History, Biology and Purpose – what it means to be member of a Native community

Gyasi Ross, keynote speaker at Tulalip Wellness Conference.Photo courtesy of Gyasi Ross.
Gyasi Ross, keynote speaker at Tulalip Wellness Conference.
Photo courtesy of Gyasi Ross.

By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News 


As part of the Community Wellness Conference that took place on May 11 at the Tulalip Resort, keynote speaker Gyasi Ross gave an impassioned speech directed at Tulalip’s high school youth. Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation of the Port Madison Indian Reservation where he resides. He is a father, an author, a speaker, a lawyer and a filmmaker. TV, radio and print media regularly seek his input on politics, sports, pop culture and their intersections with Native life. For those who were unable to attend the conference and as a result were unable to hear Ross’s keynote address, the following is the most powerful message he delivered to the Tulalip youth on their history, biology, and purpose as a member of a Native community.

“I want to acknowledge the staff who put this event on. Most school don’t have stuff like this because there is no money for stuff like this. We all know money is important, which means the tribes is investing in you all by putting this money forth; they are saying you all are important. How do you know when something is important to somebody? Unfortunately, it’s because they spend money on it. That’s what people value in today’s society.

All of us come from a history and a culture, a culture that acknowledges where we are. History is a fancy word for ‘this is where I come from’.

One of my favorite quotes in the world is from an Okanogan woman named Christine Quintasket. She was the first Native woman to ever publish a written book. She had an amazing outlook on life where she viewed life’s function as a part of the natural world. She liked to talk about the relationship of human being to nature, to trees and plants and to the animals. Christine Quintasket said, ‘Everything on Earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission.’ If this quote is true, and I believe it is true, then that means every single one of you guys and girls and women and men and me, has a purpose. Every single one of us has a mission. What purpose or mission do you have?

Let’s talk a little biology. If I look at my grandparents, three of my four grandparents were alcoholics. That means I have a 75% of carrying something similar to them that would make me like alcohol. As a result of that both my parents at one time were alcoholics. As a result of that I’ve chose never to drink, I’ve never driven alcohol in my life. It’s not a religious thing, I’m not religious at all, but it’s a practical recognition of history, of Mendel’s Grid, of biology. That’s why it’s important to understand biology and to understand our history. It’s because that helps informs who you are.

Going into biology a little bit more, how many of you have ever said or heard someone say, ‘I didn’t choose to be here!” How many of you have said that yourself, that you did not choose to be here? I know I’ve said that before. I’m going to tell you why that statement is dead wrong. Biology. Every time a baby is conceived a man releases from 80 to 500 million sperm cells. It’s fact. That means that for every single one of you, before you were conceived, you were in BIG competition. You were in competition with 80 to 500 million other sperm cells trying to get to that egg…and YOU won. Every single one of you are that special little sperm cell that was stronger, quicker and more agile than everyone else. You wanted to be here! I’m not talking religion. As a matter of biological fact, every single one of you wanted to be here.

That means anytime you say or you start to say, ‘I didn’t choose to be here’ you are lying, you are not telling the truth. With that we are going to go into some history.

The function of tribes, of Native people who lived in small, intimate communities who lived in distinct places. The reason we chose to live in these small, intimate communities was for survival. For no other reason than survival. It was based on interdependency. Everyone in the community had a role, a function within the community, and those communities were successful because each member was able to depend on the other members to live up to their roles. The hunters, the fisherman, the gathers, the clothes makers, those who were able to make medicines…whatever their responsibility within the community they had to live up to it because everyone else’s survival depended on them.

Going back to the notion of Christine Quintasket saying, ‘Everything on Earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission.’ It is inherent, inherent is a fancy word that says it’s written within out DNA and it’s in our blood, it is inherent as Native people to have a mission. Every single one of us, every single one of you, has a mission. Once again, what is your mission? Going back to the historical times, our ancestral communities, those missions were hunting, gathering, medicinal herbs, being a warrior, seam-stressing, etc. This is something that is also historically proven, every single one of you are necessary. You are necessary to the betterment and survival of the whole. This is what we are talking about when we say culture.


On Monday, May 11, and Tuesday, May 12, the Tulalip Resort Casino hosted the 3rd Annual Community Wellness Conference. The target audience this year was our tribal youth. Photo/Micheal Rios
On Monday, May 11, and Tuesday, May 12, the Tulalip Resort Casino hosted the 3rd Annual Community Wellness Conference. The target audience this year was our tribal youth.
Photo/Micheal Rios


A lot of people think culture is this fancy thing that you wear, it’s a pendent or beaded necklace. One of my heroes, his name is John Mohawk, said ‘Culture is a learned means of survival in an environment’. That’s all it is. At one time when you were trying to survive as that special little sperm cell, you were kicking and fighting and elbowing all these other 80 to 500 million sperm cells because your means of survival was getting to that egg by any means necessary. As we developed and we became tribes, our means of survival was by finding what the need was within our community. We all come from need-based communities. From both these perspectives, historically and biologically, you are necessary, you are important, and you are beautiful.

A side note to the historical piece. I don’t get into the morality of drugs and alcohol, the morality of it and spiritual part is between you, your family and your creator. However, there is a practical part.

The practical part is historically our people couldn’t afford to do things that weaken themselves. You couldn’t do it as a practical matter, not as a spiritual matter. You couldn’t be weak. Why? Because when you are coming from a small community and there are only so many hands that can go out and hunt, or so many hands that could go out and gather food and medicinal herbs, or so many hands that can seamstress…every person is a commodity. Every person is incredibly important. For every single person who is unable, because they are weakened by drinking alcohol or doing drugs, that isn’t able to fulfill their function within the community is making the entire community weaker. Not morally, but practically because that makes their family and their community weaker by that individual’s decision to weaken themselves, because now they can’t be relied upon to carry word or to go fish or to hunt. So now the community as a whole is weaker. Every single one of you are necessary in a community.

You need this place, your community, your home…and it needs you. The reason why you need this place is because history and biology. Right now, you have the privilege of breathing the same oxygen, drinking the same water, eating the same fish as your ancestors have for 20,000 years. Nobody else in this country can say that. There’s not one single person in this nation who can say that other than Native people. That’s it. That’s a huge privilege. Your community has that sense, that longing, it’s that Mother Land that says, ‘I need you, but you also need me’. When we look at the history, the biology of these communities there is a DNA there and you are the living embodiment of that DNA.

I want to end with Christine Quintasket. ‘Everything on Earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission’. What is your mission?”

Strengthening resiliency for our Tribal community

By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News 

On Monday, May 11, and Tuesday, May 12, the Tulalip Resort Casino will host the Tulalip community as we come together to partake in the 3rd Annual Community Wellness Conference. The event, sponsored by the Tulalip Tribes Problem Gambling and Stop Smoking Programs, starts at 10:00 a.m. and ends at 6:00 p.m. on both days in the Orca Ballroom, with open registration starting at 9:00 a.m. This year’s conference will be a special occasion for all attendees, as we are invited to hear the motivational words and experience the remarkable talents of Native celebrities from across North America.

Highlighted by day one keynote speaker Gyasi Ross, author and storyteller, day two keynote speaker Vaughn Eagle Bear, comedian and actor, and a special performance by DJ crew A Tribe Called Red, the Community Wellness Conference will be sure to keep attendees engaged and interests peaked as we learn how to channel our energies into positive experiences.

“Our theme is strengthening resiliency for our tribal community,” explains Ashley Tiedeman, Smoking Cessation Specialist and co-coordinator of this year’s wellness conference. “This year all of our speakers will be talking about various ways of channeling our energy and efforts into positive and productive ways. It all goes back to expressing our emotions in a healthy way. Instead of using our emotions and energy in a negative way, our speakers will demonstrate how they create a positive experiences using various forms of expression through art and culture.”

Learning new methods of expressing our emotions and channeling our energies in new ways is often difficult, especially when being communicated to by outsiders. To alleviate this process and make it not only engaging but relatable as well for our community, all this year’s speakers and performers are Native.

“That’s the great thing about this year’s conference, too, is that we have these dynamic speakers, these interesting performers, all these great people that are coming to uplift our community, and they are all Native,” continued Tiedeman. “The community is going to be able to relate to everybody. The youth, because we want all students from 8th graders to high school especially to attend this conference, they will able to relate to these speakers and performers. I think that is what’s so special about this year’s conference.

“We’ve had youth say to us, ‘when the Tribes bring in these outside experts to speak to us, we don’t really get to express our thoughts and feelings. It’s more like we are being talked at’. That won’t be the case with this year’s Wellness Conference. The content will be engaging and relatable. Also, we will have talking circles to end our day one session. There will be an adult talking circle and a youth talking circle, to make each age group feel more comfortable giving voice to their thoughts and feelings. With our talking circles people get to share how they feel and engage with one another.”

A Tribe Called Red is a DJ crew who blend instrumental hip hop and dubstep-influenced dance music with elements of First Nations music, particularly vocal chanting and drumming. They will be performing on Tuesday, May 12, from 2:15 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. We are hoping to have as many youth as possible attend their performance and take in the very unique, electronic powwow music. Parents please bring in your middle school and high school students after they are finished with school on that day. Those who arrive promptly before 3:00 p.m. will receive a CD by A Tribe Called Red and can have it signed by the members of the group.

As additional incentives to get community members to come out and participate in strengthening our resiliency, each attendee will receive a gift bag full of goodies. A signed copy of Gyasi Ross’s book of stories and poems titled Don’t Know Much About Indians, a storytelling DVD by Roger Fernandez, and a CD from A Tribe Called Red are just some of the goodies.

Our very own Rediscovery Program will also be present during the conference. They will be providing each of us with hands-on experience, teaching us how to make two traditional types of medicine: lip balm and smudge kits.

“The idea behind this year’s conference is learning all these ways of channeling your energy, your emotions and feelings, but basically your energy through arts, activities and culture,” says Alison Bowen, Family Haven Program Manager and fellow co-coordinator of the conference. “We know everyone has a lot going on. It may be good stuff or bad stuff or just stuff you feel overwhelmed by. We want you to witness first-hand and learn about all these different ways of expressing what you are going through. Like aerial performance! How many people have ever seen an aerial performer? I’ve never seen one. It’s exciting to say we will have an aerial performer showcasing her abilities and that just might open someone’s eyes to possibilities they hadn’t previously considered.”

Mark your calendars and set a reminder so that you don’t miss out on what is sure to be an exciting and uplifting learning atmosphere for the Tulalip community. The 3rd Annual Wellness Conference is open to the entire Tulalip community, so long as they are 13 years or older.

“We want our tribal elders to be there. We want our tribal youth to be there,” said Tiedeman.

Hopefully the Orca Ballroom will be filled to capacity with our Tulalip tribal membership as we come together for two days full of Native speakers, presenters, and performers.

The following is the complete list of speakers, artists and performers who will be featured over the two-day Wellness Conference:

  • Gyasi Ross (Blackfeet Nation, Suquamish Nation). Author, lawyer, speaker and storyteller.
  • Tanaya Winder (Southern Ute, Pyramid Lake Paiute, and Duckwater Shoshone Nations. Performance poet and writer.
  • Red Eagle Soaring (multiple tribes represented Native youth theatre.
  • Matika Wilbur (Tulalip and Swinomish. Photographer, project 562.
  • Andrea Thompson (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) .Cirque Artist.
  • Vaughn Eagle Bear (Rosebud Sioux, Colville Tribe). Comedian, actor and motivational speaker.
  • Roger Fernandez (Lower Elwha Band of Clallam Indians). Artist, storyteller and educator.
  • A Tribe Called Red (Grand River Mohawk, Nipissing First Nation, Cayuga First Nation). DJ crew, electric powwow.


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 Contact Micheal Rios, mrios@tulaliptribes-nsn.gov



Native Author Gyasi Ross Talks Cultural Preservation

12-5-gyasi-2-thumb-640xauto-9817by Aura Bogado, Color Lines

Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and his family also comes from the Suquamish Nation of the Port Madison Indian Reservation where he resides. Aside from being a father, lawyer and a filmmaker, the ever-busy Ross has found time to write two books. His latest, “How to Say I Love You in Indian” (Cut Bank Creek Press) comes out today. Here, he talks about real love, feminism via bell hooks and fatherhood.

The title of your book, “How to Say I Love You in Indian,” might confuse people. What do you mean by it?
Well, there are a lot of fluent speakers of the Blackfoot language in my family, and my grandparents or really most people in my family will say they’re speaking in Indian. That’s just the way old folks speak, and that’s who I was raised by, by grandparents and great aunties and uncles.

What about the love part of the title?
Poor people have different ways of communication, different kinds of love that are not part of materialistic culture. Expressing love isn’t about a Hallmark card. … It’s not about convenience. It’s not always about being vocal and poetic about love, it’s about taking care of each other—like cooking. One of the stories in the book is about stew and how it’s representative of love for a lot of poor people, and Indian people specifically. We always had the worst cuts of meat and the worst ingredients, but through those ingredients, time, love and secret sauce, it turned into a beautiful stew. That’s what the title of the book is all about: physical manifestations of love and the symbols of our love within Native culture.

So it sounds like it’s less about saying “I love you,” and more about how you express it.
Right, it’s about the action. A lot of the work that I do and the writing that I do is about fatherhood and mentorship. And because I’m a dad, I remind myself that I can say “I love you” all I want, but if my actions aren’t commiserate with that, then it doesn’t matter.

I noticed that you thanked bell hooks and you also have quote from her in the book. She’s written a lot about love, and I’m curious about how she’s influenced your work.
I think that bell hooks made feminism approachable to me. I was raised by a single mom and two older sisters, and by my grandmas, who are both amazing women. Just today, I was speaking with my auntie Wilma Faye and she’s also provided a lot of structure for me. I tend to put women on a pedestal, and Native women especially because they were the ones who ensured that I was safe and always doted on me—to a fault, maybe. It was bell hooks who helped me to look more critically at the relationships that women have with men, and with young boys and sons specifically. And that was important for my intellectual development and my emotional honesty.

You’re a father, a lawyer and a lot more. When did you find the time to write this book?
I don’t sleep much, and that’s tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also true. I come from a home with a single mother, and so I take fatherhood and being an uncle very seriously. I try to work on that first and foremost, before any other those other titles—lawyer, writer, anything else—I’m a dad. And I’m also an uncle; I’ve been one since I was 12 years old. For me, what that means is that I have to figure out a way to negotiate everything else around those two things. I work entirely for myself, and when my son’s at school, that’s game time and I can work. But when he’s home from 3 o’clock to 9 o’clock, that’s his time. He can’t just see me on my computer working. He needs to see me hanging out with him and being active as a way to teach him a healthy lifestyle. No paid work is getting done at that time. Whether it’s writing, lawyering or consulting, that happens from 9 o’clock in the evening until it gets done.

You write in the book that the last 500 years don’t define us as indigenous peoples—that the future will. What does that future look like for you?
There’s a lot of controversy about how long Natives in both North and South America have been here, somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 years. Five hundred years is absolutely nothing compared to how long we’ve been here. The United States empire is already showing incredible signs of decay, it’s already falling apart. And most Natives can understand that this has been an experiment gone terribly wrong and that we shouldn’t buy into it. Some Native people are trying to dis-enroll other tribal members over casino money—and that’s the culpability that bell hooks writes about—and some of us are buying into this failed experiment. That’s a subset of Native people don’t understand that this is just a drop in the bucket.

What about the long-term future?
One of my mentors, Darrell Kipp passed [very recently]. He’s a member of the Blackfoot Tribe who started immersion school on our reservation. He was someone who dedicated his life to the survival of a way of life: speaking our languages, keeping our customs alive, and understanding that those ways of being are going to have relevance and pertinence again. It’s worth sustaining, it’s worth helping those things to survive. Right now, there are enough Natives who get it, that this is a very temporary, illusory American way of life, and we can’t get caught up in the glamour and glitz of it.

And what about the short-term future?
In the short term, it’s about letting go of the exclusivity—we’ve always been about inclusiveness. Tribal enrollment is a legalistic mechanism that isn’t even based in traditional notion because we had communities that you were either a part of or you weren’t. If you came to our communities in good faith, you were put to work. The more we buy into that exclusivity model that somehow being an Indian, being a Native, or being a tribal member has more value than simply being responsible, that worse off we are. But if we recognize that being a Native person is all about responsibility and continuing a way of life, then I think our outlook is good.


Student Loans, Big Decisions, and Staying Hungry: Advice for Graduates

Gyasi Ross

May 09, 2013 in ICTMN.COM

We are firmly in graduation season. All of my graduations happened at least a decade ago, so I barely remember them. I do vaguely remember my law school graduation—I was at a crossroads in my life, facing HUGE student loans and not wanting to simply toil my life away at a large law firm making some ridiculously rich people even richer.  That whole time in my life was stressful and I made some big decisions; those decisions turned out right, but could’ve easily blown up in my face.

One decision I made was that money was not going to determine my career; my career was going to be serving Native people. Therefore, I went to work for a bus pass and about seventeen bucks a week at the National Congress of American Indians (I jokes…it was actually $25).

Despite not eating the entire time I was at NCAI, I formed many meaningful relationships that I still treasure to this day.  I’m thankful for that, and I’m thankful for the Native folks at NCAI (and really anyplace) that remember why they are far away from home and are zealously advocating for Natives. I’m also thankful that the time in DC allowed me—a young, irrelevant, rez-boy punk lawyer—to work directly with many of the folks making policy in DC.  Anybody who knows me knows that I don’t like the DC political scene. I love DC, but hate when folks—Native and otherwise—lose track of why they’re out there and instead start to think they’re out there simply to be out there. Wearing suits and stuff.  I watched many well-meaning people stop focusing on the Native people they are supposed to represent, and instead just focus the prestige of a DC gig. Many Natives lose their connection to their homelands, if indeed they ever had a connection. And some view being Native as simply a gimmick to attract business.

But I digress.

During that same time, I also was fortunate enough to meet some people who were truly out there to make a difference. I met folks who couldn’t wait to get back to their homelands, but they dutifully continued to serve far away from home.  I consider these folks to be my “big brothers and sisters,” folks who are amazing at what they do, look out for me (and others) and have their heart solidly with Native people.  They showed a lot of love to a broke Native kid and they didn’t have to. Some of those folks include Wilson Pipestem, Todd Araujo, Big Ernie Stevens (after he stopped wanting to beat me up, which I deserved, but that’s a story for another day), Holly Cook Macarro, Jackie Johnson, Jamie Gomez, Steve Hill, and Walter Lamar, amongst others.


All those experiences and relationships came as a result of taking the road less traveled and not letting money dictate my decisions.  My family was (and still is) a struggling rez family, so simply taking the money was tempting. Yet, I lost entirely too many loved ones early in life and that taught me that life can be short, and powerful memories and doing something positive in that short time is probably more important than money.

Which brings me to graduations.

I planned to go to Haskell’s graduation ceremony. I love Haskell, and my big brother Ernie was kind enough to ask me to come. I can’t go. I will, however, be speaking at a few other graduation ceremonies, and I’m thankful for that.  I’d love to have the chance to talk to all of the Native graduates to hug you and support you. Still, since I cannot speak to every Native student graduating from all levels of education, here’s 10 12 things I would tell all of you if I could:

1)     Congratulations little sisters and little brothers.  You worked hard.  Breathe for a minute. 

2)     You earned this.  Good job—they don’t give those diplomas and degrees out easily (most Americans do not have a degree).

3)     Money is necessary but overrated. Don’t be a prostitute—do something you really want to do. It may be hard to believe but your precious time is the commodity, not money.

4)     Be careful.  There will be people that try to convince you that you are special because you are an “educated Native person.” They will ask you how you “made it out,” as if our homelands are horrible places that we must have escaped from. This is a divide-and-conquer technique intended to alienate you from your people.

5)     Native people do not resent white man’s education—that is a myth. Our people resent assholes who think they are smarter than everyone. 

6)     You are not the first smart Skin—your education does not make you smarter than anyone else within our communities.  Our ancestors have survived for thousands of years, in much harsher conditions than we can imagine, without formal educations.  You and I would die in those conditions.  They didn’t. They didn’t need degrees to prove their intelligence—our survival proved their intelligence. 

7)     You did not get that diploma/degree by yourself—don’t kid yourself. Yes, you worked…but our ancestors, by faith, provided the infrastructure where you would be assured educational opportunities.  They laid the groundwork. We stand on their shoulders.

8)     Simply “getting an education” does not help Native people. Native people getting an education only helps if we involve ourselves in our communities and work for the most vulnerable amongst us.

9)     Indigenous education is focused on the survival of the collective, white man’s education is focused on the success of the individual.  If we don’t center our educations around our communities, we become just like every other non-Native with an education. The world does not need a bunch of brown white people.

10)     As a result of numbers 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, all of us fortunate enough to get white man-educated have an obligation to continue this legacy of helping our people get stronger collectively. 

11)     Enjoy the summer. Chop some wood for some elders. Take a language class. Go take some young Native kids hiking. Get out of the city for a second. Community education is just as important to the Indigenous soul as any classroom.

12)     Don’t have unprotected sex. Just don’t, generally. But really don’t now…child support will cost you more now than it did when you were a broke student.

Good job—you are the best. You’ve overcome great odds and are modern day warriors.  You have centuries of our people cheering for you.  If I can help, please let me know.  



Gyasi Ross
Blackfeet Nation Enrolled/Suquamish Nation Immersed
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi