Nature as we know it is a product of colonialism. Prior to Western culture spreading across the continent, America’s Indigenous peoples didn’t have separate “natural” spaces. No one spent a night camping in an attempt to reconnect with the land, because connecting to the land was all anyone knew. In our modern world filled with cultivated green spaces and designated forests, nature as the ancestors knew it no longer exists. Yet perhaps what’s most changed about the natural world is that our students’ education is largely absent from it. Certainly the great outdoors is significant in the lives of everyone invested in a tribal college or university (TCU), but this month as we celebrate Earth Day, or Earth Week as it is on our campus, we should highlight that connecting Native learning to nature is necessary for a culturally affirming education.
TCUs serve the lands of Native communities, and more specifically we serve the needs of the people who thrive on those lands. We offer degrees that will allow our alumni to engage with the modern world in culturally affirming ways, which often means relating our classroom lectures to the lands our students know as home. Native stories and community events are often tied to specific places or spaces, and so it’s logical for each TCU to ground their coursework in those locations. Most people can agree that studying soils, plants, and biological factors is a reasonable starting point for engagement, but that doesn’t mean that the sciences alone should connect us with the world outside our campus walls.
Courses on tribal history require students to consider the world as their ancestors knew it, but they’re hardly the only humanities courses whose connection to the land is paramount. Last year I attended one of Heather Ahtone’s (Choctaw-Ckhickasaw) thought-provoking discussions on Southwestern pottery. Ahtone is the Assistant Curator of Native American and Non-Western Art for the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, and during her presentation she discussed that some of the symbols in the pottery represented the different types of rainfall in the artists’ tribal communities. Ahtone then lamented that the current and future technology-driven generations won’t have the connections to the land that their ancestors did. Ahtone explained that her grandfather knew what type of weather was approaching due to a lifetime of attuning his body to signs in the atmosphere. Contrast his traditional knowledge with today’s reliance on smartphones’ forecasts and one realizes that these minimal effort weather apps create a buffer between their users and the world that surrounds them—the world that pottery symbols are depicting. In essence, a person’s disconnect with nature is equal to their disconnect with traditional art.
In many Native communities there’s a connection between a place and the cultural events that are staged there. I’m humbled to be leading an effort to revitalize the traditional Menominee pageants in the historic Woodland Bowl, which is an amphitheater in the forest where the tribe now hosts their annual contest powwow. The pageants are a mixture of pantomime and dance theater that began in the 1930s, but ceased shortly after the tribe’s termination in 1961. By all accounts and newspaper reports, the shows were both a great success and a source of pride for the community. After many conversations over the past decade, tribal elders asked us to revitalize this rich theater history. While conducting interviews to ensure the authenticity of our productions, I was struck by something past pageant performer Petronell Keshena Martin told me. Petronell, who joined the Creator this past March, delighted me and my interns with behind-the-scenes stories from her days as a performer. What struck me was that the group tried to bring their shows to other Native communities in Wisconsin. She unequivocally reported that the shows didn’t work outside of the Woodland Bowl, but no one could put their finger on why that was. The upshot was that the performers agreed that the pageants could only be staged in the natural amphitheater they were created for. I’m proud to say that our shows are carrying on that tradition, but the larger lesson is that space and place cannot be an afterthought.
My point with this column is to say that connections abound between a modern TCU education and the tribal traditions we’re charged with honoring. Often times one approaches Western learning as if it can only be instilled in a classroom, thereby leaving some traditional learning for outdoor spaces beyond our campuses. Yet, that’s not the case. While Earth Day wasn’t created to remind America’s Native people to honor nature, it can be a day where TCUs overtly celebrate the connections between their students, their education, and the rich lands in their communities. Or, to borrow a modern hyperbole, we can make nature natural again.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Ahtone, H. (2016, April 30). Designed to Last: Issues for Critical Discussion about American Indian Art. Oneida Community Education Center, Oneida, WI.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.