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Lakota scholar wins prestigious national fellowship

Lakota poet, scholar and educator Dr. Geraldine Mendoza Gutwein was awarded one of only 10 National Endowment for the Humanities Teaching Development Fellowships this year.

The NEH awarded the $21,000 fellowship to Dr. Mendoza Gutwein so she could devote time to “Toward an Understanding of Teaching Native American Literature from a Multidisciplinary Approach,” which will focus on how to use Native American art to broaden students understanding of Native American literature, and change some of the stereotypical and romanticized notions that persist in regards to that subject.

Gutwein, who also has Mexican American heritage, is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and was raised on the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation in South Dakota. She currently teaches Native American literature, Creative Writing and Developmental Reading courses at Harrisburg Area Community College in Harrisburg, Penn.

The idea for the research project came to the educator after years of teaching and interacting with mostly non-Native students.

“The students are taking literature courses to learn about culture,” she said. “But when we start to discuss it I can tell that they’re looking at it from images that are stereotypical, romanticized notions of Native Americans.

“For example, I have had students who come to my class and say ‘well, I was just in Arizona and I really loved the artwork and I thought I needed to study Native American literature so I could know Native American culture’. A trip to Arizona is wonderful because it is a beautiful place, but the Native American population of Arizona is just one part of the Native American population of America.

“Or I’ve had students appear and say that ‘I had a Cherokee great-grandmother and so I want to learn about Native American culture because she was Cherokee.’ The student wants to get back to a cultural root without considering the broader history.”

From that point, Gutwein she started to incorporate contemporary Native American film and music into the course to help her students get a broader understanding of the literature and culture of Native America. She then realized that the visual representation in contemporary art could also help in teaching about the literature and that, “many of the recent students are very visually oriented due to the various media made available to them and that a visual component could play a role.”

Exploring those visual components will take Gutwein to a number of different places, including the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., which houses a large art collection from all over the hemisphere, and to the Heard Museum in Phoenix.

“I’m also going to be interviewing local artisans on the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River reservations, regarding the fusion of traditional and contemporary art forms and themes in their work; and there will be many things to do for this project.”

By returning to that area of South Dakota, Gutwein will be near her hometown of Eagle Butte. It was there, in a family of 11 children that she became inspired to write and teach.

“I always dreamed of being a writer,” she said. “I loved stories and story telling so for me writing became quite natural and I became very serious about it when I was in my 20s, when I was also really encouraged by some of my early professors.”

Gutwein went on to have two poetry books published, “Every Orbit of the Circle,” (Rabbit Press, 1995) a chapbook, and “The Stories She Told” (2003), a full length collection also published by Rabbit Press based on stories told by her grandmother. Along with reading from her work in venues in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kansas and South Dakota, Gutwein teaches Creative Writing and is the director of the nationally known Wildwood Writers Festival, held every year at Harrisburg Area Community College.

Her entry into the field of education was what she called, a “natural progression.”

“I had so many role models who were teachers – my mother, my sisters, my brother – it just seemed like the natural thing to do and. … once I got into the classroom I thought it was really wonderful and that this is what I want to do.”

From that point, she undertook several years of study which lead to a Bachelor of Science in English education from Blackhills State University; a Master of Arts in English at the distinguished Breadloaf School of English, Middlebury College; and then a Ph.D. in English from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Gutwein got her start as an English teacher at Cheyenne – Eagle Butte High School in Eagle Butte, S.D. in 1982 and eventually came to HACC in 1991 where she further developed her career as an English, Creative Writing and Native American literature professor. Along the way, she won a different national honor – the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development Excellence in Teaching Award for 2007.

Regarding her most recent honor, she said, “I’m very excited about the fellowhip because it gives me an opportunity to study and bring something new to the classroom and my teaching.”