways that we can participate in the traditional lifeways of the nation we claim an attachment to, whether the enrolled members of that nation choose to acknowledge our interest. These efforts may be noteworthy only to ourselves, but we should feel more connected for having made them:
Grow your own food from heirloom seeds. There are actually many sources from which these can be obtained. There are still many types of vegetable seeds available that are acclaimed to be the older indigenous varieties. The Cherokee Purple tomato, the Arikara bean, and Hopi Blue Corn are examples of these. There are even sources for the original indigenous tobacco seed, nicotiana rustica.
Learning to plant the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) in the original way, in hillocks, and in sequence, teaches lessons on interdependence and harmonious living. And the pride of harvesting and enjoying what you have grown has a reward all of its own.
Be sure to save some of the seed from the harvested produce to replant and continue the legacy of these original indigenous crops on Turtle Island. Done properly, you need never buy that variety of seed again.
Learn to forage. Even in a suburban setting, there are green spaces where Nature still provides food. Gather berries. Gather nuts. If you are confidant, gather mushrooms. Be sure of what you are picking, but celebrate the bounty of the Earth by accepting her gifts, even as the ancestors did.
Learn to craft in traditional ways. Periodically, you can read a lament from Indian Country that the original knowledge of the old crafts is dying out. Crafting is very time intensive; crafting with traditional methods is even more so. Learning these crafts and these methodologies helps preserve their existence and gives the opportunity to keep the knowledge alive for another generation.
Beading, in its many forms, quillwork, carving, featherwork, making regalia, reproducing artifacts and weapons, basketry, weaving, pipe carving, and such are all valuable skills to possess. Many of them help to keep your fingers nimble. They can be an interesting way to fill the long winter hours of darkness, as they did for the ancestors.
Pray on the pipe. Accurate knowledge of traditional spiritual practices is generally closely guarded by those who possess it. And rightly so; the past 50 years have become the heyday of the “culture vulture”, the individual who appropriates and exploits those practices for their own purposes. Learning those practices correctly is a lengthy process which many will not willingly endure.
But the pipe is somewhat ubiquitous. Each individual can possess and utilize their own personal pipe to speak directly to the Creator in the manner which they choose. The smoke from the pipe carries our words and prayers upward, without regard to formulas or rituals. You can’t really get it wrong; it is your personal pipe. It is a tradition that is older than history.
(Disclaimer: Be mindful of what you put in your pipe. Tobacco, red willow, mullein, uva ursi, and other herbs are safe to smoke. Certain medicinal herbs can be smoked. Make yourself aware of the appropriate substances to smoke before you light your pipe!)
Learn the stories. The stories of any given Native nation are more than just entertainment. At one time, they served as the oral history of that People. This is the true underlying reason for the storytelling tradition; the story had to be repeated verbatim so that no detail was ever lost or omitted.
By learning the stories, you learn parts of the culture, some of the traditional perspectives, the history of the People (factual and legendary), and, as with crafting, when done properly, you help to preserve the culture for another generation. This is important knowledge. And it livens up any gathering.
Learn the songs. Like the stories, these are a significant part of a culture and very much worth learning and preserving. There are recordings of artists singing in certain languages readily available. Many songs, also like the stories, are best learned through repeated hearings, at ceremonies and gatherings, if you have access to such.
Learn the language. This is, of course, the most difficult. Some languages have already gone extinct; the last fluent speakers have walked on. This is a very real concern in Indian Country, which makes it all the more important to undertake if it is possible.
Most of us are old enough and busy enough that we would find it difficult to become fluent in a Native language. But we can make the effort to learn important phrases. Knowing more of your nation’s language than “Aho” is important; it shows you are making the effort to acculturate. Learn titles of address (grandmother, grandfather, uncle, cousin and so forth). Learn phrases of conversation (please, thank you, hello and such).