A born-again what?

Posted: Sunday, November 10, 2002

You have heard the phrase, "I am a born-again Christian." While I might embrace a faith that gives me a blueprint for life, I think the most important time for me was when I took an interest in who I really was.

Kadashan by Bertrand J. Adams Sr.

My grandmother instilled a sense of Indianness in me when she began to teach her grandchildren the Tlingit language, songs and dances at an early age. I can scarcely remember whenever she knew my brother and I approached her doorstep she would begin to sing and tap her cane on the floor. Immediately we would start to dance to her chant.

In my situation, my parents couldn't do this for us because they came from that generation of youngsters who were educated in boarding schools. They were forbidden to speak or practice their ancestral customs because the federal government and the Christian church's goals were to assimilate the Natives into the American society. When they married, and began to raise families they were powerless to reinforce our history, culture or language into us. While I have friends who speak the language fluently, this is attributed to what happened in their homes, and what never happened in mine.

When I was 7, my father moved the family from Yakutat to Juneau where he secured a job with a construction company. We were taken from the influence of our grandmother. That special connection we enjoyed with her was never renewed, and, much to my regret, I, to this day, feel displaced because I am unable to speak my ancestral language.

I have, however, for the past 25 or so years, taken a concentrated interest in learning about the history and culture of my people. Not only that of my own heritage, but of Native Americans in general.

When I began to understand more about our people's code of behavior, I began to grow with appreciation - realizing also that they had a complex protocol in everything they did.

Let's take, for instance, a brief account from a young man's life. When he was 7 or 8 years old it was his uncle's responsibility to educate (discipline) the adolescent. As this youngster was trained to hunt, fish and survive, he was also taught his history and practiced his traditions and culture. When he grew older he traveled among other tribes, sometimes for many years to other Tlingits, Tsimshians or Haidas in their region; or it could be to the Aleuts along the Aleutians or the Athabascans from the Interior. We do know, also, that the Tlingits traveled as far south as California to trade. It was through these experiences he learned other people's history, songs, dances, etc. Then he returned home to be of service to his people. It was the same as sending our young people away to college.

Native Americans were deep- rooted in their spiritual beliefs, too. They knew and understood the Creator. To survive in their environments they had to have a strong belief in a supreme being. Their reliance and very survival is reflected upon their belief in the Creator. In fact, like all other religions throughout the world, the God we knew is, and was, the same God the missionaries tried to convert us to.

Education was an important part of our society. History and culture, like other so-called civilized cultures, was transferred from one generation to the other. Today we have been introduced to another way of learning, of which our history and culture is not a part. Today we embrace a religion that recognizes the same Creator as Christianity yet we were forbidden to practice worshipping in our way.

So in a sense, we can say that we are, too, born-again Christians. As for me, even though I admit to embracing that faith, when I began to learn more about my history along with who I really was - when I found out that I was named after my great-grandfather, Kadashan, and what he did, my chest began to fill with pride, my confidence and self-esteem were bolstered to new heights.

Indeed, I did became a born- again Indian - not so much as I'd like, but it's a beginning.

Kadashan is the Tlingit name of Bertrand J. Adams Sr., who lives in Yakutat.

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