Native Americans learn about culture preservation

By David Stabler
Portland, Oregon (AP) 11-09

Malissa Minthorn stands at the back of a cavernous ballroom in the Red Lion Hotel on the River. Blue, yellow, silver and black beads cascade over her shoulders in a dress that her grandmother wore to weddings and funerals on the Umatilla Reservation.

It’s opening day of a sold-out conference that has brought together 550 people from around the country with one interest in common: preserving tribal culture. As she looks over the packed room, Minthorn herself personifies the theme of the conference.

“After this, I’m storing it away,” she says, fingering her bright red dress. “It’s getting thin and fragile.”

Preservation takes many forms, from a simple photograph to an entire museum of artifacts. From a jumpy film showing Bitterroot Jim telling a bear story in sign language in 1932 to a mat house that the Wanapum tribe had to relearn to build on the banks of the Columbia River.

Culture is complicated for Native Americans, and so is its preservation. Without a record, some tribes left no trace. Passing culture down through the generations gets more complicated by a tradition of oral history that makes some elders suspicious of recordings and photography.

The National Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums Conference is the fourth national gathering to help preserve, archive, display and perpetuate Native American culture. Hosts were the Oregon State Library and Tamstslikt Cultural Institute on the Umatilla Reservation, near Pendleton. Speakers included library and language experts and Russell Means, the activist, actor and author, who led the famous standoff at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973.

Libraries were a big presence at the conference. In an adjoining hall, exhibitors offered ideas on storage and displays, creating audiovisual labs and preserving images.

But protecting culture is not only about objects. In a time of Twitter and other quick communication, tribes are seeking a deeper connection to themselves, an appreciation of culture, the very DNA of who they are. That connection often starts with language.

Of the 54 languages identified in the Northwest, many verge on extinction. Only one speaker of the Wasco language is still living. Forty speakers of Nez Perce remain. Linguists predict that within two or three generations, no one will speak these languages.

The conference, called “Streams of Language, Memory and Lifeways,” underscored the urgency to save tribal culture in all its forms before it’s too late.

“There are not enough words to give to tell you how important language is to our sacred traditions,” Phil Cash Cash told the assembled group at Tuesday’s opening session. Cash Cash, a linguist who grew up on the Umatilla Reservation, studies language in the Columbia River region.

Language is key to helping Native Americans live their culture, he said. “Language follows basic laws of the culture and land and earth,” he said. “It’s urgent we all understand how vitally important it is that language gets transferred to the younger generation.”

Dallas Dick, a photo archivist at the Tamstslikt Cultural Institute, took Cash’s message to heart. “I’m feeling guilty because I’m not doing what I should be doing. We’re losing it all, and I was one of the bad kids that never listened. I learned all the bad words.”

Signs of preservation were everywhere. In a hallway on the way to the ballroom, attendees passed tables of necklaces, bracelets, earrings, blankets and crafts.

Downstairs, in a session about the Wanapum, a small tribe that has lived for thousands of years on the Columbia River north of the Tri-Cities, Angela Buck, director of the Wanapum Heritage Center, talked about her tribe’s latest tool to preserve her culture: an RV. The vehicle travels throughout the region to share displays and history with native and nonnative people.

“We get around,” she said. “We talked to 29,000 people last year. That may not seem like a lot to you, but it is to us.”

In other efforts to protect the Wanapum culture, the river tribe recently dug out canoes, made string from hemp and built a mat house from the tule plant, all projects new to them. The house was more than they bargained for, a process of finding, gathering, drying, tying and building that took months to complete.

“It was a huge project, overwhelming,” said Rex Buck III, who worked on the house. “We can’t undo things that happened, but those projects fill the gap of who we are as a people.”