Like so many other events in 2020, Indigenous People’s Week was celebrated online instead of in person. Florida International University’s Global Indigenous Forum held two virtual events that touched on what it takes to preserve Native identities.
In the first event, held Oct. 12 via Zoom, language was described as being the key to a culture’s survival. The second, held Oct. 14, screened films about the Japanese Ainu people’s culture and crafts, including a conversation with a woman who visited the Seminole Tribe.
First event: Our Talk, Our Land: Indigenous Languages, Identities and Social Justice
Rev. Houston Cypress, of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, was the event host. Cypress opened the session and noted the poetry, rhythm and rhyme of the Mikasuki, or Elaponke, language.
“It’s important to maintain the sacred aspect of our language by keeping it to ourselves as much as possible,” Cypress said. “We don’t teach it to outsiders because they aren’t prepared to take the responsibility involved in being Miccosukee.”
During the program, speakers explained how their people connected language to identity and the consequences of trying to keep their cultures alive. Miccosukee tribal member Betty Osceola teaches language and identity to young people by using origin stories.
“The Elaponke language was given to us by the breath maker to communicate with him and all of his creations on earth,” Osceola said. “In order for a language to survive, it has to be spoken. Language is a living thing and you must embody it in your everyday life. Language defines who we are and ties us to everything.”
Ceremonies and stories that teach how to be a good caretaker of the earth are passed down from generation to generation in Elaponke.
“As an educator, it’s important to teach it,” Osceola said. “It isn’t just learning letters and words; it’s using our oral teaching to help them understand who they are. I’m proud to share that knowledge with my students.”
Osceola doesn’t limit her teaching to inside four walls; she often teaches outside in nature.
“The earth is my classroom,” she said. “I find that helps students connect and learn the language and how we use the Everglades. Nature is your best teacher; you are more likely to remember what you learned during profound teaching moments in nature.”
Osceola says she has one foot in each world. She went to an American school, but spoke only Elaponke at home after school. Home is a valid teaching setting as is the Miccosukee culture center, where tribal members speak the language while making patchwork and other crafts.
“As a woman, I can pass on my clan to my children,” said Althea Frye, director of the Miccosukee Advertising and Promotions. “Clans are proof of who we are. I can talk about the history of the Miccosukee, but only if I know the language can I know the culture. Language is the only other thing I can pass along to my children.”
Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie advocates for reclaiming Indigenous knowledge and hosts a two-spirit discussion group on Zoom.
“Before European contact, our people had distinct ideas of how we relate to each other,” Blais-Billie said. “Colonial language perpetuates colonial ideas in our everyday lives. Matrilineal clans and the role of women are sacred in our society. There is no word in Elaponke or Creek for non-binary or two spirit individuals that describe gender variant people. But we have fully embraced the Indian term two-spirit.”
Traditionally, two-spirit individuals weren’t “others.” Blais-Billie explained that the Creator sees them as valuable to the community and not as separate from it.
“They are valued on the basis of their contribution to the tribe,” she said.
Shinako Oyakawa, from Okinawa, Japan, began her presentation by giving a brief history of her home in the Ryukyu Islands, which are located between Japan and Taiwan. The northern most island of the chain is Okinawa.
The Ryukyu kingdom lasted from 1429 to 1879 and played a central role in Asian trade. Japan annexed the islands in 1879. Okinawa was occupied by the U.S. from the end of WWII until 1972, but U.S. military bases remain. Residents believe crime, noise and pollution are a direct result of the bases.
Some Okinawans are descendants of the original Ryukyuan people. An Indigenous movement in Okinawa is active, Oyakawa said.
“We have a history of being an independent nation,” she said. “We the Indigenous Okinawan people have the right to our lands. Less than five percent of our young people speak our language. Everyone learns Japanese and English, they are mandatory. We never have a chance to learn our own language.”
Oyakawa claims the Japanese government doesn’t recognize them as Indigenous people and believes their language is a dialect of the Japanese language. She noted that in the last 20 years the Indigenous movement has grown.
“People want to express their feelings; it was taboo 20 years ago,” Oyakawa said. “Now we speak more freely.”
Maria-Luisa Veisaga, a professor at the FIU Global Indigenous Forum, is an Indigenous Quechua from Bolivia. There are many regional varieties of Quechuan, the language of the Inca Empire. Quechuan speakers live in the Andes in Equador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
“Through language we express our human interactions and thoughts, but there is discrimination of those speakers,” Veisaga said. “With the establishment of the colonial order, we were never again Quechua. They called us Indians or Indigenous. We were forced to change our language.”
The consequences of being denied access to their language was disastrous for the Quechua people and resulted in poverty, discrimination and the government taking their lands. Today there are some schools that teach the language.
“Children resisted learning the language of their families to avoid discrimination,” Veisaga said. “We must fight for our rights.”
Margaret Noodin (Ojibwe) is an associate professor of English and Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She teaches language and created a website to teach children Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language.
“I learned the language when I was older, but I heard it as a child which made it easier to learn,” she said. “I use poetry, stories and songs to teach it.”
Noodin is a co-founder and a primary contributor to ojibwe.net, a site that promotes and teaches the language through lessons, songs, stories and projects.
Second event: Ainu My Voice
The Ainu are the other Indigenous people in Japan. They live in the northern islands of the country and like the Okinawans further south, have suffered discrimination. The documentary “Ainu My Voice” was shown during the virtual event.
The film focuses on Rie Kayano, who loved to sing and dance in the Ainu tradition as a child, but was made fun of by classmates in elementary school. Like other Ainu children, she was forced by the government to assimilate. In the film, Kayano said the Ainu culture and language faced annihilation, but stories and songs rescued it.
She moved to Sapporo to attend university on an Ainu scholarship, joined a band that sang traditional folk songs and committed to re-learning her culture. But motherhood and marriage put her aspirations on the back burner. Then she had an opportunity to visit the Seminole Tribe, which changed everything for her.
Blais-Billie met Kayano during a cultural exchange in Sapporo a few weeks before the visit. Kayano wanted to see how the Seminoles lived and spent time with Blais-Billie in Big Cypress, Brighton and Hollywood. When she checked into the Guitar Hotel in Hollywood, she was greeted by a welcome sign in the lobby. She met with Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. at headquarters, who told her to stay vigilant and she will be able to achieve whatever she sets her mind to.
Kayano visited Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Brighton and was impressed with the immersion program. Emma Johns, PECS dean, told her the tribe is fighting to preserve the culture and language.
“It seems like a distant dream, but it can be done,” Johns said in the film. “What you saw today was proof. But it takes people like you to know that and carry it forward.”
At Billie Swamp Safari, Blais-Billie showed her the sites and told Kayano she admired her for persevering in her mission to save Ainu culture.
“Everything you do on this earth touches everyone more than you can imagine,” Blais-Billie said.
Kayano said the visit with the Seminoles gave her the confidence to share her Ainu heritage, which she will do to honor her ancestors and help rebuild her society. When she returned home, Kayano wrote a song about her visit. Blais-Billie’s words resonated with her and made their way into the song.
“All that you do is not only your will but the will of your ancestors. Your ancestors will surely be pleased if you make their dreams come true.”
Kayano said those words made her want to do this for all Ainu children.
A second film was also screened, “Expressing Ainu Spirit, a Tradition and Innovation,” which followed Ainu artists as they created works to be sold in a trendy Japanese store. The artists combine traditional craftsmanship with contemporary designs to reflect how Ainu live today.
After the screenings, Blais-Billie made a presentation and took questions from the Zoom audience. She explained the importance of the land to the tribe.
“We reflect ingenuity by adapting to the Everglades’ challenges,” she said. “We are stewards of the land and it stewards us in return. We are as paramount to its survival as it is to ours. Our people remained dependent on the Everglades and we developed a vibrant culture and skills.”
After the turn of the 20th century, the tribe had to find a new way to ensure economic independence. Tourism created that economy and within a few decades, tourist villages cropped up in South Florida.
“Today we still fight for our sovereignty and protect our waters in the Everglades,” Blais-Billie said. “An essential part of preserving our sovereignty and culture is our languages, Elaponke and Creek. Language is our tool to preserve our community, clans and traditions.”
A question was asked whether the two languages were different dialects of the same language. Blais-Billie explained they are not, but they both preserve the Seminole ideologies quite well. She also noted that Creek is written and Elaponke is not.
When asked about the immersion program in Brighton, Blais-Billie said she didn’t attend it since she lived on the Hollywood Reservation.
“A lot of Indigenous people don’t have the privilege of having a fluent speaker in the household,” she said. “All my language comes from the culture department and my grandmother. In the Seminole culture it is the responsibility of the youth to approach elders to learn and maintain the knowledge. My journey to learn the language was empowering.”