If I try really hard, I can still conjure up the smell of my grandmother’s cooking: The peas and rice she made on Sundays at her home on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, the oatmeal she made me when I spent the night at her Bronx apartment as a child, the cornmeal in the pot or cornbread out of the oven. I also remember my mother’s gait, the way her face changed when she was about the laugh, the warmth of her embrace, how she told stories about my great grandmother, Isabel, from Montserrat. Perhaps you can do the same with memories of your own relatives, long gone.
Some days, this feels hard to do, because time keeps passing, and as I grow older myself, memories rise and fade like the cadence of their voices I once knew so well. Fourteen years gone, it feels ever more important to hold fast to my mother’s voice, her face, her energy, for my own children who never met her. All of our stories are in grave danger of being lost — forgotten, when we neglect to share them with the next generations.
Fortunately for me, the stories of my Shinnecock mother and grandmother do still remain, and it’s because of the way my richly textured family ancestry was shared: matrilineally. In 2019 and early 2020, as the world frantically tried to find footing in the ongoing pandemic, I had the opportunity to help document Shinnecock elder stories in the documentary 1,000 Years a Witness. In partnership with Bulldog Studios and the Ojibway-helmed Three Fires Film, I was honored to record the recently late Lubin Hunter (a cousin of mine on my mother’s side who died last week at the age of 104), and share his early and prescient thoughts on racial equality and integration in the military while serving in World War II. He spoke of how during the hurricane of 1938, Shinnecocks provided Southampton residents with clean drinking water from our wells, free of charge, when the in-town plumbing was destroyed — despite the glaring economic disparities between the two populations that still persist today. Other elders spoke of a quieter life on the Shinnecock Reservation growing up, our traditions, living essentially between two worlds, and the trauma of being sent away to American Indian boarding schools.
Oral tradition, or the passing of stories by spoken word versus the written word, is particularly prevalent in matrilineal societies. Native American women have always held tremendously important roles for our people, particularly before European contact. These responsibilities were not just family-related, but, as they should be, social, political and economic.
The Five (eventually Six) Nations of the Iroquois Confederation were matrilineal, and their governance reflected this. Women were the keepers and supporters of so many vital aspects of Native American societies: We decided which men would be chief (which does beg the question of why in a matriarchal construct, we wouldn’t select one of our own as leader, but that’s a longer discussion), and equally had the power to remove an unworthy chief. We passed both membership in our clans and material items down to the next generations, but maybe of greatest value, we passed our stories.
Notably, in our cultural creation stories, not only did women create life by giving birth, but we also birthed the most important entity our Native culture sees as animate — our Mother Earth. It was my own late mother, Barbara — a teacher, social worker and social justice activist — whose stories moved me to capture my own, and those of others. She was one of only a few women of color to get a doctorate from Columbia University in the ’80s. Barbara gave her time and energy to her students (and even strangers on the street) for decades, helping them through school, relationships, unwanted pregnancies, abuse, desperation, and often triumphantly, later, graduation.
Mom thought family story saving was one of the most important obligations of women in the family, mirroring Native American oral history traditions and the conservation philosophy of the Seventh Generation. When my mother and I stood in the doorway of the UNESCO slave memorial off the coast of Dakar, Senegal in 2005, on the one international trip we took together, I felt powerfully the meaning of our shared history of genocide as descendants of African slaves and as Native American Indigenous people. It was only after her death that I began the practice of using story saving to further my understanding of history — my own, and yours.
Storytelling and saving are ways to help people connect around ideas and values that run in families, and preserve them. In our fractured and busy day-to-day modern lives, it’s easy to forget the importance of listening. Western culture has always placed a premium on being the biggest, the best, the loudest and most attention-getting in any room. By contrast, Native American (and more broadly, Indigenous cultures the world around) have emphasized the opposite: We were taught that sitting down to listen, to respect and really hear our mother’s or grandmother’s stories was most important. And it is that value system and practice of listening that helps Native people sew the cultural fabric that educates and supports our next Seven Generations.
All of our elders have a rich legacy to leave and wisdom to impart. Our very lives, we owe to them. In reading this, I hope you walk away with a sort of gift you’ll use this year: That’s the foresight to start talking to your mother, your grandmother, your father, uncles and aunts. Preserve your family’s legacy now, while you still can. Not doing so is a regret you should live without.
Alli Hunter Joseph is a citizen of the Shinnecock Nation. A journalist, producer and family historian, she produced 1,000 Years a Witness and the PBS Shinnecock documentary Conscience Point.