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A journey from Indian-clueless to Native-blessed

David Colburn
Posted 6/22/22

The Indians of my youth, as a child growing up in the 1960s, were mostly caricatures drawn from a time long ago, a time time defined not by their history but by America’s. They magically came …

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A journey from Indian-clueless to Native-blessed


The Indians of my youth, as a child growing up in the 1960s, were mostly caricatures drawn from a time long ago, a time defined not by their history but by America’s. They magically came into existence at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, and virtually disappeared once the wild, wild West was “won,” as best I could tell from watching “The Lone Ranger” and making construction paper headdresses in school nearly every Thanksgiving. To be admired when subordinate or reviled when antagonistic, whatever the case, Indians were history to that kid back then. Period.
As the decade changed, that view became altered, albeit just a tiny bit. As my father was a religious consumer of nightly news broadcasts, Native occupations of Mount Rushmore and Wounded Knee were things I became aware of, although as a young teenager, I failed to embrace their significance. However, Indians ceased being mere relics of the past, as here they were in the present.
They became a bit more so when I went off to college at the University of Kansas in 1976. Sharing Lawrence, KS with the Jayhawks, was a small school on the south side of town for Native Americans, Haskell Institute. I crossed paths with Haskell students on those weekend nights when my friends and I would head out to the bars. They’d have their corner, we’d have ours, but there they were. Who were they, where’d they come from, what was life like at Haskell, I recall wondering once or twice. I never bothered to ask.
Fast forward to a new decade, to the summer of 1983. Driving an ancient Bluebird bus packed with about two dozen Presbyterian teenagers (a bus we frequently had to push start), I traveled to the little Navajo community of Oljato in Monument Valley for what was to be a one-week work trip. My life hasn’t been the same since.
Simple things fascinated me, like learning that Navajo, a name I’d seen mostly on semi-trucks, was not their true tribal name. They are in their own language the Diné, “the people.” With no English equivalent, Oljato could best be translated as the essence of moonlight reflecting off the water, an elder told me. We were treated to traditional foods, whisked out to see ancestral ruins 700-800 years old, and told stories. And, too, we learned about the contemporary challenges facing the Diné, and there were many. In befriending Harold, a Lakota who married into the tribe years earlier, I gained my first glimpse into the differences of tribal cultures and intertribal discrimination. Native Americans, I realized, was a term with limited utility. For insight and understanding, I needed to try to understand people, their tribes, and their cultures. It was one of the most enriching and enlightening weeks of my life.
Two years later I had my first job out of college working in Shawnee, Okla., a town of about 20,000 near Oklahoma City, with the Absentee Shawnee, Kickapoo, and Citizen Band Potawatomi all having a major presence there, with several other tribes also represented. It was a complex social landscape, one I was eager to learn and work with respectfully, bolstered in part from the insight I’d been given by Harold. As with my work trip, I benefited much more from the experiences there than did those I interacted with.
Suffice it to say that over the ensuing decades, as my relationships and knowledge relative to Native cultures have grown, my life has continued to be enriched beyond anything that young kid in Kansas could ever have imagined.
Ever since climbing that rocky slope to stand in the ancestral ruins of the family of my Diné hosts, I’ve not been able to aptly put into words the connection I’ve felt to indigenous cultures, but perhaps there was a partial answer in the Ancestry DNA test I took four years ago. As an adoptee, there were numerous surprises for me, including one I didn’t see coming at all: I’m nine percent Native American. My immediate reaction was, “Yes! That explains it!” But does it really? Is there something about my physical being that resonates at its core with indigenous cultures because of a bit of shared genetic coding? It is a mystery beyond my comprehension, but as with many of life’s mysteries not one I choose to discount. “Perhaps” is the best answer I can manage, and it will have to do.
These musings on my past are prompted in general by the fact that, in accord with sacred importance of the circle, my work career has brought me full circle in my Native experiences, as the Ojibwe and Potawatomi, Anishinaabeg and Bodéwadmik, share common ancestry as two of the groups represented in the Council of the Three Fires centuries ago.
More immediately, they’re sparked by an event from last weekend.
Last Saturday, I got a little glimpse into the future by attending the 20th anniversary celebration for the Bois Forte Heritage Center and Cultural Museum. Accustomed to seeing such historic endeavors in other small towns where I’ve lived entrusted to gray-haired retirees, I was delighted to see instead a couple of relative “youngsters” in the lead, and I’m pleased to say that this old dog was rather impressed. Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Jaylen Strong honored the past by laying out a vision for the center’s future that I certainly found compelling, and I hope others there did, too. Visitor Services Manager Kyle Littlewolf’s comments showed he shares Strong’s heart for making the center not simply a place to go, but a living, vibrant entity bringing the past, present, and future together in the life of the Bois Forte people and the surrounding community. It will be decades before either can be considered an elder, but that doesn’t particularly matter when communal responsibility for ancestral heritage is part of the culture. Honoring and drawing upon all the resources available to them, remaining learners while becoming teachers as well, the potential is there with the proper support over time for them to realize that vision. I, for one, am excited about the possibilities that may unfold.
As for me? I’m blessed to believe that learning and becoming are things that continue all our lives, even when sometimes it appears otherwise. In moving here, I feel I’ve been given a special opportunity to learn more about Ojibwe culture as expressed through the lives of the Bois Forte people, and it’s something I do not wish to take for granted. I’m humbled by the gracious sharing of so many so far, and indeed look forward to more. I have far too many interests and far too little time left on the planet to ever learn enough, but as it is often said, it’s not the destination but the journey that counts. I’m glad this is part of my path.


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