Sunday, May 24, 2009

An Anglo Reflection on American Indians

Later this week, I leave for the Navajo Nation, leading a group of students from Winona State University on a three-week Travel Study program to create documentary journalism pieces focused on Navajo elders.

Often, I'm asked if I have Native American roots. When I explain I do not, some seem confused about my commitment to this project.

Recently, I came across a reflection paper I wrote in 2002 for a graduate course in American Indian Pedagogy that included classes, readings and field trips to Reservations in Minnesota. I'm posting that paper here. It helps explain my values, and the importance of enhancing relationships between all cultures of the United States.

(2002: American Indian Pedagogy Reflections)

I'm a university administrator in a conference room. I'm listening while working tiny turquoise beads onto a needle and thread decorating sweat socks. I'm continuously poking the needle into my less-than-skilled fingers. This craft project will accompany the haphazard beadwork on my earlier project: a Native American dream-catcher.

The craft projects seemed trivial at first. The instructors explained how focusing on craft projects while hearing stories of people's lived experiences helped focus attention. It was a simulation of a Native American story circle and helped to bring understanding of how the Objibwe culture was passed from generation to generation through oral history sessions much like this conference room exercise.

The stories read aloud were alternately funny and sad, uplifting and depressing, hopeful and disheartening.

The room was filled with a diversity of people: American Indian, Black, Hispanic, Asian and Caucasian; college student, college faculty member, business person, homemaker, health care provider, counselor; male, female, young, old. For a few brief moments, we shared a bond in our desire to be creative with our craft projects and in the story we were reading aloud as a group, each taking a turn.

I fiddled with my glasses, trying to get the best view of the small beads as I tried to spear seven at a time for my sock-beading creation. At the same time, I listened intently to be sure to catch all of the story from this variety of voices.

At times, I fid it hard to concentrate on two things at the same time. Yet, there I was creating a work of art (at least to me) and absorbing tales that shed light on human experience.

I am a Native Minnesotan. I was born and raised in Minnesota and have lived most of my life in this state. The blood in my veins comes from the genes of only Northern Europeans, about 90 percent Irish and 10 percent Swedish. My parents were born in America. My grandparents were born in America. I was born and raised in America and have lived in this country my entire life. I am a Native American.

I'm not sure how the people who fled Europe to North America, mostly because of religious beliefs, justified their actions as they violently took over the land of their new neighbors.

Often, I'm ashamed to be a white American.

It's hard to admit, but racism lives in me. The stories, misguided or erroneous, of the white American culture-- an oral history of its own kind-- have found their way into my consciousness over the years. I know Indians don't yell "woo-woo" and I understand not all Native Americans are poor and have drinking problems, yet those stereotypes occupy a small corner of my long-term memory.

The opportunity to talk about these issues and to hear real stories of human experience of Native Americans takes me in the right direction. The opportunity to visit the Fond du Lac Reservation and see the caring and sharing community there also helps beat down misunderstanding and stereotypes.

I wonder. I'm an interested participant in these community-building activities. I'm flawed and need help to root-out misinformation and insensitivity planted in me. How can others who share my limited-focus cultural up-bringing be reached? Can it be done in a generation? Three? Seven?

The American Indian Pedagogy workshop and programs of its kind are positive steps. This is especially true because the workshop focuses on educators and future educators who will tell the stories that will be seeded into the consciousness of young people and future generations.


The journalism projects of my student teams this summer are in line with this thinking. Working together with a common goal of creating meaningful, interesting documentary projects that will help break down cultural barriers: among those described in the pieces and those who professionally and respectfully create the pieces -- but also in all who view, read or hear the documentaries.

Thanks for reading… I'd appreciate hearing your thoughts.


  1. I just wanted to comment on your line where you say that sometimes you are ashamed to be a White American.

    There is no question that our ancestors are guilty of some terrible crimes against the Native American people. Whenever I read about some of the things white people did while settling the land, I get sick to my stomach.

    I also agree that today's Native Americans are still feeling the effects of the transgressions of our forefathers. Furthermore, our history books and pop culture refrences have still done a good job at skewing history to make us believe that manifest destiny may not have been THAT bad.

    I think your prejudices are normal and that's sad. But the reason why you have no reason to be ashamed is because you're doing something about it, you educate yourself and help others learn as well. Knowledge is the best weapon against prejudice and I hope some day our history books are more accurate.

    I'm just saying that we don't need to feel guilty for our ancestors actions, I don't believe that guilt is justified for something out of one's control. This is not, however, an excuse to accept ignorance.

    I hope my two cents made some sense to you.

    If you get a chance you should check out the book "Neither Wolf Nor Dog" by Kent Nerburn it's a pretty interesting read and your reflection paper reminds me of something Nerburn may have said in the book.

    I look forward to reading your blogs from the road!

  2. Ben, Thanks for the very thoughtful comments. You're absolutely right. In the text above (written in 2002), I did say "Often, I'm ashamed to be a white American." Since then, I've met with many American Indians and explained my feelings and nearly all of them said basically what you said: "don't accept blame for things you did not do."

    After one very emotional discussion with a leader of the Pine Ridge Reservation, I resolved to not accept blame; but rather accept the challenge to do what I could to help make things better. That was one of the earliest discussion which help lead me to create this learning opportunity for my students, and those of the Navajo Nation.

    During our travel project, I aim to upload photos and text describing each day's activities. Some days we'll be out of Internet reach.

    Thanks for your kind words!

  3. Doctor Tom, I look forward to your visit here on the Navajo Reservation. I agree with thew elder form Pine Ridge the past is past.

    Ron M