What started at the turn of the century as an effort to gain a day of recognition for the significant contributions of first Americans to the establishment and growth of the United States has — since 1990 — resulted in the entire month of November being designated Native American Heritage Month.
We all have different origins and come from different parts of the world.
My name is James Young, and I am a proud Native American from the Mikmaq Nation and a member of the Potlotek Reservation, located in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Adopted by a white family in Lynn as an infant, I returned to my reservation for almost a full year after graduating from Salem State University in 2011, anxious to discover who I really was and where I came from.
What I saw and heard horrified me, especially the tragic stories of the Native American residential schools and the crimes that have taken place on reservations. I also noticed a lot of depression and anger among many of the reservation’s population. The pain they feel in their hearts could be seen in their eyes. Through their anguish, however, I could still feel the love my people have for their culture.
Despite profound sadness at their current condition, Native Americans still stand tall and proud.
We have a strong but sad history that even to this day we have trouble letting go of. The richness of our beliefs and traditions — and how they guide individuals in a spiritual way — is what sustains us today.
On my reservation, lively events teach our children, and even outsiders, about the Mikmaq culture. My relatives want people to understand their spiritual awareness, too. One of the biggest spiritual events is at the St. Anne Mission, an important pilgrimage site for the Mikmaq. The event, one of the major ones for the Chapel Island reservation, helps Mikmaqs maintain their spiritual well-being and renew their cultural ties.
Native Americans also convene large get-togethers called powwows, which allow people to come from all over to experience their culture. Native Americans wear their traditional dress and engage in the dancing, singing and music of their people. It is a spiritual event where you can meet the medicine man and listen to the different stories of our first Americans. Native Americans, you see, are storytelling people.
My forebears are especially spiritual when it comes to nature and understanding human life. I remember doing a “sweat” with a couple of my cousins on the reservation. The ceremony, although partly social, is supposed to heal us and get rid of the negative energy that builds within us. In essence, it repairs our damaged spirit.
In the past, my tribe used to hunt in New Hampshire, Maine, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It was very hostile to the European settlers and tried to prevent them from settling in their hunting grounds. My tribe has historically been fierce and warlike, with men who thrive in battle.
To this day, we remain warriors, with a lot of violence happening on the reservations. Most of the world doesn’t know about the troubles Native Americans suffer on a daily basis and how the culture is slowly declining. Through all the pain and sorrow, however, the Native American culture is trying its best to live on through stories and events that keep alive its values and beliefs.
Most important for us all to remember is that it doesn’t matter what race we are or where we come from. What matters is how we feel about those around us and our culture. The circle of nations is not one person but all people and all nations. The land of the free is not the soil we walk upon, it is not an object, but is rather in our hearts and minds and souls. Native Americans understand the suffering that was inflicted upon them when bullets were shot, eradicating a whole race of people; bullets shot through millions of Native Americans with no remorse.
It was hard for me to read about my ancestors’ destruction without experiencing anger and hatred, but through the pain I found a spiritual guidance in my heritage. We all need to learn about the past in order to make a good future; Native American culture can teach us spiritual lessons for living.
James Young graduated from Salem State University with a history degree in 2011. He currently works with disabled children as a paraprofessional in the Lynn school system. His plans include obtaining the licensure to become a full-time teacher. In the long term, he hopes to earn a master’s degree in Native American studies.