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Seminole language: Hope for our future

Tony SanchezThere is hope. I have seen the signs. I am excited, really jacked up about it. Sometimes I sit and wonder: Am I the only one who is thinking about this? But, to hear the discussions at the recent School Board meeting, realizing there are a number of people who are worried and thinking about how we can save our language, has really inspired me. I even heard people saying, “Learning our language should be mandatory.”

They have my full support. I want everyone to know that next time there is a meeting or discussion about teaching and learning our language, call me and I will come running. It is that important. I tell my mom, I tell some of the elders I talk to, that if I could make a wish for one thing, my wish would be that I would be able to sit here and speak the language with them. It isn’t about spending money; it isn’t about living in a big house or driving a fancy car. No, none of that.

I would give anything to be able to sit there, especially in the role that I am in today, and be able to talk to the elders, to find out from them in their own words, what exactly was their vision when they went to Washington, or sat underneath the Council Oak and had all these meetings. They didn’t do it just to have something to do. There was a vision. I would like to hear them tell me, in our language, and I want to understand.

We Seminoles should all recognize the importance of preserving the culture, the traditions, that make us who we are. If making some of these teachings mandatory will contribute to saving them from disappearing into time, then so be it. Because if we do not take steps now, in a couple generations, our language, especially, will be gone. So it is very refreshing to hear that meetings have been held and people are even talking about making it mandatory.

The incentive? Saving who we are. That should be enough incentive right there. It gets back to people standing up and recognizing that preserving our culture is a responsibility. It has always been our custom that the elders take the responsibility to teach and the young take the responsibility to sit and listen and learn. Yes, the parents and grandparents are the teachers. They must take that responsibility head on, and embrace the reality that they are the teachers. You know what? You may not necessarily know how to build a chickee or how to sew. But the language? That’s the key. You lose that language, who are you?

English is not our first language. Look at me. I’m, a perfect example of that lost generation of American Indians, where it became absolutely important to learn English. So that’s what I did. I learned English. By the time I graduated from high school, my native language was gone.

Since I have been in this role, I often think about Betty Mae and Jimmy O’Toole, Bill Osceola, and those times when they were all going up to D.C. saying, “We don’t want to be terminated. We want to be federally recognized, and we are going to establish a Constitution. We are going to establish a Corporate Charter.” They knew those were the mechanisms they had to have in place. What was that finished product they were hoping to create? My question is, with everything that we have going on, are we still going on that original path? Or have we veered off left and right? We may think we are just doing great, but when you talk to some of these elders, they may tell you that you are way off track.

That’s why having that language is so important. And you know what? If someone told me, I am not going to get my dividend unless I start going to some of these classes, me personally, I would be OK with that. But will that be the reaction of the majority? I would like to think that they would all say, “Yes!”

But it would not be a case where you just put the threat out there and say, “OK, you have to go take these classes, and if you don’t, you are not going to get your dividend.” I would hope the conversation would be more along the lines of, “We want to preserve our culture; we want to preserve our language. We need you to be a part if this. Everyone is going to be a part of it. We want you to be a part of it. We want to train you to be a teacher.”

But we also need to make sure that people show up for these classes. After all, the Tribe would be making the investment, spending a lot of resources – manpower, financial and so on – so we want to make sure that you attend these classes and get this training because it is who you are.

You are not just Seminole on the first and Seminole on the 15th. You are Seminole each and every day.

The one thing that will separate you from everybody else is your language. I would love to think that everyone is going to embrace that. They need to embrace that. Because you know what? Living in these nice homes, driving the cars that we drive, that is not us.

The lost generation happened because no one spoke the language to us at home. The dominant culture did not want us to speak our language. Our elders were made to believe that English had to be learned to make it in the outside world. Sure, but we can still live in the modern society and not lose our identity. We can still do that. Let’s not let outside influences mask who we are and what we are.

Take a look at the Jewish faith. The way they dress, their commitment, the amount of time they spend at synagogue, what they have to practice, the Orthodox Jews who have to walk to synagogue – those are the things that make up their culture; that is a part of their historic beliefs, who they are. So what they eat, when they can drive, when they go to worship, those are the things they have to do. So why do we need to be any different?

So many different ethnic groups are all over Florida. Yet, they seem able to maintain their identity, their native tongues. We need to do the same. It’s not just the Seminole Tribe, by the way. This is a serious problem throughout Indian Country. That lost generation is everywhere.

The leaders need to support this, yes, but it is the people who will make it happen. We are talking about the Lorenes, the Dianes, the Staceys – they aren’t elected officials, but they are so important. They are keeping our culture, teaching our culture. So we as leaders need to embrace it. We need to be the champions of those initiatives.

We are the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the group who fought and was involved in three Seminole Wars, the group who said, “We’re not going anywhere.” We are the direct descendants of those people and it is our responsibility to make sure that we don’t lose that identity. That determination to survive is a part of our DNA. They fought. They didn’t leave. They believed that this was where we belong. They had the warrior mentality. So we need to keep a tight hold on that mentality – not just what drove the Seminole Wars but also what drove the founding members of the Constitution and Charter. Those men and women fought, too – their battlefield was in the court rooms.

So we just can’t have this laissez-faire mentality. A lot of sacrifices were made, over the years, to get us where we are today. Of course, when we are talking about maintaining our identity, keeping the language, we must also talk about learning how to function in the current society, learning how to manage our funds, understanding that getting educated does not mean you have to forget who you are.

Will I be around to see the fruits of the labor that is going to be put forth? Hopefully. But if not, my 9-year-old will. Just as the people who fought in the Seminole Wars are not around today to see the fruits of the labor they put in, and the sacrifices that they made. The Betty Maes, the Bill Osceolas, the Jimmy O’Tooles are no longer here…you could go on and on. They were only able to see a small sample of the fruits of their labor. We are living here experiencing the entire spectrum of those sacrifices they made and the battles they won.

In their later years, most of the language was only spoken by the elders. The younger people didn’t know it. Now today, as we become elders, we look down and the kids are the ones who are learning it. Our Tribal schools are teaching it and that gives me great hope.

I’m excited. However, I can help move that cause; I want to be a part of it. I need to be a part of it. Yes, business is what I monitor. Yes, we are going to be successful on the business end. But again, I will not sacrifice the identity of who we are just for the pure sake of the almighty dollar.

It is not just about today. It is time to give attention and focus on what we want the Tribe to look like 10 years, 50 years, 100 years from now. We don’t want the reservations to look like all the streets lined with just palm trees and green grass and all these fancy cars and we can’t even speak the language, we don’t even know who we are. All we know is we got tons of money coming in. We are much more than that. And the future generations need to know that.

Every other ethnic group out there has shown you can be successful and not sacrifice your culture, your identity. So let’s borrow a couple chapters from their book.

We can dress, talk and do everything that is foreign to our culture, but we know that is what we have to do to be a part of mainstream society. It does not mean that is who I am.

I am talking about the importance of being Seminole. Forget about what jewelry I have on. Forget about having the latest and greatest phone. But take that away, there is still substance here. It is Seminole. Material things don’t make me. It’s about remembering and being proud of who you are. I am finding out that we have a lot of people who are willing to teach. I recognize the value they can bring to the table. Come in with an open mind, listen and you might be surprised. You might walk away learning a new thing or two.

I’ll support this any way I can. I want to help further this cause. If what it takes is for individual leaders to be directly involved in language preservation to help further that cause, then count me in. I think it is that important. More than anything else, preserving our language – learning our language – gives us hope for our Seminole future. God bless the Seminole Tribe.


Tony Sanchez Jr. is President of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc.