Culture isn’t simply how a group defines itself. It’s the fabric of any society, woven with the colorful threads of language, customs, beliefs and values.
When culture is celebrated and thriving, good things happen. When it is diminished or snuffed out, the impact is painful, dramatic and long lasting. Indeed, generation after generation can suffer significant health impacts because of historical trauma, which can manifest itself in everything from stress to social isolation to substance abuse.
The Waaswaaganing Anishinaabeg (Lac du Flambeau) Tribe has lived this for much of the past century.
“Our language is our identity,” says Wayne Valliere, the tribe’s main language and culture teacher. “It is the nucleus of our culture. If there is no language, there is no way of talking to the Great Spirit.”
Efforts in the late 1800s to the 1930s to strip the Lac du Flambeau Tribe of its culture and divorce its members from previous generations had a debilitating effect on the health and well-being of members that still reverberates. Many of the health challenges being addressed today—whether economic or educational ones, physical or mental ones—have roots in the native people’s historical trauma.
Recognizing this, the Lac du Flambeau Tribal Council declared a “state of emergency” in 2013 and set upon bringing peace and recovery to its suffering tribal family. But it was decided that this change would only come—and be sustainable—if the centuries-rich Waaswaaganing Anishinaabeg culture was at the heart of every decision made, a guiding force in this new chapter of restoration.
A culture that had been cast aside and discouraged would once again take its proper place.
Cultural identity would be tightly tethered to this budding Culture of Health. It’s a lesson that can be applied in many communities in the United States today, whether those teeming with newly arrived immigrants or those witnessing the marginalization of people because of race, ethnicity or even religion.
Today, elders stand side-by-side with the tribe’s youth, conveying lessons of history while teaching life skills. Health care facilities are staffed with people who understand tribal culture and its sensitivities. Even the land itself—once pristine and gently loved—is getting a second life, with native plants being restored, storm water runoff being redirected. Sustainability, which is hard-wired into the native existence, is again front and center.
Though Valliere can vividly recall his grandmother’s stories of being taken to a strange building one day with adults barking orders at them—“Speak English! Speak English!”—his students today are alive in the power and beauty of the Ojibwe dialect as they begin to take back what so many had lost.
Some of his older students have become emotional during class, realizing what “the boarding school era,” as it is known, had taken from them. Yet with each language lesson, and with each stride that the Waaswaaganing Anishinaabeg is making toward a healthier existence, the pain of the past is slowly being eclipsed by a new hope for the future.
“I promised I would teach as many people as I possibly could until the Great Spirit takes me,” Valliere says. “To be involved in saving your people’s identity is the greatest calling and the greatest honor one could ever get. I’m blessed and very humbled by it every day of my life.”