By Sean Traynor, Editor-in-Chief
Native American heritage, language, and history are Cayle Diefenbach’s passions. Cayle, age 16, works with the Colville Tribal Language Program to interpret existing books, like Dick & Jane, into the native language for the youth, and through his work, Cayle preserves his community’s heritage through archaeology, translation, and volunteerism.
Cayle was identified as a highly capable student at the age of 8, in a rural school district with few opportunities to pursue his interests. Instead of looking at this as an obstacle, Cayle quickly became passionate about learning about his Native American heritage, language and history. Cayle has taken on important topics, ranging from the importance of salmon to the native people (for the Natural Resource Conservation District) to reclamations programs for tribal artifacts with the Coville Tribal History and Archeology program. He identifies these artifacts, logging and documenting history for future generations. He introduced to the Colville Business Council the idea of providing a memorial hall as a place of solitude to honor fallen veterans.
Cayle not only works to preserve his heritage, but he is also a rodeo rider, wrestler, student and amateur Native American historian. He was also a recent speaker at the TEDx conference in Redmond, Washington. See his talk here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MshV8mEfjEc. We can learn a great deal from Cayle through his interview below.
AK: How did you begin your quest to learn more about your heritage? What makes you so passionate about this work?
CD: I think it began at Paschal Sherman Indian School, a school for those that are Native American. I went to preschool there before moving to the Omak public schools, but they offered tribal language classes as well as some culture classes as well. From there I moved to taking the Salish classes at the middle school and high school, where I excelled past most of the students there. Then one summer I got serious and started working for our Tribal Language Program in Omak through the Summer Youth Program, which allows tribal youth to work at different locations throughout the reservation. I think I am so passionate about this line of work because what I do is a part of me. In studying the language I am learning and preserving the words my ancestors spoke. When I work for the archaeology department, I am recording our material history, finding things that the people before me made and used in everyday life. All of this relates back to me and my family in some way, and (since I am related to almost everyone on the reservation) also relates to those of my friends as well.
AK: What do you hope to accomplish?
CD: I hope to bring our culture into the spotlight even more; many people think that if they go to a powwow or go to the funerals and dances that they know much about us, when in reality that is merely a tiny fraction of our history. I would like to see a Native American history class offered at the high school at some point, as the Salish class right now has to try to cover both the language and some history, which affects output greatly. I am pretty much just trying to get general knowledge to our people about who they really are, in a cultural sense.
AK: What resources have you used to learn more about your history, language and heritage?
CD: My main resource is going and talking to elders about things like that; they know more about the history and language then could ever be recorded. There are also the books that have been written about us, which describe many things in great detail. My favorite is a case study done in the mid 1900s, it was written by a man who went around and actually was able to talk to the old ones about what life was like, what occasions they remember, major changes that shook the foundations of their lives.
Then there are the people that work at places like the History and Archaeology department and the Language Department. These professionals really know their stuff, and as a collective they probably know more about tribal history and language then even some of the elders that they work with.
AK: Describe your work with tribal artifacts.
CD: First I’m gonna say, that our tribe wasn’t one that had many material things that lasted; we mainly used wood and reeds in our construction, as well as in baskets and the like. What remains mostly are stone tools and family heirlooms that have been passed down through the generations. The pieces that we find and are able to preserve however, are stored in a building by the History and Archaeology department, usually left alone for recording. When I worked at the Archaeology department I was a field specialist, going out and hiking miles a day surveying different spots looking for artifacts. Sometimes we would go through where an old campsite would be; sometimes we would walk across mountain ridges looking for sites of spiritual importance.
AK: Why do you think it is important for young people today to know more about their culture?
CD: It is important for young people to know more about their culture because it basically defines who they are. It doesn’t even have to be a racial or ethnic one either; there are tons of different cultures all around us and each of us are part of hundreds, even if we do not know it. For example, I am a part of the Rodeo culture as well as the gamer culture, but there are people from many different ethnic backgrounds within each culture.
AK: What can our government do to provide greater support for the preservation of Native American heritage?
CD: I believe that allotting each tribe a quality museum, as well as providing funding for them would do wonders for this. Then you could do widespread repatriation of objects without having to go through the long and tedious process that it takes today. Museums across the globe have artifacts that have been taken from our homelands, and if they are returned they bring back small pieces of us that were lost.
AK: What has been a successful way for you to get your friends involved in your volunteer work?
CD: To tell the truth, none of my friends do volunteer work at all. I am pretty much the solo person among my friends that has any interest in these areas or doing these things. There are other people across the reservation that volunteer and do good things, however, just not that many in the people that I am friends with.
AK: Who has mentored you in your life?
CD: There are just too many to count. There have been people that have passed on, moved away, or are simply gone. There is my family, some tribal elders, some tribal ‘olders’ and my Salish teachers. There are just so many people that affect you in these different ways that it’s hard to think of them all.
AK: What advice would you give kids today who are curious about learning their heritage?
CD: Go talk to and get to know the elders in your family and community. They have more stories and historical knowledge than you can imagine. Sometimes it may take some coaxing to get it out of them, but if you show them that you are really interested and sincere they usually will open up.
AK: What are your dreams and goals for your future?
CD: This summer I am off to participate in an Earthwatch Fellowship “Southwestern Earth and Skies Through Time” to study geology sites in Northern Arizona and at Arizona State University in July, and I plan on working at the Tribal History and Archaeology department as a student intern. Next year I am going to be a senior in high school and a second year running start student. Then it’s off to college, where I want to major in Archaeology. I am not entirely sure where I want to go right now though, as there are so many options. There’s still a long, windy road ahead of me.