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The Shoshone Nation

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Sep. 16th, 2013 | 12:56 am
location: Blackfoot, ID
mood: Amazed
music: Shoshone dance singing

I’m staying on the Shoshone reservation in Idaho. Saying that alone seems sufficient on its own in some ways; getting close to America’s access to earth consciousness or the paradigm that sees we belong to this earth and must protect it. However, the historical reality at the moment is much more complicated. Where once there was expanded wisdom into how earth shifts over time with plate tectonics and how to listen to spirit animals, now there is a mix of poverty, substance abuse, a longing for what once made these people great, and light sprinkling of old traditional ways. There is an air of depression, of a people being forced to mold themselves into a culture antithetical to their way of life. Time has not eradicated this awkwardness, and at best has simply given way to a re-emergence of their customs.

I’ve never done sufficient homework on the Shoshone to be an authority, making this reflection article risk naivety, but refining one’s perceptions of a people through writing and conversation holds merit too. The little I have learned, such as the 1863 Bear River Massacre that wiped out 300 Shoshone in a single morning, and the prohibition of the use of their native language and ritual ceremonies, have suppressed them more than induced them into American culture. Today, the majority of these people are overweight, carry themselves in gangsta-like ways typical of people portrayed as outcasts, have children before 21, do not know their native language, rarely have advanced education, work in labor, and abuse alcohol and other addictive drugs. There does not seem to be pride in the laborious work they do, and the younger men’s toughened faces suggest a hint of warrior culture from the past mixed with an angry reaction to being in a world that tortured their ancestors and does not currently accept them.

However, they have not entirely forgotten who they are. Natives seem to marry other natives, even if inter-tribal, and other developments have slowly unfolded over the last 50 years. The man whom I’m staying with from couchsurfing.com has dedicated his life to improving Shoshone education, culminating in two schools now on the reservation, populated solely with Shoshone youth. The elementary school is teaching them their original language (tremendous linguistic-cultural impact!), at least to the extent it is known, small customs are being reintroduced like how to honor someone’s work, and isolating interaction amongst Shoshone without the cultural influence of Americans allows dormant seeds to begin sprouting.

Ceremonial activity has also been returning. The dances performed in Pow Wows, originally known as Pau-Wau (gathering of spiritual leaders), slowly became permitted once most Natives were speaking English. This has evolved over the past 120 years into money-awarding contests. Natives travel all over the country to compete with others in ceremonial dance and dress, magnetizing the vast majority of the younger population to master these forms. Local Pau-Waus also attract large numbers. This evening’s event, dedicated to celebrating tribal sobriety, had well over 100 dancers, mainly skilled teenagers, and over 300 family members. I happened to be the only non-native, but was treated kindly and respectfully as I took many pictures of the dancers in impressive regalia.

The other day I visited several Shoshone in their home. The place was small and disorderly, but had a clearly designated space for their traditional beadwork (which was being sold for over $1000 in a nearby hotel), and the kitchen table had at least enough free space for the laptop that was showing you tube videos of previous year’s dances. Those in the home cheerfully, and briefly, acknowledged me as I entered, and then continued about their activities. I was given the impression that they were highly accustomed to people being in their home, making my entrance ordinary despite being a stranger. The children continued playing, partly practicing dance steps, and when I asked questions, I received responses as if I was a long-time friend- kind, laid-back… In a word, I felt they were accepting. It was warm, and impressive considering all the reasons they have to keep up their guard. More significantly, it hints that the radical sanity of their world view has survived, even if it is latent- that all beings made of the creator of this earth are blessed, that we should honor one another, and that acceptance of people and earth will keep us on this planet in a healthy way for a long time.

There are other defining pieces of their culture that still exist- the ceremonial sweat lodge and vision quest. Each provide significant purification that provides clarity into where one is in one’s life, the best path forward, and what forces are helping along the way. These practices may not eliminate all toxins and problems, but their survival provides ground for a future awakening.

Perhaps it will be a long time before Native wisdom, forms, and paradigms can flourish. It most likely relies on clearing out the damage of toxins, improving education, and connecting their lifestyle once again to the earth through farming and hunting. This is possible. Hunting may not mean tracking down buffalo, but it can extend to deer and elk, and farming animals and crops on their reservations could happen in a communal way that strengthens tribal bonds, inspires new visions for what they can achieve, and feeds their unconscious connection to Earth. The development of agriculture could be fed by and initiate further advanced study into the subject, and slowly make way into trades that support the efforts such as engineering farm equipment and business initiatives to sell crops efficiently. Education could continually be designed for academic achievement, cultural re-development, and pride building, coupled by teacher training programs on the reservations to keep Native teachers teaching Native students. As Pow Wows and sweat lodge ceremonies continue to happen, and re-enter the lives of youth, there will be decreasing draw towards substance abuse and other forms of distracting materialism, and more social incentive to develop a path that celebrates everything that makes Natives Native. Imagine- Shoshone, Navajo, and others all joining together to rebuild their nations, becoming confident industry leaders either within an economic network of Native reservations, pushing for sustainability, or within the larger US economy. It could happen, and most likely will. All that awaits are the right leaders, money loaned from native-owned casinos, and communal action.


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