Parents Passing Down Native American Culture
Identity is complicated. Inherent in being a teenager is seeking the answer to the big question, “Who am I?” Teens seem to try on identities like they try on clothes. Searching for a good fit can mean pushing boundaries and exploring possibilities. While it’s important for parents to share their own values with their children during this process, for some parents, sharing a sense of cultural identity and heritage is also paramount.
For Native American parents living in Oklahoma, this can mean sharing not only their own family’s stories, traditions and history, but also those of the greater Native American community. Travis Owens is a member of the Cherokee Nation and is employed by the Cherokee Nation Business whose mission “is to grow the economy of the Cherokee Nation through diversification and create jobs for Cherokee citizens in Oklahoma and other states.” Specifically, Owens’ work relates to Cherokee Nation cultural resources. “We’re tasked with promoting and preserving Cherokee history and culture,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to showcase Cherokee history through historic preservation, cultural events, guided tours, museums, welcome centers and cultural gift shops.”
Although Owens learned about his Cherokee identity through his own mom and dad, he doesn’t remember his parents actively teaching him about it. “It’s a funny thing as I think about how I will share my culture with my children. I don’t ever remember being ‘taught’ about our heritage. My parents more just made it a part of our lives. We were exposed to cultural events, told about significant people and events and encouraged to take part in cultural experiences,” he recalled.
Owens plans to teach his own kids about their culture, too. “With our 15-month old, it’s more about exposure than teaching. As he grows, he’ll learn more and more about his heritage. I feel like it’s extremely important for Native American children to know about their culture and history. I believe that knowing where you come from builds your true identity as a person,” Owens said.
“For example, I rarely meet someone new without them asking me, ‘What are you?’ or ‘Where are you from?’ I have come to learn that this simple curiosity has to do with my skin color. I take it as an opportunity to tell people about my heritage and help people understand the true identity of Native Americans. My hope is that my children will have that same sense of identity. Being Cherokee is part of who I am, and it’s part of who my children will become,” he explained.
While Owens doesn’t have a set plan for sharing his heritage with his children, he knows he wants to incorporate it into their daily lives. “We try to make it a part of our lives, not something we do in the classroom,” Owens said. Owens’ own job likely makes this easier. “My 15-month old has probably been to more Cherokee cultural sites than most Cherokee adults,” said. “We want them to experience the things that we did as children, to grow up with an understanding of who we are, not just where we came from. Our culture is modern. It’s here. It’s a part of our lives, not just something that happened 200 years ago. We want them to live it every day, because no matter what, every day they are Cherokee.”
Buddy Wilson is the father of two boys. Andrew, 21, and Ben, 15. Wilson’s Native American heritage is a big part of who he is, and something he tries to share with his own kids. “I’m Pawnee, Cherokee, Seneca-Cayuga and Wyandotte. My dad was full blood Pawnee,” Wilson explained. Growing up, his own parents immersed him in his culture, “It just seemed natural,” he recalled.
“I grew up in Tulsa in the ‘60s and spent a lot of weekends in Pawnee at hand games, dances and the Homecoming Powwow,” Wilson explained. “My dad grew up in Pawnee, and most of his relatives still lived there. All the events revolved around food, family, music and dancing. The culture was a living culture, not something confined to a book or stories of other times. There were still old men with braids on the streets; people spoke the language to each other. Those people were the direct connection to the past.”
As a kid, learning about his Native American heritage helped Wilson forge his own identity. “It showed me that there were other people around who looked like me. I could look at other Indians and tell what tribe they were. There weren’t that many like me in school. It made it easier to hear some of the things other people said about Indians in general. I knew they didn’t know much at all about what they spoke.”
Wilson has made the effort to share this heritage with his sons. “I try to do it in the same way that my parents did, but I find it difficult to believe how much time we spent ‘there’ back then – that whole thing about life and work and carving out time to attend these events. I still try to set up camp every year at specific events. It gives my kids the opportunity to spend several days immersed in that world. It’s important because it’s part of who they are, and they’re right here where their various tribes hold their events.”