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Pres. Obama addresses Native American culture

Vance Home Gun asks President Obama of U.S. Government's role in continuing Native American culture, language

By Lailani Upham

President Obama details his response to Vance Home Gun's question recently at a My Brother's Keeper meeting concerning the U. S. Governments role in preserving and promoting tribal languages and culture despite a long history of animosity toward Native Americans. (photo Whitehouse.gov) President Obama details his response to Vance Home Gun's question recently at a My Brother's Keeper meeting concerning the U. S. Governments role in preserving and promoting tribal languages and culture despite a long history of animosity toward Native Americans. (photo Whitehouse.gov)

WASHINGTON D.C. — President Obama hosted a town hall session last month where he announced a new commitment in support the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative (MBK) and engaged in dialogue with young men of color throughout the country. Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal member Vance Home Gun was one of them. Video below.

The town hall meeting was on Tuesday, July 22.

Home Gun was one out of many in a group from the Center for Native American Youth’s Champions for Change program who made the trip to D.C. for three days in July.

Other groups present were the Native American Political Leadership Institute’s INSPIRE Initiative, and a youth group from the Navajo Nation. Each group had representatives that had a chance to ask the President questions relating to Native American language and cultural preservation.

President Obama mentioned his recent trip in June to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and applauded the tribe’s efforts on the Lakota language revitalization and the disheartening stories he heard from the tribe’s young people.

President Obama mentioned the young people he met on at Standing Rock were “just extraordinary.”

“I won’t share with you exactly what they told me about their lives because it was private and they really opened up. But I can tell you that it was heartbreaking to hear some of the stories, in part because you got a sense of what they history of the interaction between the United States government and Native American peoples had done to the culture.”

During the Q and A, Home Gun had the opportunity to ask the President what he felt was a very tough question “for a guy that deals with thousands of issues every day.”

Home Gun asked how the United States government was helping American Indian people revitalize their language and culture? He went on to say, “Because so many of our young men and boys don’t know who they are because they’ve lost their culture and language, and the United States government has tried so hard for the past 200 years to destroy that.”

After sharing his trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Pres. Obama quoted a scripture from the book of Proverbs, “The Bible says without vision a people will perish.” He continued, “What happens when you start losing your language and you start losing your culture and you don’t have a sense of connections to ancestors and those memories that date back generations is you start feeling adrift. And if you’re living in a society that devalues that, then you start maybe devaluing yourself and internalizing some of those doubts.”

President Obama went on to share that what he felt the good news and great example was the Lakota language school where kids started at a very early age and were learning math, science and several other subjects. He added although the young ones were in an immersion school it was their own language that empowered them.

“And part of what I’ve been talking to Secretary Duncan about and Sally Jewell, who is the head of the Department of Interior, about is how do we incorporate more effectively into the school curriculums, into social programs, et cetera, a recognition of the distinct cultures of these native peoples. Because if young people come up proud of their past, then they’ll have a more powerful sense of direction going forward,” Obama stated.

Obama went on to address that, “The world is what it is.”

“It is a global world. We live in the 21st century. When I was up at the reservation everybody had a cellphone. Everybody wanted to take selfies, like they always do. People were texting. And so you can’t ignore what’s happened. You can’t just live in the past; you also have to look to the future -- which means that all the young Native Americans are also going to have to learn math, science, computer sciences, engineering. There has to be an adaption to what is increasingly a world culture, even as you are also then connecting it back to your roots. And sometimes that’s hard.”

He added what he thought was great about America is the way the people take the different cultures and make one culture out of it. “We shouldn’t lose that. That is -- we’re not just a collection of Jews and Irish and Native Americans and black -- we’re also Americans, so we have a common culture that binds us together. There’s no contradiction between knowing your culture -- the traditional cultures out of which your families come, but also being part of the larger culture.”

One of the things Obama says he thinks is true not just for Native Americans, but also true for African Americans is what he has seen in his own community where he’s worked is the notion of “acting white” which is sometimes overstated he said, but there’s an element of truth to it, where, if boys are reading too much, then the question arises, ‘Why are they doing that?’ he explained. Or the question, ‘Why are you speaking so properly?’

“And the notion that there’s some authentic way of being black, that if you’re going to be black you have to act a certain way and wear a certain kind of clothes, that has to go,” Obama stated following a loud applause. “Because there are a whole bunch of different ways for African American men to be authentic,” he concluded.

Obama shared a personal story of his wife with the group of young men where his comment earned a room full of laughter.

“If you look at Michele, she grew up South Side. And her mom still lives in a neighborhood where gunshots go off, and it can be rough where Michelle grew up. But she’ll talk proper when she needs to. Now, you also don’t want to get on her wrong side, because she can translate that into a different vernacular.”

The point was that one does not have to “act” a certain way to be “authentic,” he said.

Champions for Change members Vance Home Gun and Keith Martinaze, a member from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, sat with Senator Jon Tester after returning from D.C. to brief him on the meeting with Pres. Obama. The young men also gave an update on their Reservations’ work with culture and language. (Courtesy photo) Champions for Change members Vance Home Gun and Keith Martinaze, a member from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, sat with Senator Jon Tester after returning from D.C. to brief him on the meeting with Pres. Obama. The young men also gave an update on their Reservations’ work with culture and language. (Courtesy photo)

“You just have to be who you are - and to go back to the values that you care about - are you kind, are you responsible, do you work hard, can you delay gratification. Well, the same is true in the Native American context. We want to get past the idea that there’s a certain way of being Native American. You need to know your culture, but you can also be part of this larger world,” he added.

He explained that there are some cultures, that have done this, like the Jewish culture. “If you look in our society, the ability to transmit traditions through synagogues and the Torah and bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, so that people have a sense of 2,000 years of history, but everybody is still part of today and America and the world.”

Another cultural example Obama gave was the Asian American cultures where many are part of a first immigrant family and take additional classes on weekends and in the evenings to learn their native tongue.

“So I think this is something that we have to spend some time thinking about -- making sure that we understand there’s a way of knowing your history, knowing your culture, being proud of it, using it as a strength, but not thinking that there’s just one way of you then having to act. I think that’s very important,” Obama concluded.

When asked how he felt Pres. Obama answered his important question for Native peoples across the nation, Home Gun said, “I personally think he gave me a decent answer, it’s definitely a topic he needs to be more educated on. Because Native people are very well represented in his Presidency. I am very grateful that as a President, he shows Native people very much respect, and is always thanking the tribes.”

In his remarks, President Obama thanked the National Congress of American Indians and their partners for committing to establish the MBK task force for Native men and boys. The task force is in partnership with the Center for Native American Youth, the Native American Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the National Indian Education Association, and the UNITY Inc.

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