Culture is Community
Beginning in 1990, each November has been recognized and celebrated as Native American Heritage Month (The Library of Congress, 2020). This is a time to celebrate and honor the rich histories, traditions, cultures, and contributions that many indigenous nations have made to this country. Many people may not know that it was the Great League of Peace that brought together the Iroquois Confederacy and began democracy in what is now North America. It was this confederacy that also helped shape the United States Constitution (Native Voices, Hansen, 2018). Modern day lacrosse was born out of the traditional Choctaw game known as stickball, where players would use kabocca’s (stick) and a towa (ball) to score points by hitting designated goal posts (Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, 2020). These examples are just a mere grain of sand upon the mound of things to be recognized, celebrated, and respected. It is just as important to recognize how culture and traditions are being used today within different tribal communities and the strides being made to keep these cultures alive.
When I think about the term culture, it brings to mind one word--- community. Culture and community really are synonymous. There are different ways to look at community: friends, family, elders, young people etc. Community involves love, support, family, comradery, and togetherness. Incorporating cultural practices, ideology, and values into substance misuse prevention programs, or any other health focused programming, means to incorporate a sense of community, and all that comes with it.
Data show that American Indian/Alaska Native youth are at higher risk of experiencing substance use and other risky behaviors (Whitesell, Asdigian, Kaufman, C.E. et al., 2014). Data also show that culture and community can be protective factors that can help aid in the prevention of risky behavior such as substance misuse and abuse (Baldwin, Brown, Wayment, Nez, & Brelsford, 2011; Hawkins, Cummins, & Marlatt, 2004; ). Indigenous people have always known that our way of life leads to positive health outcomes mentally, physically, and spiritually. They weren’t known to be interventions, strategies, or evidence-based practices; they were a way of life… the evidence was there… and still is.
In 2016 I began working at the Comanche Nation Prevention and Recovery Center in Lawton, Oklahoma. There was a small but growing program known as IAMNDN which stands for I Am Native Drug-free Nations. It was started by my relatives Raquel Ramos, Donald Ramos, and Ronnie Wahkinney. The core of the program was what they termed culture classes. These culture classes embodied community in all the ways I have just described and more. We’ll get back to these culture classes in a second.
You see, what was once a way of life that every indigenous person was able to live and experience, has become slowly over time (due to colonization and other higher level governmental policies that shall be saved for another time and place to get into) a much less lived experience by indigenous people. As a young native kid growing up in Southwest Oklahoma, I was able to experience indigenous community through powwows, family functions, and other tribal get togethers. However, I didn’t get to experience things like the Comanche language spoken in my home, growing and eating traditional foods, or participating in traditional healing ways like the sweat lodge or Native American Church. I wasn’t taught the depth of what it means to be Comanche, where our people come from, and how proud I should be to be Comanche and an indigenous individual. These aren’t the sole fault of the individuals who raised me, but rather entwined into a web of other assimilation and colonization factors that have compounded over time that results in less and less traditional indigenous teaching in the home. There are many other young indigenous people who go without learning, living, and experiencing their culture the way they should.
Now, I say all of this to bring us back to IAMNDN and the culture classes. I’ve seen these culture classes make such an impact on young native youth, bringing them out of their shells, empowering them to speak up, to laugh, to learn, to feel heard, to feel empowered, and to thrive. Teaching a young person something as simple as how to introduce yourself in your native tongue or how to make a traditional hand drum and drumstick can create a foundation for which a young person can build a sense of self and self-esteem, that may not have been there before. It’s not just about learning these teachings; it’s about the way in which they are taught. Bringing a group of people together who have shared experiences, shared values, and have a shared eagerness to learn where they come from can allow fantastic things to happen. A community can be born, and a culture can continue to thrive. Through building a foundation and helping to cultivate principles by which to stand on, a young person can then make better decisions that lead to better outcomes for their life. These culture classes not only helped young native people to have a better sense of self, increased self-esteem, and to be proud of where they come from, they also helped this 32-year-old man realize the importance of his culture, traditions, and where he comes from. These are some of the reasons I am so very proud of my culture and why I celebrate this month.
- Baldwin, J. A., Brown, B. G., Wayment, H. A., Nez, R. A., & Brelsford, K. M. (2011). Culture and Context: Buffering the Relationship Between Stressful Life Events and Risky Behaviors in American Indian Youth. Substance Use & Misuse, 46(11), 1380-1394. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51541146_Culture_and_Context_Buffering_the_Relationship_Between_Stressful_Life_Events_and_Risky_Behaviors_in_American_Indian_Youth
- Hawkins, E. H., Cummins, L. H., & Marlatt, G. A. (2004). Preventing substance abuse in american indian and alaska native youth: Promising strategies for healthier communities. Psychological Bulletin, 130(2), 304-323. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14979774/
- Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (2016). Choctaw Stickball. Retrieved from https://www.choctaw.org/culture/stickball.html
- Rocky Mountain PBS (2018). Native Voices, How the Iroquois Great Law of Peace Helped Shape U.S. Democracy. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/native-america/blogs/native-voices/how-the-iroquois-great-law-of-peace-shaped-us-democracy/
- The Library of Congress (n.d.). Native American Heritage Month, About National Native American Heritage Month. https://nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov/about/
- Whitesell, N.R., Asdigian, N.L., Kaufman, C.E. et al. Trajectories of Substance Use Among Young American Indian Adolescents: Patterns and Predictors. J Youth Adolescence 43, 437–453 (2014). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24136376/
Aron Wahkinney is an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma. He spent time growing up in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. He earned a Bachelor of Science from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Science from the University of Central Oklahoma. He has extensive experience working in tribal public health and the area of grants management. He now lives in Denver, CO where he works at Denver Indian Health and Family Services, Inc. as the Contracts and Grants Program Manager. He enjoys being outdoors, connecting with nature, and hiking in the mountains with his wife Kortney and dogs Lily and Brady.