OPINION: Becoming a Good Ancestor

by Colleen Echohawk 

The elders always have something to teach us. Sometimes I am so busy, worried, and stressed that I miss it. I miss their quiet and unassuming teaching steeped in hard years of experience that gently guides us.  Recently, I stood outside of the Chief Seattle Club at a table, watching the line of relatives who have been experiencing homelessness; they were waiting for us to open the food line. The line was expansive, reaching all the way down the block. This population already struggles with food insecurity, but the pandemic has worsened an already tragic situation. Hundreds of our homeless relatives were hungry, waiting for our staff at the Chief Seattle Club to bring out nutritious and delicious meals to quell their hunger and offer kind words of support and comfort in an unsupportive and incredibly uncomfortable situation.

I stood there feeling the stress and enormity of the situation. I saw my good friend and member of the Chief Seattle Club walking toward me — this guy!  He’s one of my heroes — friend, elder, and just one of the best people. He’s one of our Chief Seattle Club members who has experienced homelessness for many years on our streets. In the past few years, he has found housing but still spends much time with his community and dear friends at the Chief Seattle Club. We exchanged friendly hellos and elbow bumps and together watched the line swelling before us and boxes of meals being transported to the distribution table. He looked at me with pride and said, “Colleen, I am so proud of the Chief Seattle Club. I am so happy that I am a member here and so glad that we are feeding all of these people.” He continued on with cheer and love in his voice saying, “This is the Native way; when people are hungry we feed them, we see them, and we give them food, comfort, and love!” I was struck once again by this hero, this lovely individual, who has been long ignored by our community (he has struggled for years with chronic homelessness that stems from crippling depression and physical illnesses), in this moment leading the way, asking me to follow his rich example of remembering the humanity of each individual, to find a way to love them despite their behaviors that manifest because of their extreme mental health distresses.  

This November, we once again celebrate American Indian Heritage Month — it also happens to coincide with when our country celebrates Thanksgiving. We have all seen and heard of the myths of the Pilgrims and the Indians coming together in joyful celebration of Thanksgiving, and then all the Indians disappear and the Pilgrims are suddenly the “fathers” of our country. 

This grossly inaccurate myth, as Jean M. O’Brien (2010) explains in Firsting and Lasting, can be traced back to the early 1800s in Massachusetts and Connecticut. O’Brien provides a survey of older texts written by white settlers, such as the disturbing depiction shared below written by William Cothren, on the history of Woodbury Connecticut:

“Less than two hundred years ago, these pleasant hills and sunny valleys, now teeming with life, intelligence and happiness, were one vast solitude, unvisited by the cheering rays of civilization … Everything now is changed. The desert waste that met the first gaze of our pioneer forefathers has been made to bud and blossom as the rose. Where once were but scattered huts of the former race, are now enterprising and busy villages.” 

Texts like this paved the way for people to see Native peoples as inferior, forever invisible, and ancient relics of the past. 

This continued misrepresentation and the racist magic trick of the disappearing Indian continues to perpetuate harm in our country. Native people experience some of the highest rates of homelessness in Seattle and around the country. Yes, you read that right: the First People of this land, the Indigenous people of North America, are the most likely to be homeless. Native leaders around the country are fighting to prove ourselves worthy (needlessly; we have an abundance of capacity), urgently working to have access at the policy-making tables around homelessness and housing, desperately pleading for money from government agencies and foundations as we try to find ways to house our relatives, our precious elders, and our babies.  

You would think that with all of this trauma and frustration, our Native homeless community would be a little bit more bitter and angry. You see, despite the decimation of our communities, our places of worship, housing, culture, and spiritual practices, there was a seed that was buried deep and could not be pulled out. Our ancestors placed songs of hope, gratitude, and resilience deep within us, and despite the brutality that tried to kill us, it could not succeed. That day outside of the Chief Seattle Club my friend and good elder was showing me the better way: That if someone is hungry (or if they are hurting and suffering), then you should help them. That to live in this world, to be good ancestors ourselves, then we must look to support and lift up the most vulnerable in our community, to practice the ways of civility, peace-making, and radical, love-filled justice.  

Listen to the wisdom that comes from unexpected places.

Cultivate wellness in yourself and in the community.

See humanity in the faces of those who are suffering the most, take action, and follow their leadership.

If you are powerful, use your power to support the most vulnerable.

Be a good ancestor.

Colleen Echohawk (Pawnee/Athabascan) is the executive director of the Chief Seattle Club.

Featured image: Haida Heritage group members link arms in solidarity, during the fifth annual celebration of Indigenous People’s Day at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Seattle, Washington, on Oct. 8, 2018. (Photo: Carolyn Bick}

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