Every Thanksgiving, America celebrates how the Wampanoag tribe famously saved some pilgrims from starvation, but how many people realize that the Mandan, Hidatsa, Nez Perce, and countless other tribes also broke bread with famished non-Natives? Since 2000, the United States Mint has produced millions of coins reminding us that Lemhi Shoshone tribal member Sacagawea served as an invaluable interpreter and guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but when will the 16 scouts from various tribes who were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor between 1872 and1890 be remembered for their service? The Navajo code talkers’ celebrated contribution to the American victory in World War II is well known, but when will the Choctaw, Comanche, Hopi, Meskwaki, and Sioux Nations’ code talkers’ service be venerated in textbooks? Twenty-first century American Indian milestones are often achieved around boardroom tables, at tribal government meetings, and on the campuses of tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) across the country, but how many Americans can name a current tribal leader or dignitary? The settings have changed, but the fact remains that too often American Indian achievements are treated as exceptions to the rule. By honoring American Indian successes on every college campus, we can help ensure that students realize the multitudes of Indigenous achievements are anything but anomalies.
One starting point for educators is The Extraordinary Book of Native American Lists, in which the editors provide students a more accurate view of history and prompt them “to delve into research materials housed in libraries and resource centers.” The text is rich with the names, dates, and tribes of American Indian accomplishments. For example, how many people know that in 1775, Sally Anise (Oneida) became the first successful Native woman business owner? Or that in 1882, David Moniac (Creek) became the first tribal member admitted to the United States Military Academy, and that Carlos Montezuma (Yavapai) and Susan LaFlesche Picotte (Omaha) became the first American Indian doctors in 1899? Did you know that John Rollin Ridge/Yellowbird (Cherokee) became the first published American Indian novelist in 1854, or that Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox) served as the first president of the American Football League (now the National Football League) in 1920? The records span centuries: in 1982, Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree) became the first American Indian to win an Academy Award; in 1665, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck (Wampanoag) was the first Native graduate of Harvard. Arthur C. Parker (Seneca) was inaugurated as the first American Indian president of the Society of American Archaeology in 1935, while William R. Pogue (Choctaw) became the first American Indian astronaut in 1966. These individual successes are impressive; collectively, they provide concrete evidence that American Indian achievements are ubiquitous throughout history.
Every fall, TCUs welcome incoming freshmen who are amongst the first in their family to seek a higher education. Navigating college curricula may seem daunting to some, but we can help fortify students’ academic resolve by reminding them they’re not walking their educational road alone. They need to know that American Indians have succeeded and made great contributions in every academic discipline—and many have done so by building upon a foundation of Indigenous knowledge. But perhaps an educator’s greatest undertaking is to encourage students to initiate the positive change they envision for the future. What better way to do that than to showcase the accolades of those who’ve walked the road before them?
Scrolling through the non-fiction entries in TCJ Student (online at www.tcjstudent.org), I find authors young and old artfully voicing their values and accomplishments. In “Remembering in a World of Forgetting,” Tom Swift Bird (Oglala Lakota), a student at Oglala Lakota College, laments the carnage which befell his ancestors during the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 and how so few know the full story of the tragedy. He asserts students must know and learn from their peoples’ past. But he faces forward, asking, “Where do you come from?…Who are you?…[and] where do you need to go, what do you need to do with yourself?”
Another article, by College of Menominee Nation student Burton Arthur (San Carlos Apache), discusses how a local Menominee tribal school has become “a hub in the community that not only works to revitalize language and culture, but that also strives to nurture Menominee children.” Arthur sees this preservation and passing on of cultural knowledge as tangible evidence of Indigenous perseverance and optimism. Arthur’s observation of disbursements of cultural knowledge provides tangible optimism of Indigenous perseverance.
And in an essay titled “The Whisper,” Jayni Anderson (Assiniboine), says “Ignorance is not always bliss,” telling how a callous teacher’s criticism in her youth prevented her from pursuing a higher education until her fifties, fearing she “wasn’t smart enough.” Anderson’s story is all too common throughout Indian country, but her story of overcoming her teacher’s assertions—she is now attending Fort Peck Community College—is inspiring to read. Like the impressive lists of American Indian accomplishments, the strength of these students’ writing can motivate.
TCU faculty should dedicate time and devise curricula that confirm the myriad achievements of Native people—so many have made the world better for us all. It’s true that we may never be able to correct every misguided assumption about Indigenous accomplishments, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. We don’t know where our students’ career aspirations will take them, but we can take pride in knowing that every TCU alumnus recognizes that successful American Indians are anything but anomalies.
Anderson, J. (2012). The whisper. TCJ Student. Retrieved March 2014, from http://www.tcjstudent.org/whisper/
Arthur, B. (2013). Community, culture, and language revitalization in the Menominee Nation. TCJ Student. Retrieved March 2014, http://www.tcjstudent.org/community-culture-and-language-revitalization-in-the-menominee-nation/
Hirschfelder, A., & Molin, P.F., eds. (2012). The extraordinary book of Native American lists. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Swift Bird, T. (2013). Remembering in a world of forgetting. TCJ Student. Retrieved March 2014, from http://www.tcjstudent.org/remembering-in-a-world-of-forgetting/
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communications at College of Menominee Nation, where he also serves as the Humanities Department chair.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.