Five Things to Celebrate About Indian Country

By investing in everything from language revitalization to humor, Native communities are thriving. You just need to know where to look.

By Aura Bogado Nov 25, 2013

There is so much to celebrate in Indian Country, but we don’t always know where to look, and it’s hard to keep track of small wins and big victories. Non-Natives sometimes dwell on history instead of embracing the fact that Natives are doing pretty great things today. This can teach us all lessons moving forward. As Native American Heritage Month winds down, here are five important things to celebrate about Indian Country:

Language Revitalization
We don’t tend to think of English as a foreign language in the United States, but it is. Prior to contact with Europeans, it’s estimated that there were some 600 indigenous languages spoken in North America. Today, there are fewer than 200 spoken in the United States and Canada. Revitalizing languages is important. As Anton Treuer writes in "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask," "Tribal language education is a powerful tool for the development of everything from cognitive function to basic self-esteem." The Menominee Language Institute is a great example of natural immersion, and there are countless programs that are all aiming to keep language alive.

Jenny L. Davis is a linguistic anthropologist who researches languages revitalization and the way that language intersects with indigenous identity. Some of what she’s found most surprising is the way that people are familiar with and know pieces of multiples languages–the result of social interaction, networking and activism at a multi-tribal level.

Davis says that most communities in North America now have some type of language program but that hasn’t always been the case. "It’s happening at a community level, and if you look at language revitalization programs in tribes, most have been founded in the last five or 10 years," says Davis. She adds that people like parents and those with full-time jobs often do the work of teaching Native languages, and do the work free of charge because they’re passionate about the resurgence.

Laughter is often the best medicine, and that’s certainly true in Indian Country. A new generation of Natives are using the Internet to keep the laughter rolling, while addressing a myriad of topics. Take The 1491s. According to their website, they are "a sketch comedy group, based in the wooded ghettos of Minnesota and buffalo grass of Oklahoma. They are a gaggle of Indians chock full of cynicism and splashed with a good dose of indigenous satire." The group is well known for its hilarious videos, including "New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions!!!!," "Blood Quantum Leap" and "The Adoption of Johnny Depp."  And it’s not just humor–check out the "1491s Represent series, which features Natives maintaining their practices, even in places like Ivy League colleges, which can sometimes be isolating.

And it’s not just the 1491s who are making use of the Internet to spread humor. At the start of November, Andrew Curley launched Tlo’chi’iin News–a satirical news site that draws hilarity from otherwise serious topics like tribal sovereignty. In the Navajo language Diné, tlo’chi’iin means onion, which is a nod to the satirical site, The Onion. In a recent post, Tlo’chi’iin News claims that the Navajo nation is investigating the Kennedy assassination, and that the nation devised an elaborate test involving sheep and a sawed-off decommissioned cop car to find clues to the killing. Curley, who is a graduate student, has seen a positive response from younger people, but has also confusion from older folks and tribal officials who sometimes think the satirical stories are actually true.

Same-Sex Marriage
Jason Pickel and Darren Blackbear grabbed headlines last month when the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes married the two because the marriage took place on tribal jurisdiction in the state of Oklahoma where same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Tribal sovereignty trumps state law, including in marriage and divorce matters, making their marriage valid.

But Pickel and Blackbear weren’t the first to be issued a marriage license by a Native nation within a state where same-sex marriage is banned. In 2004, voters in Oregon made same-sex marriage unconstitutional–but that didn’t stop the Coquille Tribe from recognizing same-sex marriage in 2008. To date, eight Native nations issue same-sex marriage licenses, including in some states it’s illegal. Six Native nations, however, have banned it.

Highest Minimum Wage
Some Native nations are really hurting in this economy. The sequester, followed by the recent government shutdown, have made a bad economy even worse–and the U.S. federal government hasn’t fulfilled its constitutional obligations to programs like the Indian Health Service. But some Native nations have thrived, despite the odds. So much so that the highest minimum wage has been set by the Jackson Rancheria Band of Miwuk Indians–higher than the federal standard, and higher than any tribal, state, or local minimum wage.

Starting this January, all of the 1,135 workers at the Jackson Rancheria’s resort in California will earn a minimum of $10.60 per hour. Workers–including those who aren’t tribal members–also earn generous benefits, including medical, dental and vision insurance, life insurance, paid holidays and a retirement plan. Parents who work for Jackson Rancheria also enjoy on-site childcare. The wage increase will cost the Jackson Rancheria about $5 million per year–but will probably keep those workers pretty happy. 

Native News
There are countless websites dedicated to Native news and many of them focus on a particular nation or region. Four sites that cover a variety of Native news in North America and provide excellent analysis on Native issues are Indian Country Today Media NetworkIndianz.comLast Real Indians and Native News Network.