BELLINGHAM, Wash. - Though the idea of many American Indians living in two worlds has often been derided by American Indian authors and social critics, it is becoming more and more of an everyday occurrence.
Take Amy Finkbonner for example. As last year's Associated Student Body president at Western Washington University, Amy learned her heritage provided unique insight she found particularly valuable to her elected job.
Finkbonner, 23, an enrolled member of the Lummi tribe, is the first American Indian in Western Washington's 90-year history to hold the top post in student government. Though raised by her non-Indian mother near Bellingham, Finkbonner was a frequent visitor to the nearby Lummi reservation because her father and stepmother lived there.
Speaking about her trips to the reservation, Finkbonner said she often felt like a tourist when she brought her non-Indian friends to visit. However, Finkbonner said such trips also helped reinforce her cultural ties while introducing her friends to something new.
"Being Lummi is something that my friends don't quite understand. I feel it's a big part of me and a learning process for my friends," Finkbonner said.
What Finkbonner learned from her father and his relations was what she likes to call a "quiet leadership." Both her father and stepmother served on the Lummi Tribal Council and Finkbonner said she learned firsthand the value of staying steady when serving in a political post.
While off the reservation Finkbonner said she tried to maintain ties to her Lummi culture. She was a member of the Native American clubs in high school and college. When she assumed the presidency of the Associated Students, Finkbonner said she participated in the Building Bridges conference where tribal governments and students opened a dialogue to better understand the issues facing American Indians today.
"The conference was great because it was really an education (to the non-Indian community). I mean it seems that unless (American Indians) are studied, the general public is basically ignorant."
Since Western Washington's student body is only 1 percent American Indian, Finkbonner said she feels that often American Indians are too intimidated, as such an extreme minority, to bridge the cultural gap.
She said many of them fall through the cracks, adding that her sister, who grew up on the reservation, eventually dropped out of Western Washington because she was unable to fully bridge the divide. As a result, Finkbonner met with student leaders at nearby Northwest Indian College to explore possible solutions to the problem.
Finkbonner said she feels there are far too few examples of American Indians who achieve off the reservation. She said her presidency is an example that American Indians can achieve in the larger society, though she readily admits that since she grew up off the reservation this task was far easier for her than, for example, her sister.
Additionally Finkbonner expressed a debt of gratitude to the American Indian activists who fought for American Indian interests over the years. Growing up in a liberal, West Coast college town like Bellingham has given her a different perspective. Among her friends and society, being American Indian is more of a help than a hindrance, she said.
She added that sometimes she felt like a token minority in student government. Her cultural group was often woven into introductions, whether it was relevant or not and said sometimes this was just "plain annoying." However, she said she could use her heritage to play into her favor when doing things like the Building Bridges conference.
"Though sometimes my heritage was overplayed, I could also use it as a strength when trying to get things done in the name of diversity, particularly when Indian issues are involved. Overall it's a strength but it's also an irony because I feel there may have been an element of guilt (from non-Indians)."
Aside from American Indian issues Finkbonner had a host of responsibilities many other campus student governments do not. At Western Washington the Associated Students are responsible for managing the profits from the bookstore, a several million-dollar budget.
Additionally Finkbonner ran on a platform to give tuition control to elected officials in Washington state government and not to the university trustees because she feared tax dollars would ultimately be taken away from the university.
Finkbonner also helped create the Institutional Master Plan for Western Washington, which is the school's 20-year blueprint for educational goals.
By all accounts she worked well with the university administration and staff.
Jack Smith, student government advisor, praised Finkbonner for her adept dealings with the university administration. He said she is a hard worker who has a great sense of humor yet at the same time could get serious when the occasion called for it.
"As a person, she's a delight to work with, open yet direct and ultimately effective in getting things accomplished," Smith said.
Though many student governments often find themselves at odds with the administration, this does not seem to be the case here. Western Washington University President Karen Morse said she is pleased with the work Finkbonner did while serving in student government.
"Amy is very responsible and worked well with students, faculty and administration. She's well respected by the members of the campus community. We were pleased to have her as a student and Associated Student president," said Morse.
In May, Amy completed her bachelor's degree with a double major in English and secondary education. She will begin student teaching in the fall and ultimately wants to become a high school English teacher and soccer coach.
"I'm ready to teach others because of everything I've learned. I've learned a lot about myself and found my Native roots in my leadership style. I want to bring these same opportunities (to those) who haven't had the same chance, but I've learned it by living in two worlds."