For Native Americans in South-Central Pennsylvania, “We’re Still Growing, We’re Still Surviving”

For Frank LittleBear, growing up as a proud member of the Northern Plains Cree tribe was a sign of pride. Although the kids at school made fun of him for attending powwows and wearing his hair long and braided, it taught him to develop tough skin.

He hoped things would be different for his children growing up in York County – that through education and awareness, younger generations would break the cycle of stereotyping.

And while it might seem like there are few Native Americans in York County — or even in south-central Pennsylvania — LittleBear would urge to look deeper.

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“There’s not a huge indigenous population here. But those who are, we have a tight-knit community in a sense,” LittleBear said. “…I also think that if you don’t want to see it, you go about your daily life – you’re not going to be exposed to it.”

LittleBear, of the Township of Lower Windsor, has devoted the better part of 30 years of his life to speaking, educating and performing on Aboriginal culture.

With a doctorate in Native American studies from the University of Utah, he has traveled across North America, Canada and Mexico teaching Native studies and culture.

LittleBear is proud to have passed on his passion for education to his children – Tommy, Samantha, Nick and Victoria.

From left to right: Samantha, Nick, Frank, Tommy and Victoria LittleBear.  They belong to the Northern Plains Cree, an indigenous North American people originally from Saskatchewan, Canada.  Photo courtesy of Frank LittleBear.

Her children practice traditional Cree dances before they even start walking. Now they participate in the Red Vision Native American dance team and continue to attend Native events with their families.

“For me personally, I love going to these events because I love seeing how people dress up in shawls and fancy outfits, and how they express themselves,” said 17-year-old Samantha. “I feel empowered.”

LittleBear is the fifth generation born from its territory. Although many Native Americans choose to live on a reservation, LittleBear has bounced around in different states on the East Coast.

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When it came time to raise her own family, LittleBear chose to settle in York County. For him, much of his decision stemmed from his own childhood experiences.

“Reservations are kind of a safe place for a lot of native people,” LittleBear said. “For me (living off a reservation) it was one aspect of what I grew up with, having that experience, the kind of schooling, the environments they’re exposed to – kind of seeing both worlds that they have.”

However, for some Native Americans, moving away from the reservation is difficult, especially when they are closely tied to it.

Frank LittleBear of Lower Windsor Township is Northern Plains Cree.  The Cree are an indigenous North American people originally from Saskatchewan, Canada.  Photo by Tina Locurto.

LittleBear highlighted the work that many Native Americans are doing to improve living conditions in their communities. Substance abuse issues, rising suicide rates, and missing and murdered Indigenous women and children, for example, are a major issue that for many keeps them on the reservation, LittleBear said.

“Some of them are still working in community homes, working with the tribal government, just working to improve the lives of the people who are there right now,” he said. “So because of that too, you know, there’s a really strong connection to staying there and trying to improve the mental, emotional and physical quality of the nations.”

Often, when Native American issues hit the headlines, the momentum quickly wanes.

“What people lose sight of is what happens in a week, or in two weeks, or in a month, six months or a year,” LittleBear said. “There are people who are still affected by these things. These conversations need to be a constant reminder of events that are still unfolding.”

Left to right: Samantha (top left), Frank (top middle), Tommy (top right), Victoria (bottom left) and Nick LittleBear (bottom right) pose for a photo.  They belong to the Northern Plains Cree, an indigenous North American people originally from Saskatchewan, Canada.  Photo courtesy of Frank LittleBear.

With world events and tragedies constantly occurring, sometimes the only thing a person can do is improve the community in which they live. For LittleBear, that comes in the form of education and answering questions.

Whether it happens in an organized public forum or at his local Walmart, he said he welcomes curiosity.

“Be aware of what’s happening around us, but think about how we’re building, changing and opening up dialogue here,” LittleBear said.

If people take away one thing from his work, he would like it to be the sense of strength and self-preservation of indigenous communities.

“Our people have been through a lot in history. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs. A lot has been taken away from us. We’ve had a lot of loss, but we’re still here.” Little Bear. “We’re still growing, we’re still surviving. We still have a strong sense of identity for our culture. We live what we do. It’s more than just a book. It’s our way of life.”

— Contact Tina Locurto at [email protected] or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.

Frank LittleBear (left) poses with Victoria, 17, and Nick, 15, at Fairmount Park in Red Lion on Tuesday, June 28.  Photo by Tina Locurto.

Nohemi M. Moore