Making the invisible Indian visible 

Between the Miami’s loss of federal recognition in the 1890s and more recent worries over the Pokagon Potawatomi’s casino planning, Indiana’s Native American Indians have been a largely forgotten minority.

“In Indiana, Indians are invisible,” said Brian Fahey, member of the similarly low-profile Indiana Native American Indian Advisory Commission, at the commission’s quarterly meeting March 14 at the Eiteljorg Museum.

But despite a nearly non-existent budget — a situation that may soon change — and a community to serve that’s diverse, scattered and often divisive, the INAIAC has goals centered on increasing public awareness and high hopes for a future even more productive than its start-up year of 2006.

Make that its “re-start-up year.” The first incarnation of the commission failed rather notably, if happily not very publicly, due to infighting, mostly among the Indian voices representing Indiana’s diverse Native American population of around 50,000 from 150 tribal nations and groups.

Commission Chairman and Miami tribal Chief Brian Buchanan noted in an interview that there was a bit of governmental skepticism held over from the past: “They were waiting to see how long until we destroyed ourselves.” But the new group has focused and “calmed to give us a chance to help the community.”

While retaining passion for the cause, the Indian members now ignore the hate mail and divisions. And Buchanan remarked how pleased he is with the current roster of non-Indian members from within the state government, offering a long list of ways each individual has served the commission.

Indeed, these accomplishments showed in the meeting itself, demonstrating a positive and proactive vitality. After a prayer to the four directions — in Potawatomi with English translation — by commission member Clarence White and the Pledge of Allegiance, members reported on recent activity in the Indian community: participation in Minority Health Month, a new Native American Cultural Center at Purdue, a forthcoming Wild Onion Festival at IUPUI.

Even better news followed: The Legislative Procedures Committee noted that the commission’s appearance and presentation of its 2006 Progress Report had gone well in the Indiana House, where a budget for the commission passed in the amount of $100,000 per year for the next biennium. The budget bill awaits Senate hearing, but all are hopeful that the commission funds will be maintained there.

Other committee reports and discussion set goals for the coming year: expanding the state’s minority teacher program to include Native Americans, outreach for diabetes awareness, advising the Governor’s Sachem awards to maximize their authenticity, printing and posting the new Native American directory of businesses, releasing a financial aid guide for Indian students.

Among the varied roles the commission currently plays, perhaps the most unusual and telling is the work of a spirituality committee advising Indiana’s Department of Corrections regarding the legitimacy of American Indian spiritual practices in Indiana’s prisons.

The committee is charged to assess American Indian prisoners’ needs and advise DOC on ways to improve their access to spiritual assistance. In the longer term they intend to help revise the Native American section of the DOC handbook that guides prison administration and personnel and to establish a procedure for identifying appropriate spiritual leaders.

Difficulties in doing so lie in the presence of “certified” practitioners who may have in fact more or less “purchased” their credentials, as well as in the very nature of American Indian spirituality. As member Reggie Petoskey put it, “Our individuals learn this spirituality all their lives, rather than have a handbook for it.”

With this and many other matters of Native American affairs, the organizational procedures of mainstream culture can be at odds with Indian needs. The commission’s most important function is to help bridge this gap, starting with educating both the state’s government and its public.

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