Group 2 10 min Read

We are Star People: Resiliency Through Stories

By Dolores Subia BigFoot, PhD 

Each of the 574 federally recognized tribes have their own unique stories, histories, teachings, and understandings. Unfortunately, there is a shared history of colonization and displacement resulting in many—or total—disruptions of our stories, teachings, and understandings of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. Now, with many of our shared and cross-pollination of experiences, we have some acknowledged common values that have endured and now serve as anchors for embracing what our ancestors’ observations sought to teach us going forward. 

It is hard to think about the history of our tribal nations, without also being impacted by the traumatic devastation that occurred. We are still engulfed by the injustices and disparities that exist from earlier generations, transmitted in our failures, our shame, and our despair.

Our ancestors were resilient

In many ways, we envision that our ancestors had high resiliency given their survival of thousands of years upon this Great Turtle Island. What was the essence that allowed our ancestors to pray for this generation, prior generations, our generations, our children, and our grandchildren?  How did the understanding of being a relative evolve?

7th Generation, Great Turtle Island, Being a Good Relative, are teachings that have endured and are embraced in this shared experience to move forward with some essential remnant of our historical roots.

This Great Turtle Island is one aspect of the perspective that we are among a great universe—or a universe we cannot comprehend. This Great Turtle Island rests upon a vastness we unquestionably accept. This means we accept and embrace that we are not alone, nor do we exist without connections to other things, both those that are present and those that are not readily recognized nor can be discerned with our physical senses. This then implies we are spiritual beings, i.e., we discern through our spiritual connections. This teaching of the Great Turtle Island also reenforced the concept of Being a Good Relative. If there are connections to our physical and present relatives—and we believe that there is a vastness that exists—then we make the assumption that in this great vastness must live many beings, those who walk on two legs, on four legs, those with wings, those with many legs, the creepy crawlers, and those living above and beneath the sacred ground we walk on and take nourishment from. As observers/thinkers from ancient times, our ancestors had the understanding that we are sacred beings. These understandings, or anchors, provided for one means of resiliency and endurance by our ancestors.  They engaged in conversations which we assumed was conveyed in storytelling and other forms of oral exchanges of this great vastness and of where our ancient relatives dwelled before they came to this Great Turtle Island and after they left. Where do their spirits reside now? 

How our ancestors conveyed their hopes and blessings

Let us step back in time with an appreciation of how our ancient ones were conveyers of information which was not limited to just oral exchanges. We know this by the many and varied methods of keeping records in the use of pottery, cairns, hieroglyphs, shields, jewelry, dress, dwellings, and various other methods. Not only did they convey their experiences, their stories, their understandings; they conveyed their hopes, blessings, prayers, beliefs, and expectations. 

As tribal people, as tribes based on our individual native tongue (language), as bands and societies that existed for generations, we have tribal stories of creation, tribal stories of resiliency, and tribal stories of teachings. From these stories we have embraced certain theories that have evolved such as: 

  • We are spiritual beings 
  • We have varied belief systems about a creator, or creators and helpers 
  • We understand the importance of a circle and circle theory; that is circular thinking more than linear 
  • We value the many Indigenous worldviews 
  • There is an acceptance that concepts such as relational and connectiveness are part of the circle 
  • We have foundational anchors such as 7th Generation, Circle Theory, We Are All Related, Great Turtle Island, that create a connection to our ancestors and to generations going forward, though the term or word (label) may not be consistent, the teachings or understanding have a common bond 
  • The belief that children the center of the circle for each generation 
  • There is an appreciation and willingness to think about ancestors and descendants for many generations that encompasses all or much of the 7th Generation teachings  
  • Circles, council, peacemaking, assembly, or gathering reflect the concept of consensus building 
  • Leadership which means being of service, rather than being served; leadership responsibilities were directed to those who were less fortunate and less able to care for themselves—being a good relative meant being a good leader 
  • Identity is relational to those circles that surround individuals and how they were welcomed into the circle, at birth, by adoption, as a relative, by a naming, by ceremony 

Additionally, we embrace the theory that ceremony is important and knowledge is valued—we reclaim our old wisdom and traditional healing ways that have been lost or misplaced. As Indigenous people we have always participated in tending to one another, that is caring and being observant of the needs of others. Relatives were welcomed with ceremony, song, food, and gifts but especially with attention and time. Welcoming relatives was for when there was a need and visitors would come because someone or entire families had a need. Family members could show up when there was a birth, an illness, or separation such as adult child leaving, loss, or death. Relatives would help with childcare, assist with elders, help with harvest, housing, transportation, or other needs. The intent of the ceremony was to prepare for an anticipated activity or follow up after an unexpected or devastating event, in order to renew, recognize, acknowledge, purify, honor, transition, and stabilize. Within the circle of tending, we acknowledge that we are spiritual beings by being good relatives. 

Building on the foundation of our ancestors

As we contemplate the present, we are building on the foundation of yesterday. Why is history important? A sense of belonging, connectedness, and identity are important aspects of well-being, and help to lessen distress, reduce anxiety, increase sense of purpose and generational pride—learning about oneself is built by better understanding the experiences of our ancestors. Stories of ancestors give purpose to future generations and improves mental health and resiliency skills for better decision making while building compassion and advocacy for self and others. It also allows for humanity to be seen through the eyes of humility and to not make the mistakes of the past by helping the healing and recovery process.  

To do the work of ancestors who prayed for the next generations, we are reclaiming our old wisdom and traditional healing ways that have been lost or misplaced. As Indigenous people we have always participated in tending to one another, that is caring and being observant of the need of others.

Because we are ceremonial people, we are an honored-based society—we are an honor-based culture, we have honored song, and honored ceremonies. Yet shame has replaced honor. When honor was taken away, there was not just a void, but the void was filled with shame. There is opposition in all things, if there is not honor, there is shame. 

Shame has become the pathway to adulthood for many of our people, no matter the tribal connections and in many cases, because of the tribal connections … because they could not find honor in who they were and how they came to be. Shame has become our story. As children we were shamed but did not know why, yet we could recognize the feelings of shame. As youth, we were shamed and it became a spiral of losses and feelings of unworthiness. As adults we were shamed in not being good relatives, not be good partners, not be good friends, not being good parents. 

Honoring our ancestors means honoring ourselves

Honor moves us toward sacredness.  When we honor ancestors, we can honor ourselves by holding onto their teachings and practices. When we honor others, we acknowledge our own sacredness.  We may not feel worthy of prayer, or ceremony, but we can lean on our ancestors’ prayers and hope to move us toward sacredness. We can bring honor back into our lives a little bit at a time by remembering the prayers of our ancestors. And sacredness can bring humility. We are humble people—but being humble does not mean shame. It means being honorable toward our relatives and those around us. It means letting go of resentment, letting go of anger, letting go of revenge, defensiveness, and taking offense—when there is humility, there can be tears. But, there is no shame in tears or in having the capacity to feel tenderness and hurt. 

When we apply our teachings, we honor our ancestors. When we learn from their stories, we honor our future because they prayed for us and our future.  Did they know who we are?  We don’t know, but they knew we were coming to this Great Turtle Island as relatives. When we are good relatives, we understand the role we play in helping others. And when we are good relatives, we engage in ceremony. 

Storytelling through the eyes of out ancestors

Creation stories are the history and tradition of the tribes; they tell how the world began and in what manner. They explain how the world, people, animals, and plants are related. Through creation stories, people can understand the natural order of life and in what direction they came and in what direction they are going. They give reason to the overall scheme of things. It is therefore important to understand the creation of things because it provides the framework within which wise decisions can be made. 

Every tribe has a creation story that tells of their origin, how they came to be, and what helpful behaviors lead them forward. Many tribal websites have posted their creation stories that share the wisdom of their history, the important teachings, or other understandings about life.  One creation story of the Cheyenne is the mighty migration that forced the Cheyenne to separate when a water monster broke the ice they were traveling over. Some of them were isolated from the main group and they never reconnected, leaving them to decide how they were going to survive on their own and manage their new circumstances. It is told that they confronted many kinds of adversities eventually settling in the far north country, building structures to house their families, tending the land, hunting game, and fishing the many streams. In 2003, Cheyenne historian John L. Sipe wrote of the discovery of the lost Cheyenne. What can be learned from this and other creation stories, is that circumstances change, adversities occur, what was expected is different, new understandings have to be considered, decisions need to be remade, and behaviors have to change toward different or more challenging conditions, and sometimes relatives are separated and we must rely on those who are close by. 

Storytelling was the form of transmittal for how things were and why things happened. There were winter stories and summer stories, stories for days that the rains fell, and stories for early mornings. Creation stories were retold and retold many times in the growing years. Why is storytelling important? Storytelling helps with … 

  • Reassessing and decision making 
  • Consequences and outcomes 
  • Explanations about behavior 
  • Character and attributes 
  • Values and beliefs 
  • Suffering and sorrow 
  • Maintaining and self-sufficiency 
  • Grounding and resiliency 

The stars are our ancestors

We are star people, we are from the stars, we are an honored-based society. We have many stories about the stars, about where we came from and where we are going. We are told that the stars are our ancestors. We are told that we walk the Sienna after our last camp from this Great Turtle Island. We are told we have the brilliance of stars and that the stars hold the creation of our beginnings.   

Now we know that science has affirmed that we are star people. It’s a great human-interest story that we are now able to map the abundance of all of the major elements found in the human body across hundreds of thousands of stars in our Milky Way. Jennifer Johnson, the science team chair of the SDSS-III APOGEE survey and a professor at The Ohio State University, said, “For decades, science popularizers have said humans are made of stardust, and now, a new survey of 150,000 stars shows just how true the cliché is: Humans and their galaxy have about 97 percent of the same kind of atoms and the elements of life appear to be more prevalent toward the galaxy’s center.”   

We are an honored-based society. We are star people.  

Dolores Subia BigFoot, PhD, is a presidential professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center where she directs the Indian Country Child Trauma Center and is a senior advisor to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center both located within the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.