Native American Oral Storytelling & History | Seth Fairchild | TEDxSMU

Native American Oral Storytelling & History | Seth Fairchild | TEDxSMU


Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven The older generations
are beginning to pass away. Eyes that bore witness to the most transformative period
in the history of mankind are being laid to rest. For Native Americans, these are the witnesses
of the civil rights movements, boarding school initiatives, and not so far removed
from the relocation efforts. Seleah Pistubbee was born in 1899. At the age of four, she officially enrolled
in the Dawes Roll to make herself, in the eyes of the federal government, a Native American. Her last name, Pistubbee,
being a combination of two Choctaw words: “pisa” meaning to see, and “tubbee” meaning to kill,
or “abi” meaning to kill – her name literally meaning
Seleah To-See-and-To-Kill. Seleah passed away in 1988. She was my great-grandmother. My grandmother, Belvia Mintz, is pictured here
in front of her boarding school, Chilocco Indian Academy. When I look at these two pictures, two things immediately come to my mind. Number one is that I would not be here
without these wonderful women; in a very real way,
I am living their legacy. And number two is that while you and I
can look at their faces and know that they existed, the world will never hear
their voice again. I have a little daughter at home
and a son on the way, and I can’t tell you
what it would mean to me for them to be able to hear their stories, not secondhand from me,
but from their lips. And see their eyes light up
when they talk about what it was like being native in a world where it’s not always
a good thing to be native. And while this story
is special and unique to me, it is not unique to our tribe. Scott Wesley, who also
works on this project, is pictured here at the age of one with his great-grandfather, Bennet Wesley,
and his grandfather, Otis, who have both passed away. It is often said that every time
an elder dies, a library burns with them. It seems like every single week, we hear about another tribal elder, a first speaker, who has passed away. And with them, all the knowledge
that life’s experience had taught them. So why do we do this project? Number one is so that we can look back. If you do not know your history,
then you are doomed to repeat it. As many of you know, when you look at the history
of Native Americans, here in America, it’s not always a joyful thing, it’s not always a positive thing. But there are happy moments, there are amazing moments
that we can capture. I don’t know how many of you know, but Choctaws were actually
the original Code Talkers in World War I. And in 1917, when they were called
to fight alongside the Allied forces, they were not even citizens
of the United States. Tobias Frazier was
one of these Code Talkers. And we had the opportunity to sit down
with his daughter, Ruth Frazier McMillan, and visit with her, about him. And I want to play that clip for you. (Video) Ruth: The reason that I knew
that Poppa had been to war was because he had a wound –
he was wounded – and he had a big wound on his leg. And I’d say, “Poppa,
does that hurt? Did that hurt?” And he said, “I hurt worse
playing football,” is what he’d always tell me,
it didn’t hurt, like – no, it didn’t hurt. And I said, “Well, what did you think
leaving down here?” It was such a small little place, it was way in the boondocks
down there, you know. And he took a train
all the way to the East Coast, and he said it was just the wonder of – big eyes looking at things
that he’d never seen before, that was the thing. I didn’t ask him if he got seasick –
his daughter gets seasick – and I just wondered if he did. I wish I would have asked him – and he said that – he talked about the French people
when he got there, how wonderful they received him. They were curious about his hair;
they thought it was going to be curly, and they wanted to touch his hair, and he had to take his cap off
and let them see it straight. Straight, straight. But he said the people
were just wonderful. But France was being
badly beaten at that time, and so they were really happy
to have somebody coming to help. Sadly, Ruth passed away two years ago, and I would like to dedicate
this project and this speech in her memory and in her honor. You know, as I look at that film and I remember
sitting there with her that day, I can’t tell you how glad I am to know
that 500 years from now, our children, grandchildren,
great-grandchildren will be able to hear her voice
and see her eyes light up when she talks about
this hero to our people, but to her it was just her poppa. Second reason that we do this
is so that we can look forward. If we fail to pass on
this generational knowledge, we do a great injustice, not only to our tribe, but we do a disservice
to our children and grandchildren. I recently had an opportunity to sit down with a young Choctaw
in Oklahoma named Brenner Billy, who recently had a son of his own. His son’s middle name is Ahina, which in Choctaw means a guardian
or someone who sits beside you, almost like a big brother, and he is so appropriately named because the Billy family
has long been a guardian of our culture. They have passed down our songs
and our chants and our dances in the way that they were taught. And I asked Brenner, “If you could pass on
one piece of advice to your son, that will live on forever, what would that advice be?” And I want to play that for you. (Video) Brenner: Never stop learning. I mean anything that we do
as Choctaws, we learn – we never stop learning. And to be successful
or to be more knowledgeable, we have to keep learning, and we have to keep learning
from not just our family but from other families too. Because we have
our sense of knowledge, but we also can venture out
where some of the things can relate to us. And I would say never to stop learning, always remember, always exercise your heritage. And that’s probably one of the things
that most gives us our identity, makes me Choctaw as much
as looking Choctaw, I guess, instead of having regalia on –
I’m as much Choctaw as I am without it. And it’s something I can’t take off, it’s something that’s, you know, it’s me. And I would give my son
the advice of saying, “Never stray away from your culture. It’s always going to be there, it’s always going to be
what keeps you, you, and keeps you and your people Choctaw, and that’s something
nothing, no one, can take from you.” It is often said that Native Americans
are not linear thinkers, that we think in terms of circles. We take a more holistic approach
to life and everything that we do. And the beauty of a circle is that while you can look behind you
and you can look in front of you, you can also look to your side, to the people next to you. The Civil Rights Movement
was a period in history when people stopped looking
just inside their circle and started looking
to other circles, other races. Martin Luther King Jr. was a champion for the
African-American race during this time, but he was also a voice
for Native Americans. And when you think
of the Civil Rights Movement – I know the first thing that comes to
my mind is the struggle for race equality, but truly it is more than that. It’s a fight for human rights; it’s a fight for human dignity. And I think that’s something
that we can all get behind. I recently had an opportunity
to sit down with Olin Williams, who, during the time
of Martin Luther King Jr., was a young Choctaw living
on the reservation in Mississippi. And he shared a story about hearing
Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time. (Video) Olin: “Well, at the time
when I was growing up, there was a lot of racial tension,
especially in the South. And as a little boy, I didn’t understand anything that was
happening with my life; I just felt the effects from the social concerns
of that time period. And I didn’t have a role model; I didn’t have anybody
that I could look up to that may have a doorway to my questions, something that I could look to. And at that time, the technology was not
as high as it is today, so the only access we had was the radio. And we heard this man speaking, and he was speaking about injustice. And that kind of hit me because that seemed to be
what we were facing, and we were not prepared, we didn’t know how to handle it. And so I listened to him – he made sense. And I felt like he was somebody
that I could relate with, somebody that could help me understand even a little bit about
the social struggle at that time. So I had to make a decision. I understood that he was not a Choctaw, and yet the principle thing
that he was bringing was calming to Choctaws too. And so I learned early
that the struggle was not the outside, but it was within man, and that’s what he was talking about. And so with my childish understanding, I began to relate, I began
to be educated by what he was saying, and so I think he made a big impact
on my thinking process. Choctaws are not the only group
of people with stories. These are the stories that are so important to us
as individuals and to us as a tribe, but you have stories. Your family has stories. You come from a tribe somewhere,
you come from a people somewhere. And as I look out to the audience – and I’ve had an opportunity
to visit with many of you today – there are so many races
represented here today, there are so many backgrounds
represented here today. So I want to encourage you
to explore your story. Don’t be wishing 20 years from now,
30 years from now, that you had sat down with your parents,
with your great-grandparents, and could go back and look at their faces
and hear their voices, and you can pass that on to your children. All lives matter –
all human lives matter – because all lives have stories. I want to urge you to explore your story, and to, most importantly,
share that with the world around you. Thank you. (Applause)

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