Wednesday, August 24, 2011

People Of The Waters That Are Never Still

Generations ago, one of my European grandfathers and one of my Native American grandmothers married, fusing in their offspring two peoples who had parted ways ages before, one heading west to the British Isles, the other to the Bering Strait and across to North America.  I grew up in New York, near where they met and married, and my childhood is marked by memories of that land: tall oaks and white pines, deep forests, rocky crags over which the water pours, never still, always the same, always changing.  The waterfalls of the Catskill Mountains are a constant presence in those mountains and in my memories.  They are the waters of my mothers and fathers, and of my youth.

(Photo: Kaaterskill Creek in New York State)

My family has since lost the languages those ancestors spoke, and this fusion of tribes has adopted the linguistic fusion of English.  I have no intention of claiming a legal place among either of the nations from which I am descended, nor even to name them here. But I find that the memory of both, and of the lands they lived on, is rooted deeply in my consciousness of who I am.  Last year, while visiting the British Museum, I saw a display of various Native American peoples, including my own.  It was the only time a museum has moved me to tears.  The words and ways of my forebears may be mostly gone, but they are not forgotten.  My father taught me to remember them and what they knew of the land we lived on, and often, while teaching me to know the woods, he would remind me that those woods were old family acquaintances.

Jacob Wawatie and Stephanie Pyne, in their article "Tracking in Pursuit of Knowledge," cite Russell Barsh as saying that "what is 'traditional' about traditional knowledge is not its antiquity but the way in which it is acquired and used." Our word "tradition" comes from Latin roots that mean something like "giving over" or "handing down."  Traditional knowledge is knowledge that is a gift from one generation to the next, a gift we give because we ourselves were given it. I am grateful to my father, in ways that I may never have told him - in ways that perhaps words cannot begin to tell - for the traditions he learned and loved and passed on to me.  I'm grateful that he has not let me forget.

There is, of course danger in emphasizing one's heritage and one's roots, especially if we make that the source of a distinction between ourselves and others, or a way of diminishing the lives and traditions of others.  Just as much as it matters to me that I am from the people of the waters of the Catskills, it matters to me that my ancestors shared those waters with one another, people from two continents recognizing, each in the other, the waters from which both arose.

For all that I have received, for the traditions like waters pouring over the cliffs, gifts like the Kaaterskill Creek, let me give thanks.  Let me give thanks with my life, offering to those who come after me, a taste of the sweetness of those same waters.

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