September 26, 2007

How to learn Indian culture

Learning culture takes time, devotionOne of the most important lessons I learned, although I didn't know it at the time, is how critical it is to live in an Indian community or have close ties to it. Even though there was no set lesson plan, and I wasn't told this is a cultural lesson, I absorbed Indian culture because it was what was happening every day.

When I started school, I came home and asked my grandmother, who lived with us, if the Sahnish (Arikara) word for bear that I used was English or Arikara. I didn't know because English and Sahnish were used interchangeably at home. I absorbed those words like I absorbed the ceremonies. They were part of what we did each day, like the family who says a Catholic blessing before eating.

It was also hard as a child to understand why my classmates didn't do the same things we did. I learned that Indian culture, language and ceremonies were far too difficult to explain, so I kept quiet and became one of the quietest elementary school students at Sunnyside in Minot.

I learned how important the language is for this reason, too. It is the culture. I learned that words paint pictures of who we are, so to understand a culture, you must understand its language. This is true not just for Indian languages and culture, but all languages and all cultures.

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