The shoes are carefully crafted by young mothers, grandmothers and other Native American women who live in the region’s urban areas. Under the guidance of elder Vivian Bradley, participants in the Native American center’s Healthy Generations Project learn a simple, useful skill and, along with it, the more important lessons that come from finding a supportive community, gaining an appreciation of their own culture and being able to transfer those gifts to their children.
“We’re small, and we’re diverse – that’s a challenge, but it’s also a blessing,” said Michael Martin, 39.
A Buffalo State College graduate, he is executive director of the Grant Street center, which provides assistance in matters of economic support, family services, Medicaid coordination, alcohol abuse, health and wellness, and cultural development.
“We can see things in a holistic way – we see the whole family, the whole life,” Martin said.
In a nutshell, that is the mandate for everyone at Native American Community Services and one they hope to share with other helping agencies. Except for two programs – workforce development and healthy generations – the Native American center works with all populations, native or not. The belief is that the more people who have been disenfranchised know and value about themselves, the better their chances for improved lives, whether it be finding a job, escaping addiction or making healthier choices for themselves and their families.
To that end, the center – on the second floor of a renovated school building at 1005 Grant St. that also houses a YMCA and apartments – is expanding to three days its training program on Native American Cultural Competency, which is March 26-28. Western New Yorkers working in prevention services, social services, health care, law enforcement and mental health are among the many invited to attend.
It could be eye-opening for them.
The programs each day will correspond to the past, present and future of the Haudenosaunee (ho DEE no SHO nee). Once known as Iroquois, they are the people of the Six Nations – Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga and Tuscarora – who controlled the lands between Lake Erie and the Hudson River for centuries.
The first day of the training will cover “Ongwehonweh: kah,” or traditional teachings – the creation story, the Great Law of Peace, and an understanding of the two-row wampum belt, which helps explain why many Native Americans, though in Western culture, still remove themselves from it.
The training on March 27 will be of particular interest to those in various helping agencies because it focuses on “The Impact of Historical Trauma” on the native population.
“We see so many problems related to historical trauma,” said Terri Lyn Summers, coordinator of the Healthy Generations Project. The trauma for the first Americans goes beyond the violence of being pushed from, or into corners of, their native territories. Starting more than a century ago, many families also were torn apart when their children were taken away to Indian boarding schools to be “civilized.” Martin quotes the infamous policy of “kill the Indian and save the man,” credited to Col. Richard Pratt, who founded one of the original schools at a military barracks in the late 1800s and ran it for 25 years.
The impact of this federally mandated obliteration of native culture continues to reverberate, even though the government itself eventually reversed course on its treatment of Indians. Some of the center’s funding comes from government programs to help restore what was lost and to attempt to repair the damage caused.
“There is a lot of inaccurate information out there,” said Pete Hill, Native American Services director of health and wellness. “There is not a lot in the American and Canadian education systems that talks about Native American history, so we approach those issues as well.”
But they do it in a positive way.
“We realize that [those attending] are here with good purpose,” he said. “We don’t use the history to blame anyone – it’s to try to explain and understand, and to create a safe space to ask questions.”
Following the native principle of looking ahead, rather than only honoring the past, the program on March 28 is “Clearing the Path for the Seventh Generation,” a nod to native teachings that every generation must consider how its actions will affect descendents far into the future.
Already the past and future are coming together for students in Brandon Martin’s Mohawk language classes. The group meets once a week at the center for two intensive hours of “conversational Mohawk,” in anticipation of qualifying for a federally funded Mohawk language immersion class set to start in May. Those who make the cut – they must have a fundamental understanding of the root words of the language – will meet for 30 hours each week for about eight months to achieve at least a moderate fluency.
The loss of native speakers – due to both the Indian schools policy and to Native Americans’ natural assimilation into mainstream culture – can be devastating from a historical perspective.
As Michael Martin explains: “When we try to pass on our teachings in another language, much of the meaning gets lost.” Concepts get buried, oversimplified or just plain erased. He gives a simple example. In English, people call their children’s children their “grandchildren.” In the language of Martin’s ancestors, those same people are more accurately referred to as something like “my legacy,” describing a connection far deeper and more spiritual than the mere biological.
The mood at the center these days is optimistic, and the feeling is one of greater connection with the region’s 14,000-plus Native Americans, in Buffalo and through its office on Main Street in Niagara Falls.
“It’s coming together,” Michael Martin says. “It’s the right time.”
The Native American Cultural Competency training sessions are March 26, 27 and 28 from 8:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 1005 Grant St. Cost is $100 for all three days; $40 for each single day, and includes all materials and lunch. For training content information, contact Pete Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org; to register, contact Laurel Mark at email@example.com, or call 874-2797, Ext. 334. Deadline to register is Wednesday.