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Students Get Minds Blown By Learning Indigenous Ways

Students at the University of Massachusetts were treated to a lecture on life through indigenous eyes by Ramona Peters, Bear Clan, Mashpee Wampanoag.

Students at the University of Massachusetts were treated to a lecture on life through indigenous eyes by Ramona Peters, Bear Clan, Mashpee Wampanoag. Peters is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act director for her tribe. Besides speaking about her work, she took the students on a journey they had not known was possible.

Jocelyn Figlock, a student in the class entitled “Indigenous Women, Mother Tongues, and Nation Building,” was moved nearly to tears by Peter’s talk. For Figlock and other students, the indigenous perspective is a new one. “American culture is very focused on the self and all about you. Ramona started the talk with, ‘I am not going to talk about myself, that is not what we do. We talk about the land.’ It hit me hard,” Figlock said. “It’s a common sense way of thinking that is not so common. It’s beautifully based in—it’s more… That’s what it is. It’s more.”

Amy Den Ouden, associate professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at UMass Boston and one of the co-instructors of the course, explained: “I see a lot of important changes in the students. Many have a real awakening—a historical awakening and a personal awakening. I don’t think there is a way for young people to learn about indigenous history and the ongoing struggles without, as Ramona said, doing some real work on connectedness.”

Speaking quietly to 60 students in a large lecture hall, Peters spoke for an hour on a variety of topics, of times when humans were quieter and more emotionally connected to themselves and others—when intuition was the method of reading the wampum belts. “Whoever drilled the holes was the historian who breathed the story into the beads. You had to be somewhat psychic to read it and everybody at one time was that. The wampum design was simply the cover of the book,” Peters said.

Christina Rose

Students gathered around Ramona Peters, center, after a lecture given at the University of Massachusetts Women’s and Gender Studies Department.

When Peters referred to the land, it was in terms most of the students had never heard before. “In tribal traditions, we talk about our relations—not just human, but the land, the water and all the things that dwell there. When we neglect the earth, we do not feed it with our attention. Attention is nourishment.”

Den Ouden said the students learn a number of concepts, like: “How do we feel our connection to others? What does respect and reciprocity mean? These are fundamental indigenous concepts that our students are working on. This is something they have to work through, throughout the semester. For some students it can be challenge, and frustrating. It’s not simple for them,” she said. “They knew the mythology of Native Americans but they didn’t know about indigenous experiences, knowledge, history, and perspectives of indigenous people and particularly women.”

“Native American and Indigenous Studies programs are dramatically changing non-Native perceptions about Native people. There is a stronger and stronger presence of indigenous educational knowledge in university curriculum now, and I think it is having a significant impact,” Den Ouden said.

As part of the civic engagement aspect, students wrote opinion editorials to local newspapers and letters to senators asking the State of Massachusetts to support the Mashpee Wampanoag Language program. Students working with Jennifer Weston, the Lakota director of the program, began developing legislature based on similar language programs in Montana.

“To do that, they had to have a solid understanding of indigenous women’s leadership in language revitalization,” Den Ouden said. “Bringing in speakers enabled students to participate in meaningful conversations with indigenous women leaders in language revitalization, health, land issues, and the epidemic of sexual violence against Native women in North America.”