Heroes of Today, Rising from the Past

Feb 15th, 2006 | By | Category: 17-3: Heroes of Today, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

FEATHERSMore than 25 years ago, while visiting the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, I read a Bismarck Tribune editorial that said American Indians have no heroes like they had in the 19th century. I still feel the outrage.

The reaction of some American Indian people to the editorial surprised me. It seemed as if they almost believed it. As I looked around at the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara people there who toiled day after day on behalf of their community, I saw heroism. Yet the newspaper editor’s ignorant words seemed to erase that reality for them.

When the Tribal College Journal Advisory Board was scoping out this issue last year, Char Teeters (Spokane) described the blank faces at the Institute of American Indian Arts when she asked her students to name contemporary heroes. Most could name people like Crazy Horse, Tecumseh, and Geronimo but not modern people. After Teeters led them through the class exercise, the students felt angry, deprived by the media of the attention their activists, philosophers, spiritual luminaries, and other leaders deserve.

This issue of the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) looks at both the heroes and the need for heroes. The costs of the European colonization of North America are well documented. Most of us non-Indians have heard of the Wounded Knee Massacre, and we feel revulsion for the federal Indian policies of that time period, which we now see as a form of ethnic cleansing. At the same time, some non-Indians might say, “Why dwell on these events of the past? Why can’t Indians just get over it?”

Author Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) has written about the grief process, saying in effect: “At Laguna, we do not heal by forgetting. We heal by remembering.” Recent research has confirmed the importance of remembering. The conflicts of past centuries continue to take a heavy toll, as reflected in high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and family violence amongst indigenous people.

Educators in particular need to recognize both contemporary heroes and historical trauma. A 1991 study of Sioux students in Canada (Anthropology & Education Quarterly) found that 78% of the students in the class (18 of 23) dropped out. The author concluded that one of the reasons was the school personnel’s lack of understanding of cultural conflict.

When TCJ called for articles about heroes from the tribal colleges, our offices were flooded with responses, some of which are included in this issue. The emails and phone calls named tribal college board members such as Alice Paul at Tohono O’odham Community College and Philip John Young at Cankdeska Cikana Community College; Native language instructors such as Dan Jones at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College and the “Treasured Elders” at Sisseton Wahpeton College; soldiers such as Uriah Two Two; tribal government leaders such as Alvin Windy Boy, Jr. and Wilma Mankiller; artists such as Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie; community activists such as Gail Small and Winona LaDuke; and tribal college presidents such as Dr. Jim Shanley, Dr. Joe McDonald, David Gipp, Della Warrior, and Lionel Bordeaux.

Researchers often conduct studies to determine why tribal colleges and universities succeed with Indian students when other institutions fail. Part of the answer might be this: At the tribal institutions, American history classes encompass the tribal history, the honor and the dishonor. In addition, the tribal colleges pay tribute to contemporary American Indian heroes, illuminating the glory of familiar faces and names in the students’ own communities.

Marjane Ambler has been editor of Tribal College Journal since 1995. Thanks to David E. Rosenthal, Ph.D., and Char Teeters for their help with the concepts behind this issue.


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