Indigenizing Our Future: Listening to Indian voices will help us face the challenges ahead

Aug 15th, 2003 | By | Category: 15-1: Indigenizing Our Future, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

PORTION OF COVER ART“We dance to keep mankind alive,” David Dalasohya, Jr., tells us as he describes his painting on the cover of this issue. A graduate last May of the Institute of American Indian Arts (Santa Fe), Dalasohya is Hopi and Laguna Pueblo. He participates in the Hopi dances at Third Mesa, which are important to him and, the Hopi believe, to all the rest of us. His painting depicts faces that are unfamiliar to most of us: the gambler with his turkey fan headdress, the yellow corn and the white corn kachinas on either side of the gambler, and the bird kachinas on the outside.

Despite the unfamiliarity, the image stirs something deep within us. We understand the fundamental importance of rain falling and making the tiny, precious ears of corn grow. Those of us who have experienced drought recognize that the rain keeps humankind alive. “Our dances call upon the kachinas to bring rain. Water is needed for everything. That’s why we have done this for thousands of years,” Dalasohya says.

Clearly Dalasohya and students from traditional upbringing bring specialized knowledge to the college classroom. Their perspective might be respected in the art classroom at a mainstream university. But what if a science student wrote about his ancestors’ knowledge of meteorology and astronomy hundreds of years ago? About kachinas bringing rain? What if an American Indian student, in keeping with the mores of her people, hesitated to bring the spotlight on herself and instead quietly helped struggling fellow students answer questions on a test?

Most of us realize that American Indian peoples have distinct art, languages, and spiritual beliefs. It may not be as clearly understood that their cultures influence the ways they approach subjects such as science and leadership. As a society, we tend to compartmentalize the relevance of Indian thought into certain disciplines. We might listen to Indian voices in the arts, comparative religions, and history, but biology? Education administration?

Students such as Dalasohya who come to class well versed in tribal traditions often feel forced to choose between education and culture at a mainstream campus. One is right and the other wrong — quaint but wrong. Such attitudes at the university leave the Indian student feeling confused, unwelcome, and often ashamed.

The tribal colleges and universities understand the value of two worldviews; they serve students like Dalasohya who seek respect for and a deeper knowledge of tribal traditions. They also serve students who know little about their tribes’ language, spiritual beliefs, scientific knowledge, or leadership traditions.

This issue of Tribal College Journal, as most issues, provides readers with an opportunity to hear American Indian people speak about their points of view in their own voices. Seasoned scholars with doctorates from mainstream, Western universities, Lori Lambert, Gerald Gipp, and Deborah (Wetsit) His Horse is Thunder share their thoughts and the thoughts of their Native colleagues on traditional science and leadership. His Horse is Thunder and Gipp contrast their cultures’ emphasis on generosity and collaboration with research indicating that mainstream higher education systems focus on individual competition and on preparing students to accumulate wealth.

Lambert provides examples of scientific knowledge collected by Arctic people over many generations, knowledge that is holistic, contextual – and accurate. Also in this issue, budding writers who are attending tribal colleges share their thoughts on racism, abandonment, life after death, children, and spirituality.

American society has progressed toward accepting diversity since the days when we put a bounty on American Indian men, women, and children. Nevertheless we tend to approach every field of study with an ethnocentric lens.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science  (AAAS) took an important first step when they invited Native scientists to present at their annual meeting in February. However, the non-Indian conference attendees largely ignored them, according to Daniel Wildcat, the presenter from Haskell Indian Nations University. In the session where he spoke, 90% of the audience members were other Natives. He believes most Western scientists question whether there is such as thing as “Native science.”

AAAS will have the opportunity to assuage his suspicions in the coming years. The Native scientists have requested a larger role in the conferences. Wildcat also has challenged foundations and federal agencies to provide resources to support tribal colleges’ curriculum and research.

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