My world of white privilege, with its biases and ignorance, was joyfully altered March 8 and 9 when I attended the 15th Annual Widening the Circle Indigenous Education Conference, featuring “The Teaching of Our Ancestors” as represented by the Hmoob and Native cultures.
My mind was expanded and my heart touched by every aspect of this unusual experience.
There was subtle choreographing of the elements, including presentations, singing, dancing and drumming.
There was hip hop and rap entertainment plus beautiful costumes worm proudly by representatives of both cultures; lively group discussions were led by excellent facilitators before and after presentations, and speakers spoke their indigenous language followed by the English message.
Delicious Hmong and native food was served; there was humor and some harsh truths about historical trauma; there was the mingling of the young, the middle-aged and the elders.
Music and some fun graced the stage. Speakers spoke mostly from their heart; their truths provided living history lessons and described current projects to regain lost languages and ancient practices.
The Ancestral Women’s project and performance was moving.
Twelve women from each of the 12 Wisconsin native tribes stood beside larger-than-life-size paneled weavings of their own or another’s female ancestor, speaking proudly about the elder’s life, skills, interests and accomplishments.
These were not famous women, although they were leaders in their tribe.
The details of their stories spoke volumes about native multifaceted roles, exceptional skills and creative gifts. Female white elders are not honored in this way, and we are the poorer for not knowing this stunningly beautiful indigenous culture.
Dr. Dia Cha, a gifted cultural anthropologist, came to the United States when she was 15 after fleeing Laos and living in harsh conditions for five years in a Thai refugee camp.
A prolific author and retired professor, she has devoted her life to research, teaching and writing.
Her fascinating presentation detailed many aspects of Hmong culture, such as worship of animism, acknowledging the seen and unseen worlds, the existence of a variety of types of healers, the presence of shamans who are usually called to their work through sickness, and much more.
She described a sophisticated, complex culture with much to offer their young people and us. She suggested that the increasing number of suicides among their young could be prevented if they knew about and claimed their culture, beliefs and practices. Such things “create a home within oneself.”
This theme of reclaiming indigenous heritage ran throughout the conference.
There was mention of the unbelievably harsh conditions in the Christian boarding schools of the past, the merciless land grabs that meant whole tribes had to leave their homelands, the present-day problem of alcohol and drugs, the troubles in the Hmong culture, but the focus was mainly on the positive.
Discover who you are; be your unique self; take pride in your heritage and diversity.
Nate Taylor spoke movingly about the language immersion program at the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians in northern Minnesota.
There they are reclaiming the Ojibwe language, working with three- and four- year-olds who are interacting with tribal elders, several of whom shared their experience. Native tongue is verb-centered and often does not translate easily to written lessons.
Beneath the conference activities lay some important aspects of indigenous culture.
The collaborative way of working was evident in the Ancestral Women’s project. There were several references by other speakers that success was about “we, not “me.” There were opening and closing circles and authentic learning opportunities in the small group sessions.
One of the most telling demonstrations of the indigenous cultures was not listed on the program.
It came about after lunch one day when our busload of both young and old returned to the UW-L student union for the afternoon program.
Initially, the young people piled quickly onto the elevators, heading to the second-floor conference room.
Suddenly, they realized what they had done and scrambled off in rapid fashion.
This sudden reversal illustrated what this conference was all about — honoring the elders, respecting the ancestors.
The youth had made way for a small group of us elders to get on first, alone, for the ride upstairs. I got on too, for I am likewise an elder, and I smiled and smiled about being treated this way.
I was awed and humbled by this conference.