By Santee Ross
I learned from an early age that secrets are an essential part of your social status. A secret could mean the difference between being bullied or left alone because you know Tommy the Bully wets his bed every night.
As I grew into adulthood, secrets became a crucial part to my sense of identity, a way of separating myself from the other kids.
Native Americans — particularly our elders — are masters at keeping secrets without keeping secrets. Our elders have lived the longest and possess the most wisdom, but they are also the most quiet. They understand that the proper passing of secrets is often done in silence.
Today, Native Americans have forgotten how to sit silently and observe when receiving secrets.
Many contemporary Natives believe the only way to learn traditional skills, like speaking their Native language, is in a classroom setting. We have been so assimilated into the student-teacher paradigm of learning that we now expect our elders to merely tell us how to speak our own languages.
We have forgotten to learn in the traditional way of observing and emulating. We’ve forgotten how to keep secrets without keeping secrets.
This shift in learning has become a threat to the continuation of Native languages and, consequently, to Native American culture as a whole.
According to the National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, “Every two weeks the last fluent speaker of a language passes on, and with him or her goes literally hundreds of generations of traditional knowledge encoded in these ancestral tongues.”
Our traditional ways of life cannot be learned through the English language. Once we lose our Native languages, we will cease to be Native American. Our secrets will die off and we will be left with no culture, no sense of identity.
Native American secrets are the strongest kind of power we hold as a people. And unfortunately, that power is dying with every elder that passes and with every child that doesn’t speak in his or her Native tongue. New generations of Native American children need to be reminded of their untapped power.
Elders are willing to pass down their wisdom, but only in the right way, the traditional way. We must remember that secrets are what keep us Native American — they are what separate us from the other kids.
Santee Ross is a sophomore at the University of Montana studying journalism and resource conservation. She is a member of the Lakota and Hopi tribes.