Bridging the Indian Awareness Gap

In Over My Head

Whenever I am given an opportunity to do something where I am in over my head I take it. It’s always some kind of learning experience that I had been asking for. I was in over my head when given the opportunity to teach a Contemporary Issues for Native American’s class at MSU, but had been begging for more culture in my life in Montana. When I say culture, I’m not talking food, I mean perspective.

I had enough fundamentals to make the class happen but knew that I would be learning as much, or more, than my students. I made some faux-pas in my class but I also know that I have nothing but good intentions; wanting to facilitate a deeper connection for my students to the modern Indian experience while not understanding enough about what that is myself.

At the beginning of class, I had my students write an essay on what they thought a present-day Native American is. This was a bit controversial and I understand why. However, there were also a lot of really interesting, thoughtful responses. I had a Lummi Indian professor in grad school who had us do the same thing so I thought I would give it a try too.

I also had students raise their hands if they were Indian. Only one of the five Indian students in the class raised her hand, and she is from Oregon. All of the other students were from reservations in Montana, none of which raised their hands. I found this interesting and believe it has a little something to do with Montana culture. In general, I have found people to be more private and guarded here. I learned that young Indians are taught to listen more than speak. A cultural tradition that I have nothing but respect for. I offended a few people by asking these questions and obviously had some things to learn. If we are going to bridge this gap, we are going to ignorantly step on toes while we are learning. Compassion is key.

What I Have Learned

Indian culture is probably the least understood and most complex web of cultures in the United States. There are over 560 tribes grouped into one broad culture, for the initial historical intent of genocide, and many of these federal and state policies/practices persist today. Despite numerous intertribal feuds, blanketing this diverse group of people with the broad term of Native American has created countless deeply painful and highly limiting beliefs about this very diverse group of people. 

The term Native American has also served to unite many groups of people as well. I will use fry bread as an example. This is a common thread among Indian communities, the depressing part is why. When Indians were forced off of their land and on to reservations, many consequently starved to death. The government issued rations as was agreed upon in treaties. Rations consisted of flour, dried milk, and canned peaches. These rations still exist today, as established in treaties, but are contributing to far bigger, and more expensive, health problems that our country continues to ignore. It is from this rationed flour that fry bread was born. This food that unites tribes is from a time of genocide and epidemic starvation.

Indian Experience Awareness Gap

There is a HUGE gap in what I will call “Indian experience awareness” between Indian and non-Indian students. This gap is not surprising given the massive lack of education kids receive on this subject. How many people remember learning about Christopher Columbus as if he was the first “person” in North America? What a disservice to our children and extreme dishonor to Native Americans. I also think this awareness gap has to do with space, both literally and energetically. Native Americans are the only culture in the U.S. that are sovereign nations with their own distinct “reservations” that are usually very isolated. In addition to physical isolation, energetic walls built on centuries of trauma held in place by fear from both sides protect reservations. It seems to me so far, that these reservations house Indian culture’s deepest roots and deepest pains. 

In my journey, I found an amazing Indian photographer Matika Wilbur at  Her current project is called Project 562. She is photographing people from the 562 tribes across the US in an attempt to shed light on the diversity and depth of today’s Native American. She is a true inspiration.

To see some photos from MSU’s 43rd Annual Indian Council Pow Wow click here Images from MSU’s 43rd Annual Indian Council Pow Wow


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