Connecting with and Keeping Traditional Native American Culture Alive
Matthew H., 26, is a student at San Jose State University. He is majoring in environmental studies (with a concentration in managing, restoring, and defining natural resources and habitat) and minoring in park ranger administration. Matthew is a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe located in Humboldt County, CA. He is also part Tolowa and Yurok (also located in Humboldt County and Del Norte County, CA). He shares his experiences connecting with the Native American culture by participating in games and tribal gatherings, as well as through the Young Native Scholars (YNS) program.
What are some experiences you remember most about growing up?
My family moved around a lot throughout Del Norte County — sometimes living close to or far away from the reservation, and sometimes living in more developed or more rural areas. Both sides of my family are Native American which helped me connect with my culture. I loved visiting my family because they were just that, my family and loved ones. They are the people who first taught me respect, all the skills I have, and most importantly, how to laugh and love.
I hold my cultural experiences close to my heart. Fishing and hunting is a large part of the Hoopa, Tolowa, and Yurok people. It was always a fun experience fishing for smelt on the Pacific shores with my aunts and uncles and fishing for salmon and steelhead in the Smith River with my dad. I grew up playing many tribal games, including card games1 and physical sports2. I also valued sacred tribal gatherings, such as Nee-Dash3.
Tell us about the Young Native Scholars (YNS) program.
Young Native Scholars/InterTribal Youth prepares Native American students for a brighter future through hands-on life experiences that combine academics, adventure travel, health and wellness, cultural exploration, and economic opportunities. My father discovered it and gave my older brother the opportunity to participate. I looked at photos and listened to stories that my brother shared and knew I wanted to do the same.
The program gave me opportunities to meet new people and I loved making new friends from different areas of California and neighboring states. It was an entirely new experience and a great way to learn about my heritage. We shared our backgrounds and learned how our lives were the same or different. It gave me an appreciation for what and who I had in my life, while at the same time showing me there is so much more out there to see and learn.
In the program, we explored different colleges in southern California to give us a head start on how to adapt and find the schools we liked. We learned how to use resources at the schools and had assignments to help us gain experience and guide us as we searched for what we wanted to pursue with our lives, what direction we wanted to take, and what education we wanted in order to develop our interests and discover new ones. We also visited some of the reservations in the area and learned from the tribal members that grew up there and who continue to help their communities grow.
What takeaways do you have from the YNS Program?
I learned a lot from YNS and will always hold my time in the program as a reminder of how important it is to remember where I come from and how I can share my culture with others to help the culture grow and build a diverse society.
Every person on this planet has had a different experience, and it is important to learn from each other. Not one person knows everything. That is why it is important for humans to interact with each other and ask questions. I want to know as many interesting things as possible, and the only way to learn those things is by first-hand experiences or by learning from others. That is something I started to realize after YNS.
What else did you learn from YNS?
The only way I am going to learn something is by looking for the answer. I need to stretch my curiosity and not be afraid to fail or be embarrassed.
Fear and uncertainty can be good things to help guide us down the right paths and show us what we truly want out of our lives. I love who I am and the people that are involved in my life. My understanding of my heritage grew exponentially after YNS, and I will always remember the importance the people that raised me had and continue to have in my life. I hope that I can be this important to people that may look up to me or seek my help. I want to help better our communities and environment through my goal of becoming an environmentalist.
I do my best to travel back home as much as possible, where I can remember and enjoy my tribal practices. I hope to teach them to others in the future. Growing up in a Native American community taught me to respect not only our planet, my elders, and family and friends but basically everything else as well. Everything has a purpose, and I am extremely grateful to have been taught that.
What plans do you have for the future?
I currently work for a small startup company called FarmDoor that is developing a new way for neighborhoods to share community-supported agriculture, or CSA. The idea is to have a shared pantry, where local organic produce can be purchased. By purchasing from the stands, members share a commitment to support local farmers and have greater access to organic and local produce.
I plan to receive my undergraduate degree in 2016 and go on to study for a master’s degree in environmental and natural resource sciences to explore the connections that humans have with our environment. By further educating myself, I can help spread more knowledge to my community about restoring the places and resources that we use.
What advice do you have for future change makers?
My advice is to work hard, believe in yourself, and have fun doing it. Take advantage of the resources that are available to you. The programs, scholarships, educators, and resources are all there to help us in our lives. Showing appreciation for various cultures and upbringings is important; it will help the growth and knowledge of all.
Learn more about the cultural activities Matt enjoys...
1 My favorite card game is one where you try to choose in which hand your opponent is holding an ace. Typical playing cards are not used. Instead, you use small, handmade sticks about 1 inch in diameter and 10-inches long. Participants and viewers place wagers on the game.
2 One sport takes place on the beach. It is similar to lacrosse but much more physical. The game is played between two teams, each with three players. Each player has a stick (about 3-feet long with a 2-inch curve at the end). This stick is used to throw the tossle, which is made of two, 4-inch long wood pieces, 2 inches in diameter, that are tied together with buckskin. At the beginning of the game, players interlock at the forearms and wrists and hold their sticks with their mouths. One player holds the tossle in his mouth. When he drops the tossle, the players each grab their stick with their hands and use the stick to throw the tossle. The objective is to score three times by throwing the tossle across the other team’s finish line. Games can last for less than a minute or for hours depending on the strengths and strategies of each team. This may be the most popular game to watch in Northern California tribal areas because of the competitions between tribes. It is an exhausting game, but I’m not sure if anything else can test ones skills of strength and strategy and give a rush of excitement and competitiveness all at once.
3 Nee-Dash is a very sacred and exhilarating tribal gathering that helps to keep our heritage alive. It involves dance and prayer and is performed mainly during the winter solstice. Men and women line up in a half circle around a fire with dance leaders singing behind them. The women interlock arms with the men who use both hands to hold a weapon, such as hunting knives made of obsidian, otter skin quivers, or bows. Women usually wear braid wraps in their hair and basket-woven caps. Men wear headpieces, such as woodpecker headdresses, rabbit furs, feathers, and deer horn caps. The dancers wear deer hides and handmade regalia with beautiful designs created with natural materials threaded through colored glass beads, pine nuts, and seashells. The dances are a sacred practice and must be taught and learned beforehand to be performed correctly and respectfully.
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