Travel Pries Open Our Minds, Builds Understanding

Nov 15th, 2010 | By | Category: 22-2: Crossing Borders, Winter 2010, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler


Whether they live in urban ghettos or rural American Indian reservations, impoverished people tend not to travel widely. Many tribal college students have never ridden in an airplane. Often they don’t even have cars that run, and occasionally, we hear stories of how their grandparents have never spoken on a telephone. Such isolation sometimes means that poor people end up being more provincial in their thinking, wary of those who are different, and more likely to fear “foreign” ideas.

Similar fears sometimes stop non-Indian people from visiting Indian reservations. Living in a reservation border town for many years, we have known people who drive far out of their way to avoid crossing the reservation. They read about the car accidents, the homicides, and the suicides; and they are afraid. Other non-Indians are interested in Indian people and eager to know more about them. Yet often they avoid approaching Indians or attending events on the reservation. Some say they feel awkward and don’t know what to say or do. Others say they feel guilty about the sins of their White ancestors.

This issue of Tribal College Journal focuses on travel and how tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) tackle these barriers through travel, both by welcoming visitors and sending emissaries abroad. Non-Indian Jerry Worley, Ed.D, says he and his Swedish photographer friend, Anders Andersson, were welcomed when they traveled to Montana to visit tribal colleges. A professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, he traveled at his own expense because, he says, “To really see what tribal colleges are like – to hear their voice – one must visit them.”

Donors who have taken the American Indian College Fund trips to TCUs would agree with Worley that it takes visiting tribal colleges to really understand them. Visitors on the tours interact one on one with students and faculty, asking them questions and hearing their stories.

Some exemplary mainstream universities take their faculty to visit reservations to give them the opportunity to better understand the places that their students come from and will return to after graduation. After the University of North Dakota College of Nursing toured reservations in the region, for example, faculty re-thought how they taught their classes.

Whenever we focus on travel in TCJ, we are amazed to learn how much traveling, much of it international, the chronically underfunded colleges are able to sponsor with various grants and other support. None of the students travel simply as tourists to lie on exotic beaches or eat unusual foods. Rather, they study biodiversity and climate change, immerse themselves in foreign cultures, exchange farming methods, testify before members of Congress, study religious persecution, and participate in international negotiations. They bring international students and faculty to their own campuses. And along the way, they broaden their own minds and those of the people they meet.

Such trips shatter stereotypes and modify thinking. Travelers suddenly realize the advantages of knowing another language. Students and faculty who went to Turkey found themselves dealing with stereotypes on each side of the ocean, the Turks’ misconceptions about the American Indians and the Americans’ about the secular, Islamic country.

Sitting Bull College students who served in the National Model United Nations experienced international negotiations firsthand as they argued for positions favoring their assigned country, Chile. They also represented their Lakota culture amongst the other delegations of students.

Many returned home to see their own people’s problems differently. After traveling from Alaska to the Zapotec and Purehepecha regions of Mexico, Ilisagvik College student Selma Khan of Barrow, said, “I used to think that we were the only ones who had to struggle for our way of life, but now I’m finding out how people all over the world have had to do the same.”

College of Menominee Nation student Schyler Martin (Stockbridge-Munsee) traveled from Wisconsin to Chiapas, Mexico. “Now I’ve seen what true poverty is,” he says. “I’ve seen how other people are being mistreated around the world.”

Navajo Technical College Agriculture Extension Agent Anthony Howard and his colleagues were no strangers to harsh environments and limited resources when they left the Navajo Nation and went to Mexico to meet with ejidatarios (landowners) and women’s entrepreneur groups. What did he learn? To take nothing for granted—and that passion and commitment can produce amazing things.

Some students will no doubt continue traveling, but many will return to their home reservations. They will return as different people, and they will change their communities, too. As Sisseton Wahpeton College graduate Lee Ann Eastman says, her heart will always be on the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota. “Even if I took a job somewhere else it would not be permanent because I know I would always want to come home to my people.”

The late Lakota scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., once said, “Every society needs educated people, but the primary responsibility of educated people is to bring wisdom back into the community and make it available to others so that the lives they are leading make sense.”

When people act of hatred and distrust, it is difficult to make sense or to be open-minded about them. Dr. Myla Carpio Vicenti’s essay in this issue about the Arizona ethnic studies law reveals where fear and mistrust can lead us, restricting academic freedom and free speech. As we go to press, a small church in Florida is threatening to burn the Muslim holy book, the Koran. When taken to extremes, such closed-minded chauvinism can lead to acts of violence and even wars.

Yet we can imagine a different future for our globe when we see this issue’s photograph of the young Iñupiat student riding a four-wheeler with an Indigenous student from Mexico. They were studying arctic wildlife but also forming new bonds of friendship and understanding.

Education itself broadens people’s horizons, opens minds, and exposes people to different viewpoints through lectures, discussions with classmates, books, and other media. When combined with travel and meeting people whose perspectives are different, education transforms lives.

Marjane Ambler is the interim editor of Tribal College Journal, a post she held from 1995-2006. For more information about TCU international travel, see Vol. 16, No. 4.

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