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Encouraging America to 'Think Indian'

Allyson Two Bears, an environmental science student at Sitting Bull College based in the Dakotas, hails from a long line of medicine women. Her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother were cultural leaders, and their traditional wisdom eventually passed down to Two Bears, who promised to share the knowledge with her children.

Today, she uses the lessons she learned about Indian medicine as a guide to the lessons she learns in her contemporary tribal college education. In her ethnobotany class, Two Bears has been taught to understand much more about the plants she was introduced to by her elders.

She’s also conducting scientific research projects on turtle populations on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and she previously studied the Loggerhead Shrike and the Brown Thrasher populations. She has traveled to Costa Rica to do tropical studies on a wasp species and primate observation, and to Alaska to participate in the National Wildlife Society conference.

Now, she wants to spread the knowledge she has gathered from all her experiences to others.

“Because of our disconnection with nature and the urgency of global warming, I hope to reconnect others with nature. I would like to develop and teach programs about conservation, nature and wildlife, all while tying in Native American culture and beliefs. I do not want to limit my programs to the youth; I want to teach people of all ages.”

The print and television spots featuring tribal college students from across the nation as part of the “Think Indian” campaign started earlier this year in an effort to share how the unique cultural thinking of American Indians is being preserved at tribal colleges.

Two Bears was given the opportunity to share her old-meets-new education and life experiences in a recently launched public service ad campaign called “Think Indian," sponsored by the American Indian College Fund.

The campaign, which has print, video and online components, is partially aimed at getting mainstream America to understand unique educational opportunities and choices available to Native Americans at tribal colleges. Another element is getting people to donate to the colleges.

The campaign features several tribal college students amid vibrant images of their area of study. In hers, Two Bears appears beside bright re-creations of plant life and a small vignette about her tribal college experiences. Above her picture appear the words, “To think Indian is to save a plant that can save a people.”

AICF, a nonprofit based in Denver, has developed several similar print and television spots featuring tribal college students from across the nation. Its officials started the “Think Indian” campaign earlier this year in an effort to share how the unique cultural thinking of American Indians is being preserved at tribal colleges. At the same time, the campaign illustrates how the cultural landscape of tribal colleges is used by students to solve modern-day problems.

Some of the advertisements feature sports-driven students, like Sekoya Bighorn, a physical education major at United Tribes Technical College. In her print spot, the words, “To think Indian is to cure diabetes with sacred foods and hoops,” are prominently featured.

Others, like Alan Waukau, a criminal justice major at the College of Menominee Nation, tackle even bigger subjects, like tribal sovereignty. Above him appear the words, “To think Indian is to uphold a justice system older than any government.”

The campaign ties in with the fund’s mission – to raise awareness of the nation’s tribal colleges and universities and to provide scholarships to Native students.

“The catchphrase, ‘Think Indian,’ kind of encompasses everything we try to do at the American Indian College Fund,” explained Director of Public Education Dina Horwedel. “We want to build social capital for the colleges, while also building mainstream knowledge of Native intellectual capital.”

Officials started the “Think Indian” campaign earlier this year in an effort to share how the unique cultural thinking of American Indians is being preserved at tribal colleges. At the same time, the campaign illustrates how the cultural landscape of tribal colleges is used by students to solve modern-day problems.

While the fund – which has been around since 1989 – has sponsored past campaigns involving tribal colleges, Horwedel said this one is supposed to be more global in its appeal. A previous campaign, called “If I stay on the Rez,” was more to reach Native Americans than the general population.

As another example of “thinking Indian,” Horwedel pointed to research being conducted at Oglala Lakota College on the effects of bitter melon on diabetes.

While Western medicine has long pointed to insulin as the main treatment method, Horwedel said the college is finding avenues of study worth pursuing.

“There is more than one way to solve a puzzle. We believe Native ways need much more attention.”

To get the campaign off the ground, the fund worked closely with its advertising partner of almost 20 years, the Portland, Oregon-based Wieden+Kennedy agency. Although the firm is owned by non-Natives, one of its partners grew up in Indian country.

For the “Think Indian” campaign, members of the agency volunteered time and resources to create and advertise the fund’s mission to educate American Indian students. Wieden+Kennedy is known for its work with several top companies, including Nike, Target and Coca-Cola, and was named Adweek’s 2008 Global Agency of the Year.

They spent countless hours meeting and filming tribal college students across the country to garner plenty of examples demonstrating multiple facets of the institutions and students.

The agency has done all of its work pro bono. The publications and television stations also donate the placements.

“We just find the work of the American Indian College Fund to be so important,” said Elisa Silva, an official with Wieden+Kennedy. “We think this campaign really gets to its core message, and we are excited to spread this message.”

She said creating the campaign was a fascinating learning experience for the firm.

“A lot of the things Native Americans have been doing for hundreds of years, American culture is just now catching up on, like sustainability and living green.”

Agency executives are working with television stations to get time donated for the campaign’s creative and musical video PSA spots, which can be viewed online.

The campaign can also be viewed online at YouTube, MySpace and other social media Web sites.

“Our goal was to be more interactive,” Horwedel said of Internet avenues, explaining that tribal college students and other Natives are encouraged to go online to share their experiences in “thinking Indian.”

“Everybody has different ways of thinking, and solving problems creatively. The more we share, the more of a movement this becomes.”

Horwedel said some colleges have modified the campaign to be more specific to their institutions, which the fund encourages. Officials would like more tribes to display the PSAs in tribal facilities, such as casinos.

“We’re really excited to see it taking off this way, and that some institutions are really taking it a step further,” Horwedel said.

“Think Indian” is expected to run for three years.