Indigenous Culture: The Preservation and Preservers

Reflections on past present and future of native people in Pennsylvania and beyond.

With Thanksgiving on Thursday, National Native American Heritage Day on Friday and Indigenous Peoples’ Month coming to a close, there is much to understand about indigenous history and culture.

Millions of Native American and First Nations people were displaced, killed and succumbed to “old world” diseases after Europeans colonized the Western Hemisphere. But to this day, there are people who take on the responsibility to not only keep their cultures alive, but to share it with others.

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Some, like Jorge Gonzales Zuniga Jr., do it brilliantly and vividly.

Gonzales is a three-time world Hoop Dance champion from the Pima Maricopa tribe in Arizona.

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When he performs, Gonzales is adorned in his brightly colored regalia and he partakes in an art that has been passed down for generations—sometimes in secret or defiance.

“I practice what was once outlawed, at one point my people were murdered for this. I practice dancing,” Gonzales, 23, said.

That’s not hyperbole.

In 1890, an indigenous dance commonly referred to as the “Ghost Dance” began to ripple across the country. This dance caused an uproar in the non-indigenous communities, those people in turn tried to suppress the dancing, or any indigenous dancing at that.

Suppression of the dance, and it’s associated religious movement, even led to the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota on Dec. 29, 1890. Hundreds of Lakota, including women and children, were killed.

Keeping native dance and traditions alive, defies hundreds of years of concerted efforts across the western hemisphere to erase indigenous people, beliefs and ways of life.

Gonzales traveled to Berks County to share his talents with the people of Reading earlier this year. He performed the hoop dance in front of the Reading Public Library and in public parks in a cultural exchange with community arts group Barrio Alegria.

The original inhabitants of Pennsylvania include the Lenape, or Delaware people, and the Susquehannock tribe. Shawnee and Iroquois were also present in the state. There are no federally recognized native tribes in the commonwealth, though more than 31,000 people in the state identify as native according to the U.S. Census.

Pennsylvania has its own marred history with the treatment of native people, as explored in the new documentary film, Home From School, The Children of Carlisle. The film debuts on PBS this week.

The film chronicles the story of the Northern Arapaho tribe taking back the remains of Arapaho children who died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. This school was one of many designed for the purpose of assimilating Native Americans into white European society.

Jordan Dresser is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming and also an associate producer of the documentary about the boarding school.

“I think it’s important to tell the history about people, that’s how we all learn from each other, that’s the problem, nobody wants to learn from each other,” Dresser, 37, said. “If we don’t, we’re never going to come together.”

Of course, indigenous people of what is now the United States are not relegated to the past.

“I’ve faced people thinking that our way is in the past,” Dresser said. “We are present people.”

And like anyone else, they want to be a part of the future.

The advent of social media has allowed native people to share their culture, traditions, opinions and insights in ways that have never before been so accessible to the general public.

Following any number of hashtags, pages and native influencers will show you how indigenous people are expressing themselves and honoring their roots online.

The widespread acceptance and appeal to native life has its pros and cons, Gonzales said.

“Them showing off our history is okay, but showing our ceremonies and practices that shouldn’t be shown isn’t okay,” Gonzales said firmly. “This has a tendency to lead to more cultural appropriation and disrespect of our ways and traditions.”

Dresser echoes similar sentiments

“Social media is a prism, I’m glad people can share their stories but it’s only a reflection of a specific part of the culture,” Dresser said. “It’s not everything, and at times gives the wrong impression to non-natives.”

Dresser’s sentiments connect to his desire to have the full, complex existence of indigenous people appreciated by other people — those inside the native community and those outside of it.

“I preserve my culture and history through storytelling, I am a storyteller.” Dresser said. “I think it’s important to tell the history about people, and I tell the history of my own people.”

Better than liking or sharing social media posts, Gonzales said it is imperative that people have respect for indigenous cultures, recognize that we live on land that was taken from native people and allow native people to be the narrators of their own stories.

“I’m one of the people representing my culture and speaking on the history of my culture to further people’s understanding on it.” Gonzales Said.

Written by Logan Rea and Anthony Orozco

Logan Rea is a student at Reading Senior High School currently studying cosmetology at the Reading Muhlenberg Career and Technology Center. This opinion piece is part of the Telling True Stories project supported by WITF and Report For America.

Anthony Orozco is part of the “Report for America” program — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.

Logan Rea
Logan Rea is a 16-year-old 10th grade student at Reading Senior High School currently studying cosmetology at the Reading Muhlenberg Career and Technology Center. This opinion piece is part of the Telling True Stories project supported by WITF and Report For America.
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