I spent most of a recent two week soujourn in The Department of American Culture and Literature, also known as the American Studies Department, at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Ankara, a modern city of high rises and 5 million people, is the nation’s capital. The university is nearly self-contained, with housing, coffee shops and a market, and is surrounded by hospitals, government buildings, and apartment and business towers.
Bilkent has 12,500 undergraduate and graduate students, and an adjacent k-12 Bilkent Laboratory and International School has over 1000 students. Although early grades are dual-language, upper grades at the BLIS school and the entire university use English as the teaching language.
I met with five sections of fifth-graders and one eleventh grade Global Studies class. The fifth graders were basically fluent in English; the eleventh graders as easy in their English as are most American eleventh graders.
The teacher, a White South African, had versed them in the spread of peoples from Africa and remaining indigenous communities in Australia and the Americas. They knew that Columbus thought he had landed in India and misnamed the people. Many knew pieces of the Columbian Exchange, knew that potatoes, corn, and tomatoes had traveled from the New World to the Old, and that wheat and diseases like smallpox had gone the other way. My job was to give an overview of the indigenous diversity of the Americas.
We laughed about the international stereotype of the feather head-dressed Indian on a horse on the plains that was actually promoted by the United States Agency for International Development forty and fifty years ago. I had pictures of the Inca and Astec empires, the Haudenosaunee, Lakota, Plateau Tribes and the Mikah. We talked about hunter-gathers, farmers, fishers and whalers.
I had maps showing this diversity, and told them that North America alone had consisted of 500 individual tribal nations, and that over 200 different languages were still spoken or being actively revived. We talked about “culture,” and about the ties between land, language, religion and economies that make up cultures. I suggested that one of the reasons for Native resurgence and revival in America today is the strength of these individual strands of culture and ways of dealing with the land under their tribal feet. Against all attempts to eradicate language and culture and eliminate land bases, tribes have proved strong and are now providing lessons to the broader society in living with the earth.
The students had heard about the Boarding School scandals. I told them about Deb Haaland and Chuck Sams and Jaime Pinkham now serving in important government jobs.
There was vigorous discussion, with the teacher occasionally coming in to remind them of things they had read and research projects they were working on. After an 80-minute session with one brief break, it was time to go to the next class. But a girl in the front row, who had been quiet all morning, wondered if she could ask a personal question. Why, she wanted to know, had I become so interested in Native Americans.
I hadn’t really thought about the “why” of it, but standing in front of 20 bright eleventh-graders, I reached back. Reached back to my first ten years in Minnesota and the Ojibwa White Earth Reservation next door. There were no Indians in our school, I said, and we didn’t know about boarding schools.
We moved to California when I was ten, and we were near the Pala Indian Reservation. I didn’t know then that some of the “Mexican” students I went to school with were Luiseño Indians.
After my Peace Corps days in Turkey, I moved to Northeast Oregon, a traditional home of one band of the Nez Perce Indians. Then, in 1971, I didn’t know the Nez Perce from the Navajo, but gradually I have come to know these people—although they were forcibly removed in 1877 and are now scattered across many reservations and cities.
Here, in the Wallowas, I met Alvin Josephy, I said, and opened a bookstore and began reading about Indians. A group formed over 30 years ago to welcome the Nez Perce home. I became part of that group, which has grown in strength and now has 320 acres and a longhouse—an Indian church, I explained. It was as I learned the Nez Perce story, that the stories of Minnesota and California Indians came to mind and I began reading about them and talking to Natives about them.
And then we adopted a boy from Calcutta, a different Indian. Raising him, and then raising two of his brown children, I explained, had forced me to learn about—to experience—America’s ways of discrimination.
Now I see Indian lessons—Native lessons—everywhere. I see them in how we have mismanaged our forests and waters, see them in the brutal and patriarchal march of colonialism across the continent, in the branding of some by color; see them in the powwows and friendship feasts, the demonstrations of extended community and the acts of tradition-keeping and kindness in naming ceremonies. I see them in the recapturing of accurate history of treaties, of boarding schools and assimilation attempts. And, finally, I see them in the problems that colonialism has left to Native peoples—poverty, diabetes, boarding school and tribal enrollment legacies—and, more importantly, in the beautiful resilience of the people.
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