The week before Thanksgiving, I spent a couple of days hanging out at the Duwamish Longhouse in Seattle listening to tribal members from various generations telling stories. The stories varied widely in form, from the formal, highly metaphoric tales passed down through generations to spontaneous “free-form” spoken word, whose mother tongue is hip-hop. The event was part of a workshop/performance organized by Klallam storyteller Roger Fernandes. You can hear what it was like in a piece I did for KUOW radio.
The chance to hang out with some Native American youth in their late-teens and 20’s was a vivid reminder of the hard circumstances many of them face. Their rap, and spoken word poetry was raw and laced with anger – about both contemporary and historical injustices.
But what they told me, is that being able to voice those feelings aloud in their art helps them deal with their lives. In some cases, it’s what’s kept them clean and sober, reconnected them with families they’d lost touch with, or kept them in school.
An elder tribe member, Toby Joseph, said he remembered when it was illegal to drum, or sing, or perform other Indian cultural arts in public, when he had to hide his own identity to fit into the larger world. He doesn’t want that same thing to happen to young people of the next generation. It may not be illegal “to be Indian” in the same way it was decades ago, but refusing to hear what a new generation is saying can be just as isolating.
It’s on all of us to hear youth speak their minds, whether we like the way they tell what’s on their hearts. Or not.
Listening is good medicine.