Writing about racism within this issue of Tribal College Journal, all of our writers share intensely personal stories. They do so not to give power to the pain and ugliness of racism but rather to take brave steps toward healing.
Consider how gracious author Mary Annette Pember (Red Cliff Tribe of Wisconsin Ojibwe) is to share the story of her mother’s boarding school experience in the context of the recent gift to Haskell Indian Nations University’s (Lawrence, KS) Cultural Center and Museum of a leather-bound photo album. “Sometimes, I selfishly wish that I knew nothing about my own family’s experience with Indian boarding schools,” she writes. “My mother was taken from her family at age five and taken to ‘the Sister School,’ a Catholic boarding school on her reservation, St. Mary’s First Nation in Canada.” Those stories of her mother’s, she writes, have always been with her. And by sharing them, she hopes to bring understanding and eventually, healing.
For her part, Bobbi Rahder, curator of the Haskell Cultural Center, has used historic photographs and artifacts to educate today’s students while honoring those who were forced to attend what was then called the Haskell Institute. As each freshman class arrives, she gives tours of the exhibit called “Honoring Our Children Through Seasons of Sacrifice, Survival, Change, and Celebration.” As Rahder explained to me:
I tell them that they owe a great debt to those first students. I tell them the truth of what life was like for those students, including the ones who died and are in the cemetery. I tell them that we dedicated our cultural center and museum to these first students because of the sacrifices they made, and we held a ceremony at the cemetery on the day of our museum’s dedication.
I especially want the incoming freshmen to know what the school was like in the beginning. And I tell them that it is the Haskell students who changed the school into what it is today. As the students helped each other to survive and got their education, they stayed on as staff or teachers. They are the ones who changed the school, very gradually.
She adds that in 1933 the school’s first Native superintendent, Dr. Henry Roe Cloud, changed the curriculum to emphasize Native culture—instead of trying to eliminate it. “Because of those sacrifices and Dr. Roe Cloud’s leadership, Haskell has evolved into a four-year university for Native students, most of the faculty and staff are Native, and classes are taught from a Native perspective,” she says. “I want those freshmen to realize it is a privilege for them to go the school now and to recognize the struggle and painful heritage of Haskell. I also want to empower the new students to know that they are not victims but survivors.”
Indeed, in his essay, “I Share a Dream,” Dr. Thomas Peacock (Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe) speaks to the importance of recognizing the painful heritage of Natives. But he also offers tools to eliminate racism and emphasizes the role that tribal colleges have in that mission. This is hard, emotional work, he writes. And it takes courage.
As a non-Native, I have to admit that I approached writing about racism in Indian Country with uneasiness. What do I know about racism, after all?
Rather than feeling embarrassed or ashamed, however, I’m learning that my role as a non-Native is critical. It’s not enough for non-Natives to simply proclaim we aren’t racist or biased. Nor is it enough to educate one another and our children about the lives and histories of others. Rather, we must step outside our comfort zones, embrace another perspective, and open our hearts. Eliminating racism requires both hard work and compassion.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said during a 1967 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference: “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” As I learn more each day, within the tribal college movement there is both power and love.
I was reminded of the importance—and joy—of making new friends while attending the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) conference in April. It was a privilege to meet tribal college presidents, faculty members, administrators, and students. With each smile, embrace, or shared laugh, something changes within each person. There is a bond, an understanding, and a shared sense of community.
I’m grateful especially to John Gritts (Cherokee), Sitting Bull College President Laurel Vermillion (Hunkpapa Lakota), AIHEC’s Carrie Billy (Diné), staff members from the American Indian College Fund (the Fund), Diné College graduate Claudell Martin Tacheene (Diné), Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) President Dr. Robert Martin (Cherokee), IAIA’s Nocona Burgess (Comanche), Dr. Carty Monette (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe), Northwest Indian College’s Cindy Cultee (Lummi), the College of the Muscogee Nation’s Monte Randall (Muscogee Creek)— and many, many others for having made my first AIHEC experience an amazing one. And I’m grateful to the Fund’s Cole St. Arnold (Jicarilla Apache/Ojibwe) for reassuring me that non-Natives should certainly wear the Fund’s “Think Indian” buttons.
All of us at Tribal College Journal are honored to feature so many talented writers within this issue, and we hope their stories will inspire you. Reading and re-reading the stories and poems submitted by tribal college students for the TCJ writing competition—the winners of which are featured in TCJ Student—reminded me of the resilience of youth. Many of the student writers have experienced adversity, heartbreak, addiction, and trauma. Yet they have persevered within their families, communities, and tribal colleges—and have gifted us readers with their experiences and words.
I’m grateful to all of the students who submitted their work and to all of the faculty members who encouraged and supported them. And I’m already looking forward to reading next year’s submissions. Drop us a letter at editor@ pixelright2.com/new-tcj, and share your story as well.
Laura Paskus is the interim editor of Tribal College Journal.