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Educating is Key to Reclaiming Indian ‘Image and Identity’

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing about countering the negative images of Indians in popular culture on November 29.

At a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing about countering the negative images of Indians in popular culture, Lynn Valbuena captured the problem and the solution in two sentences.

“If you were to ask most Americans what the day after Thanksgiving is called, I would venture to guess that 99.9 percent would say its ‘Black Friday’ instead of Native American Heritage Day,” Valbuena said. “We all need to do more to raise awareness about this important day if we expect it to become a meaningful and relevant American tradition like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Labor Day, or even Columbus Day.”

The mainstream society’s lack of knowledge and its need for education about indigenous peoples were a constant theme running through the hearing called “Reclaiming Our Image and Identity for the Next Seven Generations” on Thursday, November 29.

Valbuena herself has gone a long way in dispelling the negative images of American Indians in this country through her involvement as an elected leader in tribal affairs and her service both to Indian country and to non-Indian organizations and communities. She is the chairwoman of the Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Indian Nations (TASIN), former vice chairwoman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, former secretary of the National Indian Gaming Association, current secretary for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and a trustee for the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. Valbuena has been the recipient of countless awards and honors and she was the first speaker at the hearing.

Valbuena talked about the negative stereotypes that have flourished in the wake of “misguided federal policies, hostilities, Hollywood stereotypes, and hardships suffered by American Indians” – the feathers-and-teepee Indians, the drunken Indian, the wealthy casino-tribe Indian. These stereotypes engender feelings of inferiority, shame, and low self-esteem, especially among Native youth and are linked to poor academic performance and social adjustment, high school graduation rates and high suicide and homicide rates, Valbuena said. “We recognize that we bear the responsibility of educating non-Native people about ourselves, but Congress and this Committee can and should take a couple of simple steps to help us, particularly since past federal policies have contributed to and perpetuated the stereotypes that exist today,” Valbuena said. She recommended, among other things, that the SCIA reauthorize and fund the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, which was enacted in 2006 to preserve and increase fluency in Native American languages. “Language shapes everyone’s identity, but for Native communities there is an urgent need to protect our languages from extinction,” Valbuena said.

Mr. Andrew J. Lee, Seneca, is a trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, an executive at Aetna Inc., Hartford, Connecticut, a young Global leader of the World Economic Forum and sits on several boards serving Indian country. As “a mixed race Native,” Lee said, it took him years to understand that his background and heritage were assets that allowed him to move comfortably through multiple worlds. He talked of a conversation he’d had with a man who made a horribly racist and genocidal comment about South America indigenous people. “I said nothing and walked away. But later I went out of my way to spend time with him,” Lee said. “We talked about Wall Street, history and the arts and I never brought up that repulsive comment. Over time I introduced him to Indian sovereignty. Ultimately, he became an unlikely ally. For me this experience underscored the need to build bridges of understanding across communities, cultures and sectors. Most importantly, it taught me that I can make a difference.”

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Lee offered three ideas about Indian image and identity. First, he asserted that the ability to reclaim Indians’ image and identity is inextricably tied” to the continued support for and exercise of self-determination. “Astonishing success is possible when Indian nations put themselves in the driver’s seat for decision making on everything from social service provision to natural resource management,” he said. Second, he said that Indian country should showcase the growing number of success stories. He cited the Winnebago Tribe, “which turned around its economy plagued by 60 percent unemployment, “ by developing diversified enterprises; the Tohono O’odham Nation, which built a skilled nursing facility that is now a national model; and the Pueblo of Zuni, who built the first ever Indian operated eagle sanctuary.

Mary Kim Titla, a citizen of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, a board member for the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) and a journalist, talked about the racist attacks she suffered as a child attending public school in the 1960s and provided some alarming statistics about the estimated 93 percent of Indian kids today who attend public schools. A National Indian Education Study last year revealed that two-thirds of them knew little or nothing about their Native heritage and history. “World-class culturally based education is one way to help Native students reclaim their proud image and identity,” Titla said. “It is also one of the most-important solutions to helping our children and communities succeed in a world in which knowledge is economic, social, and political power.” She pushed for passage of the Native CLASS (Culture, Language and Access for Success in Schools) Act in Congress. “While not a fix-all, the Native CLASS Act does address many of the systemic problems in Native education and includes strengthening tribal control of education, preserves and revitalizes Native languages and encourages tribal/state partnerships,” Titla said.

Sam McCracken, a member of the Fort Peck Tribe and general manager for NIKE N7, talked about the athletic shoe designed especially for Native people and the N7 Fund, which funds nonprofit groups that provide physical activities for Indian youth. McCracken talked about the disproportionate number of Native Americans who suffer from diabetes and obesity and what he called “the physical inactivity epidemic” and the health and psychological benefits of physical activities. He urged the committee to support the reauthorization of the Special Diabetes Program for Indians.

“In every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the seventh generation,” he said. “The ultimate goal of the N7 Fund is to consider this footprint and to help Native American youth recognize their proud history and build on it for a triumphant future.

Two other witnesses testified at the hearing -- Tonantzin Carmelo, a descendant of the Mission Indians of southern California and a Screen Actors Guild Award Nominated Actor and Marjorie Tahbone, Inupiaq/Kiowa of Nome, Alaska, and Miss Indian World 2011-12.

At the beginning of the hearing, several SCIA members honored Chairman Daniel Kahikina Akaka, who is retiring in January. "You, Mr. Chairman, have been a champion for Native Americans during your distinguished career in Congress," Vice Chairman Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) said. "It has been a great honor for me to serve with you as vice chairman on this committee.” Barrasso also noted Akaka's reference during his opening speech to Native Hawaiian Olympic champion Duke Kanahamoku as being a "big kahuna." "I always thought of you as the 'big kahuna,'” Barrasso said. “You have been a good friend to Indian country as well. As chairman of this committee, you have brought to the forefront many pressing issues facing Indian country today. You have generated significant dialogue to build upon for future Congresses."