Honoring Native American Heritage Month

Sharing and reflecting on the history and perspectives of Native Americans

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, I wanted to share some history and perspectives on the importance of Native Americans in our society. This month is a good time to learn more about tribes and the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present.

First, I’d like to share some words from Leslie Riggs, our agency’s tribal liaison: “Native culture is not monolithic.” Within Oregon alone, there are nine sovereign tribal governments, and each of those comprises numerous other bands and tribes. Each tribe has its own history and traditions. It’s important that we remember and celebrate the rich and diverse array of cultures among American Indian and Alaska Native peoples.

Here are a few videos I recommend to help you learn more:

Native American youth in the legal system

According to “Repairing the Breach: A Brief History of Youth of Color in the Justice System,” the relationship between Native American children and the legal system can be traced all the way back to when European settlers first came to North America. Their structured ideas about what made a healthy family clashed immediately with tribal peoples, who had a broad concept of family relations, one that did not necessarily indicate someone related by blood.

It’s hard to generalize because each tribe is different, but historically, many Native American cultures focused on restorative justice practices instead of physical discipline and punishment. Settlers disagreed with this form of justice, leading Congress to pass several acts that stripped away tribal sovereignty and created Indian boarding schools, separating children from their families, their languages, and their traditions.

Today, the legal system for Native Americans continues to be complex. Jurisdiction for crimes committed in Indian country, defined as all Indian lands and communities within U.S. borders, can fall under the federal, state, or tribal justice systems, depending on the circumstances. The historical trauma described above is a major risk factor that negatively impacts tribal youth, along with exposure to violence, suicide, substance use, and lack of cultural knowledge, participation, and identity.

It is important for us to remember when working with Native American youth that there are also many protective factors on which we can rely. A big one is family — multiple studies have shown that parental support and close relationships with family members are among the most frequently cited protective factors for tribal youth.

Culture is another important protective factor. This includes exposure to traditional values, customs, activities, and ceremonies, something our Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations (OIIR) has provided to our youth for years. Pow wows, drum circles, sweat lodge ceremonies not only help connect youth with their culture, but they also teach important lessons about values, positive actions and attitudes, spiritual growth, and connection with community.

On that note, I asked two of our agency’s most outstanding team members who coordinate services for Native American youth to share more about their own stories and cultures. You’ll find their answers below. I encourage all of you to take some time this month to learn about and reflect on the history and the modern-day contributions of Native Americans in our society.

Two men sitting and drumming on a Native American drum

Leslie Riggs (left) and Derwin Decker lead a drum circle for youth at Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility.

Perspectives from OYA

Leslie Riggs, tribal liaison/Native American programs coordinator

Leslie has been in his current position since starting at OYA in September 2019. He is Umpqua, Rogue River, and Shoshone Bannock, and is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

Q: What would you like our youth to know about you (hobbies, etc.)?

A: One of my favorite things to do is to learn new things, thoughts, ideas, practices, etc. I am an avid reader of both fiction and nonfiction. I like biographies about musicians and folks from the music industry the best. I am a rock and roll drummer and have a band that plays around town occasionally. I also have a family, so I spend a lot of time with them. My wife loves to do home improvements. I like the improvements, but doing them, not so much.

Q: What would you like others to know about your background, your family, or your culture?

A: I was not really exposed to my Native culture until I was an adult. My father left my family when I was 2 years old. I moved around a lot as a kid and ended up going to 21 schools in 12 years. Out of this chaos, at some point, I decided I was an academic and pursued higher learning. It was great when it was my choice, and I got to decide what to study and how much energy to put into it. At community college, I got involved with the Native American Student Union.

When I got to university, I started taking a language class at my reservation. This led me to meeting a lot of people who knew members of my family and who had a lot of information about our history. Turns out I was the great, great grandson of a Lower Umpqua Chief. I got to work on a cool project that involved me doing lots of research about my dad’s side of the family, and this helped me feel better about who I am. The feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty fell away as I grew stronger in my culture.

I enjoy working at OYA very much. I love being able to share culture with the youth, some of whom are very steeped in culture while others are only just starting their learning. The privilege of being able to be a part of that journey is one I do not take lightly.

Q: What is your approach when working with our youth?

My approach to working with youth is essentially the golden rule. I treat them how I want to be treated, with respect. I meet them where they are. I listen to learn and am genuinely interested in who they are as people. I feel like I have a pretty good rapport with the youth because of this.

Q: What do you think other staff should keep in mind when working with Native American youth?

Native culture is not monolithic. There is a wide variety among the cultures of Native American people. There may be similarities, but these are generally superficial. Learn about the myriad cultures. Beyond this, remember that not all Native youth are alike. Some may know a lot about who they are. They may have been raised in a traditional household and culture may be very important to them. Others might not know a thing about their heritage, or even want to. The main thing is to not place any blame on them for this. Assist them in finding information if they want it.

Derwin “Medicine Bear” Decker, Native American services coordinator

Derwin has been working his position as part of the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations for about four and a half years. He is Modoc and is an enrolled member of the Klamath Tribes in southern Oregon.

Q: What would you like our youth to know about you (hobbies, etc.)?

I enjoy music, especially classic rock. I play guitar, both acoustic and electric, and have played in several bands (nobody famous – LOL!). I also enjoy many outdoor activities like trout fishing and exploring places. I also enjoy classic cars, working on them and cruising in them.

Q: What would you like others to know about your background, your family, or your culture?

I was born in Oregon and have remained in Oregon all my life. I have four children who have all grown up and have lives of their own. I have been a Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor (CADC) for 26 years and have worked as an alcohol and drug counselor for many years both in private practice and with my tribes. I have worked as a forest firefighter in my younger years and drove a truck and worked in a mill. I also have worked as a security guard for my tribal casino and worked at the Eastern Oregon Psychiatric Hospital in Pendleton as a QMHP assistant and as a job trainer working with DDS (Disability Determination Services). 

Native American Heritage Month means many things to me, with the one being that it is a step in recognizing the contributions that Native American people have contributed and continue to contribute to this nation culturally, socially, politically, historically, financially, spiritually and the list goes on and on. There is a long road ahead for Native American people to become part of mainstream America, but I believe there is progress being made.

Q: What is your approach when working with our youth?

I enjoy working with the youth and staff in all of the OYA facilities where I get to share my personal experiences, education and training, strength and hope. I am grateful for my sobriety and would not have been able to achieve 34 years of sobriety without my connection to my Creator. My motto is “Do no harm.” I strive to meet people where they are and make amends where I have caused harm.

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