February 27th, 2018

“Hey Frank! You want to know something? This walk ain’t just about me. It ain’t about Bobby Wallace and Chief. It ain’t about you. It’s about us.” – Wounded Knee

What makes a tribe? Is it blood? Is it a set of common experiences? Is it love of neighbor?

Tribes are essentially extended families. That is the way Native Americans view them. Blood is important, to a certain extent. Everybody in the tribe talks about their uncles and aunties and nieces and nephews. I kind of doubt that all these are biological relationships (“uncle” and “auntie” seem to be terms of respect for elders). Being part of a tribe is not just about sharing genetic material.

Is there a racial component to a tribe? Maybe. Once again, bloodlines play apart, but it is possible for a person to be only one quarter Indian and still qualify as a tribal member. I noticed with the Squaxin Island tribe that some members looked like Native Americans, some looked white, and some had Afro-American features. I found an unexpected level of racial diversity.

A tribe, like a family, tends to demand a lot from its members. People are required to be loyal and supportive. Members need to share and sacrifice for one another. On the other hand, a family or a tribe might let some things slide. The seems to be high tolerance for idiosyncrasies. It all comes down to people having each other’s backs.

Is there a down side to the tribal structure? Apparently so. During a conversation about drug and alcohol abuse among Native Americans, one Indian commented that, on his reservation, everyone new who the drug dealers were, but nobody busted them. The problem was that they were all related. How hard is it to turn in your nephew for selling smack? How hard is it to throw your niece out of the house if she is drunk all the time? It is very hard.

We had a community meeting with folks from the Squaxin Island tribe last night. One of the elders, Paula, spoke at length. She told us about how she found a long lost sister. Paula is seventy-three. Her newly discovered sister is seventy. They are both extremely excited about meeting each other after many years of separation. Paula’s story was very moving, and said a lot about the power of family.

Paula also told us that she moved to the reservation in 1982. She has never left. The rez is where she feels at home. She told us that “she never feels alone”.

That feeling means she belongs. That feeling means she is part of the tribe.





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