Why the Humanities: 'Just as in All Cultures, ALL of It Matters'

SDHC Board Member Tamara St. John (above, second from right) attended "A Time of Rededication and Story-Telling" hosted by The Faith and Politics Institute of Washington, DC at The Historic Congressional Cemetery. Kangi Duta is an important historical figure who has many direct descendants on the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Devils Lake American Indian Reservations. He was buried at the Congressional Cemetery. 

Why the Humanities? 

By Tamara St. John

Editor's Note: "Why the Humanities" is an SDHC blog series explaining the importance of the humanities to our state and nation. The series features guest posts from experts in the humanities disciplines and those who have been touched by humanities programming. The opinions expressed in this series do not represent official views of the South Dakota Humanities Council and are the sole property of the author.

Tamara St. John is an archivist in the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe's Tribal Historic Preservation Office and a member of the South Dakota Humanities Council board of directors.

Work Began With Grandparents

This past year has been my first full year as a board member of the South Dakota Humanities Council. It's been a great experience, and I'm just beginning to see the make-up of those who apply for grant funding and what sort of projects people invest their hearts and souls into.

Many of the projects are done within our tribal communities or with our young people in mind. I'm in awe of the efforts I observe, and it's wonderful to see them supported and then later get a glimpse of how they impact various communities.

I hadn't considered that within my first year I would be writing an essay on "why the humanities are important to me" to add to the blog campaign in support of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), but I'm happy to add my voice in support of the things I personally love and live for. As someone who serves as a tribal archivist within a program that works hard in various areas of cultural preservation, I've been thinking about the value of NEH, NEA and my own life's work in history and culture. I've realized that my work in this area began with my grandparents many years ago.

The humanities are important to all South Dakotans.

During the summer and Christmas vacations I spent taking care of my grandparents, we talked about many things. We traveled back through time to visit each generation and learn who they were. We went so far back that my grandfather was learning too. As my grandmother's Alzheimer's disease progressed, she began to forget things. Kunsi forgot who people were and where she was. She didn't know how she got to her present spot in her warm house and comfortable chair.

We made sure that at any moment, she could feel that all was well and that she was loved and safe. It was the best we could give her. I could tell that she did not know the sleepy little girl who crawled in her lap to ask her how to say "crayon" in Dakota language, but her smile said that she knew the girl loved her, and I think it was those moments that helped her not to feel lost and unsure.

'We Wouldn't Know What We Were Doing or Recognize Each Other'

When a colleague and I were discussing the often-reoccurring battle of budgets and the need to explain the value of history, he relayed his thinking in his context, but I put it into something I understood well in my own mind as he spoke. If we as a people were to become like my beloved Kunsi, unable to understand how we came to be where we are, we would also feel lost. We wouldn't know what we were doing or recognize one another, and we wouldn't know how to exist as a people or tribe other than by those few fragments of memory that remained with us. I can't help but think of how sad that would be – to live not knowing and understanding the past that brought us to the world we live in today.

This perspective makes me value even more the people who do their best to preserve language, culture, dance and songs. I value the colored folders of my own archives, full of historical information. I value the stories that found their way into the books on the shelves in my office. I cherish the red folders filled with names of people who walked where I walk and lived a life full of all the things we experience today. Each of them has a story and a history, and each one is a thread woven with many others into the fabric of who we are now as a tribe.

Powerful and Healing Connections

I think of them all and the prayers I said before I began the research into their lives. Those prayers stay with me or come back to me when I'm sitting across a table from someone who needs to know them now, someone who is searching for them. The connection they find to that person or name always brings a smile. Sometimes people just shine when they see their ancestor's name on a paper copy of a document that proves they once lived and breathed and their presence in this world was officially noted. Those connections are powerful and healing. Understanding them becomes the identity a person carries with them always.

So yes, genealogy and history matter! Arts and humanities matter! The stone features or burial places that are the evidence of our existence as aboriginal people matter. The floral beadwork or quillwork from long ago is the cultural expression of ancestors who survived so that we may live today. Just as in all cultures, ALL of it matters. Together, it forms our collective memory, and we would be lost without it.

Tamara St John

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