This article was originally published by Huff Post on August 16, 2017.
The Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake trace our lineage in our homeland back thousands of years, to the earliest settlers estimated to have arrived in the Neolithic era—around the same time agriculture was brought to Europe. Our region’s Native American tribes lived a self-sustaining existence in balance with nature, when what we refer to now as cultural events, like dances and sharing of stories and legends, were an everyday fact of living. This way of life strengthened the vital bonds of our people, and bestowed upon us the legacy that we determinedly carry into the 21st century and beyond.
In modern times, our way of life has been assimilated into that of mainstream America in almost every conceivable way. Many of our tribal children’s daily lives are nearly identical to that of children outside of the tribal community, with all the technological amenities that the modern world has to offer. Notwithstanding the disparate lifestyles as a result of the higher poverty level in tribal communities, there is little day-to-day difference between the life of a young tribal person and the life of a non-tribal youngster, meaning they have all the same distractions. While we certainly do not oppose progress, we would be negligent if we didn’t acknowledge the dangers of allowing our cultural heritage to be wiped away.
The Native American legacy has endured for many centuries against considerable odds. Native people, in this region and across the continent, have been challenged in countless ways to fight in order to survive. Not only the land we live on but our language and traditions, our very way of life, have been a target. As a result, simply existing as an independent tribe is an act of defiance requiring strength and perseverance. We carry today a unique responsibility stemming from the need to vigilantly preserve our ways of life. If we allow our traditions to be forgotten, we do a great disservice to those ancestors who resisted and struggled for all those years. The power we derive from our history unites us as people and give us reason to continue on.
Our tribe as it exists today is an amalgamation of several of the historic Pomo tribes of the region. Peoples who migrated to this continent thousands of years ago settled into the Upper Lake region as early as 6000 BC. As part of our preservation of the shared cultural history of the area, we changed our name in the 90s to Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake and have existed, united, as such ever since. The people who make up the Habematolel Pomo today all share the cultural hallmarks of the early indigenous people of the land. Today, we stand together to keep our shared legacy strong.
For the Habematolel, keeping our culture relevant for present and future generations is one of the most serious tasks we face. We have come too far as a people to let our proud history fade into memory. While we know that change is unavoidable, leaving a legacy that future generations can look to is something that we owe to those who came before us. The strength of our people is based on our connection to the lives of our ancestors. This strength must never be allowed to fade out of memory.
Tribal unity is the backbone of our history and the force that keeps that history alive. As our ancestors cared for one another, we continue that tradition with programs to provide assistance with our fellow tribespeople in need. Assistance that may have taken the form of sharing food or medicine in those days now manifests itself as financial help to get members through temporary hardship, or helping with funeral costs for families burdened by high prices. If we fail to care for our fellow tribe members in need, we fail to respect the sacrifices our ancestors made to keep tribal culture alive.
Keeping our history alive means educating our children on the vital role they play in continuing our way of life. While we are happy that they receive all the benefits of a modern mainstream education, we also provide tribal youth with supplementary lessons in key areas of Pomo cultural traditions. By continuing these customs, we imbue our children with a connection to their heritage, and ensure that the legacy of our culture will not be one of displacement and woe, but one that lives on in a vibrant fashion.
Native American dance is much more than something that is done for show or entertainment. It can certainly be a captivating spectacle, but participation is what makes it a tie that binds us. Historically, dance has strengthened tribal connections and given members a shared activity uniquely our own. By teaching the younger generation not just why we dance, but how to dance, they become an active part of our proud heritage and can practice for themselves the steps taken by their ancestors thousands of years before.
Perhaps most important to the cultural heritage of any given people is language. It is through our words that we share in defiance in the face of attempts to wipe out our language that were undertaken in previous eras. This is not something we take lightly, as our spoken tongues have been the subject of governmental bans and persecution for many years, gaining true federal protection only in somewhat recent years. This is why we place a great importance on teaching our children and adults the native language of the Pomo, because it is inextricably linked to their freedom as Native Americans.
How we use that language is just as vital to maintaining our culture. Our storytelling tradition ensures the survival of ancient knowledge and customs. The stories and morals contained within them have been the foundation of our way of life. They were how our ancestors made sense of their world, shared stories of bravery, and made past events come to life to be passed down to further generations. Our children today may have an almost infinite number of stories at their fingertips, but none of those have the personal and cultural relevance that they can find in our storytelling classes.
Helping our children to learn the ways of our people is one of the most rewarding tasks we have before us. It is the key to survival for our way of life. We have simply come too far and fought for too long to let our culture slip away. There will always be room for modern life, but a monumental part of our mission is to be sure that we can sleep at night knowing we have lived up to the example set by our brave predecessors.