Weaving Common Threads
Each year, before our mid-winter ceremony which occurs between the second and third moon following the winter solstice, our birth mothers go to our clan mothers to begin the naming process. Essentially, this stage consists of a series of conversations between the two women about the child in need of a name. Since oral storytelling is part of our rich cultural heritage, and quite often a source of Indian humor, my mother told the story of when I was five years old and had climbed to the top of a full-grown fir tree where my mother discovered me exclaiming as I swayed back and forth, "I let go, would I be able to fly like the birds?" Needless to say, she convinced me to come down immediately. That winter of my eighth year in our naming ceremony, for my Seneca name my clan mother, an elder faithkeeper of our ceremonial longhouse and one of the best iced tea makers around our community, chose Te} Seh which means "she climbs."
I come from "O hi yoh" or the beautiful river, which others have since called the Allegany River, one of the tributaries to the Ohio River. I live on the Allegany Indian Reservation, located in western New York along the banks of the Allegany which winds its way through the great hills of the Allegany mountains. Hence, our real name, Onon-.dawa'ga·'-People of the Great Hill. Not Seneca, a name placed on us by Dutch traders.
I am a member of the wolf clan, which is one of the eight Seneca clans, but more importantly my clan is my extended family-the core group of individuals who played a major role in my upbringing. My elders, whom I treat with tremendous respect, continue to this day to hand down the traditions and history of our people. The elders teach us that our children are sacred gifts from the Creator, and it's the family, community, school and tribe's responsibility to nurture, protect, and guide them (HeavyRunner & Morris, 1997).
But don't let me fool you. I, unfortunately, am not a native Seneca speaker but a beginner learner passionately involved in the maintenance of our indigenous language for the next seven generations to come. At a recent conference focusing on best practices and current research in Native language reclamation, one elderwho so eloquently reminded us that if a person who speaks our language dies, our language also diespointed out the fact that we have reached a critical juncture with regard to our cultural identity and survival as Native people.
Although my philosophy on life has been shaped and molded by my attachment to family, culture and community, I am also a victim of the multi-generational trauma that has gravely affected Indian America for centuries. In 1939, my mother, Marlene, was forced to live in an Indian boarding school for 10 years. While Thomas Indian School became a place where my mother developed life-long friendships and learned homemaking skills designed to help her gain employment as an adult, this reservation boarding school was a place where white matrons held complete disregard for the cultural heritage of Indian children and where children were beaten if they spoke their native language.
At the age of 13, my mother graduated from boarding school and was forcibly moved to a nearby rural community to live in the attic of the home in which she worked as a maid. After graduating from high school, through perseverance, she graduated from a technical college and was able to return home to work with the tribal social service program. How ironic for her that her Indian name is Ja Go Nyah, or "she will return." My parents raised five daughters, plus often taking in other Indian children whose parents were unable to care for them. My mother ran our household in the only way she knew how-like an institution. She always made sure that we were fed, clothed and clean; all of us had daily chores assigned via a weekly schedule she posted on the refrigerator door. We were poor, but we never knew we were poor. …