How to Speak with Elders: Native Americans and Resource Management

Native Americans are gaining more voices in resource management.

We are getting more invitations to share that knowledge and see our words shared on social media. At the same time, we see terms like decolonize the data and traditional knowledge, which help support this call for more Native American speakers. 

How to Speak with Elders: Native Americans and Resource Management, by Emily Washines, Native Friends. In the photo Emily Washines and Russell Jim (Yakama Nation tribal members)

As we receive more speaking and writing opportunities, how do we speak with the elders and the teachings they have shared? In this blog, I'll cover how we can carry forward our teachings in this fast-paced information age to elevate Native American knowledge within Resource Management.  

The voice of restoration continues

How do we speak for the resources that cannot speak for themselves? As young children, we are taught, that these foods sacrificed themselves so that we can have a better life. We share this message, pray about it. We go to school or communities with non-natives and store that knowledge away. Often we are uncertain of when to bring it up, in case we might be judged. With Sovereignty curriculum requirements in schools, we are seeing a shift in the acknowledgment and appreciation of Native American voices. But, even as I grew, I had confusing learning experiences with this. Sometimes, speaking for the resources is not simple. Other times, it just appears boring, with no photographer or videographer to capture the excellent points being made at that conference table.

Native American insight is more often sought for environmental talks and panels. Then they add super fancy words like restoration and decolonization and sometimes it can make Native co-presenters look at each other and think, We better have our stuff together!

I took some time to reflect back to the presentation I gave with our elder, Russell Jim. What would be useful to share with you?

Here are the three main points:   

  1. Balance: You will have to find the balance in what is shared (intellectual property, oral history)
  2. Elders: Co-presenting with elders is a powerful peer-review
  3. Voice: The voice of restoration continues with you


You will have to find the balance in what is shared (intellectual property, oral history, etc.)

We have to decide on a case-by-case basis how much inherent knowledge and oral history to share. Some of this is never written down, therefore, the manner in which we share it shifts. Some cultural information was written down long ago and on the internet, so we reference that as primary source material and state, “It is already available on the web.” With Return of the Wapato, which describes the return of a wetland potato, I only shared the information after I heard from elders and got their permission. In this particular instance, I received clearance because the food was gone for so long and it required a voice. My research included elder’s quotes. After I present on this topic, some Natives will approach me and say, “I'm not sure how to talk about our foods to the public or if my tribe will approve.” Listen, I didn’t know how to balance all of this when I started researching. I only thought my family and friends would see it, as described in this article by The Evergreen State College.

It turns out, a lot more people would see it, so I was put in the position to figure it out. The bottom line:  it did not happen all at once. We get to build our own systems and ways of talking about resource management. If necessary for grants or particular parameters, there are plenty of models in which western society has created that we can reference alongside this cultural information. We need to be able to stand by our knowledge and dataset and just say, This is the approved message and information that we are sharing.

What gives us such authority?

Let's think of the purpose, the vision. I don’t use the word decolonize enough. Mainly it's because that word often doesn’t fit into conversational's too EXTRA. However, I love how the word decolonize flows from the keyboard when I type it. It’s like it has a cape! I use it here, because when and if you get flack on either side (tribal members or scientists) this is an excellent word to use to characterize the intent of the actions. We should use this word and it's superpower more.

Decolonize, disucssion of the term in blog: How to speak with elders: Native Americans and Resource Management

But when do we need to use this word?

I have received my share of calls and questions about my presentations stating, I just don’t get how this - your work - is scientific. Which, for my case study, I have a quick retort. This was peer-reviewed publication and the National Science Foundation certainly seems to think it is scientific, as they funded it. Now, maybe you haven’t been through the intense, yet lovely, peer-review process. Maybe you’re just someone trying to decolonize data. In that case, I've decided to provide you a quick response back to people who question tribal knowledge. A general statement: 

This is a part of a decolonization of western science and you will notice an elevation of the oldest data set available, which is from tribes.   

If we remember that sharing information is powerful and that, as tribes, tribal members or allies of tribes, we can find a way to balance this. Being able to tell this story has helped open doors and streamline difficult conversations about fixing the land. It has even reconciled my own confusion that occurred when I did speak for the resources, yet it came at a cost. More on that in a bit.

With Elders

Co-presenting with elders is a powerful peer-review.

When I was 20 (over 15 years ago) the elder in the photo, Russell Jim “Kiaux” and I were watching powwow dancers outside the Yakama Nation Cultural Center and talking about the Yakama Nation. He said, “I have a request for you. If you ever hear of this system in any meeting or conversation, I want you to ask if it is a proven system.” I did not have a familiarity with this. I didn’t even have a cell phone at this point! So, I couldn’t google it. I remember repeating it over and over again in my head as the powwow drums beated to the sound of my heart. I was afraid I would let down this elder's request. He described this process for me and I repeated that as well. As the song ended, I thought, well I can’t imagine I would ever be a place where that would come up.

For this next story - I removed some pronouns and other identifying factors - because this story is about reflecting on the learning process.

My job at the time had not mentioned that system or even the project Russell was on. 

Months later, I was preparing for a meeting with a person I'll call, The Meeting Person, and this topic came up. I knew this elder would not be there as it was a small meeting. I heard the drums in my head again along with the cadence of his request. I needed to do as our elder requested. I mentioned that this topic had come up when I was visiting with an elder. I then politely asked The Meeting Person, “Is this a proven system?” The response was silence. Even though I asked very gently. Up to that point, my dialogue with The Meeting Person was fast-paced, yet visionary. Our job was to change and add value to communities for the better. The abrupt wall in conversation was apparent and if it wasn’t already, it would be made crystal clear 20 minutes later when I received the message “Why don’t you sit this meeting out?” as The Meeting Person zoomed out the door to the meeting without me. I was sad about the missed opportunity. I was confused, as it ostracized me from that section of initiatives on resource management. I let it rest though. What else could I do? 

Fast-forward a few years

When speaking about the topic of our resources with Russell again I finally was able to gather the courage to mention lightly, “I did as you asked, but they didn’t answer and I was uninvited from the meetings.” I was scared to mention it before. The accurate description is I hesitated. Because there were always people clamoring to speak with him. My hesitation to bring it up was rooted in the fear of seeing the disappointment in his eyes. Did I let him and the resources down? At that moment, I wasn’t sure what his response would be.

A slow smile spread across his face as he nodded knowingly. I was reassured. I did not compromise who I am or our my tradition of speaking for the resources. He did not say another word.

His response would later be louder, but in the cool quiet way, he is known for. I started to get invitations to meetings and talks, including the one in the photo. These events were about restoration and how including our traditional knowledge creates more efficient results. I chuckle as I realize that his response to me being uninvited to meetings, years earlier, was to invite me to more meetings.

Even though time had passed, the topic, jobs, and settings are different, his reassurance is an important validation. He worked to instill this validation in many tribal youth. I like to refer to it as a peer-review. I notice how so many of us within Native communities reaffirm knowledge by checking-in. If my family member or friends hear something or wants to double-check, we will call or visit. This is one way, we can reaffirm our tribal oral history, legends, and knowledge to western society. As we ask others to speak for the resources who have this validation, we re-affirm their teachings and knowledge.


The voice of restoration continues

When Russell Jim retired in November 2017, the Yakama Nation and others had wonderful tributes. I was even mailed this photo. While I had seen it electronically, holding it in my hands brought back memories. I haven’t shared it before. A part of me worried what people might think because I am holding the microphone. I will probably get messages like, "Why didn’t you let the elder talk?" Which depending on who sends it, could be just funny teasing or a harsh criticism followed by other sentences. Maybe just like that girl who is a little bit scared to share all of her culture in school, we get a little protective.

Then, I started to prepare for upcoming talks about our resources and First Foods and reflected on his wisdom. I realize what this photo represents. I realize the gift I can provide others in our tribe that might not have had the opportunity to co-present with him.

After we finished our presentation, we had questions. He passed the microphone to me and nodded for me to answer. Maybe you can see it on my face, what I was feeling at that exact moment was, OH my gosh!?! He trusts me to answer this and take the lead, Don’t mess up, don’t mess up. Then I took a deep breath and answered. His validation and standing by my side helped build my resiliency. In a similar way, I am there for my kids when they read me a story, stumbling a bit, but steady and reassured by my presence.

Presenting with an elder is a powerful experience. As is speaking to a resource method when an elder asks. Sometimes, they won’t be by your side, but their words and teachings will be. Some of the background and lead up to this photo was years of understanding and learning built. It includes speaking for the resources and reporting back what happened when we do. I stumbled with the understanding that decolonizing the approach would take awhile. For years, I mourned losing my voice in the meetings I was uninvited to. While I didn’t know then, it is a part the decolonization process in our management of resources. This is the risk of speaking for our resources. What I know now is that a very short polite and precise question can have a lot of power, especially when our elders' teachings are woven within. 

I hope I helped build your understanding of what it takes to have a voice of restoration and decolonization in the resource management. I hope that you are able to support these efforts to elevate Native Americans in Resource Management taking place. After all, it is for our environment.

I will conclude by sharing one of Russell’s favorite phrases in Ichiskiin. If and when you are in a situation where you are speaking for our resources and need guidance, this should help.

Ichi tiichum iwa inmi wawnakshash (This land is my body).

Thank you very much for your time. Please let me know if you have questions.


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1 comment

  • I am aware that Russell Jim played a large part in establishing a working relationship between the Yakima Nation and the Hanford Site. I was wondering who took his place and whether the Yakima Nation feels they have a good relationship with the Hanford Site concerning their rights to accessing the land and involvement in the clean-up decision-making process.

    Kathy DeMers

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