Perseverance through controversy 

A report of the Native American Conference at IUPUI

For most of the past century, Native American Indians have flown so far under the radar of mainstream public awareness that they may have seemed, as they were labeled even longer ago, “a disappearing breed.” But last Thursday and Friday at the first Native American Education Conference on the quiet campus of IUPUI, much of the leadership of Indiana’s Indian population made thoughtful noise that revealed America’s First Peoples as not only present but ready for action of the political as well as educational variety. Successes and failures, complacencies and controversies, were aired in demonstration of the American Indian community’s greatest strength: its perseverance.

Much of Thursday’s discussion focused on the state’s few but growing programs in Indian education. Sally Tuttle (Choctaw) from Native American Indian Voices of Indiana, the state’s primary Indian advocacy group, recounted a personal history of her struggles with the public schools in Kokomo to provide her children an accurate version of Indian history and traditions. The Pokagon Potawatomi, headquartered in southwestern Michigan but active as well in northern Indiana, spoke about their well-designed efforts to support Indian students and to balance curricula about American Indians in schools in their service area. As Thanksgiving approaches, the young leaders of the Pokagon project intend to steer schools toward presentations and study plans more inclusive of Indian’s contemporary realities as well as deeper understanding of traditional cultural values.

Programs are also sprouting on Indiana’s college campuses as witnessed by the proud presence of Native American student associations from Indiana, Purdue and IUPUI. At Purdue, the Tecumseh Project exemplifies a creative approach to recruit American Indian graduate students, appropriately in the earth sciences. Much discussion pointed to the need for scholarships for often financially disadvantaged American Indian students. The federal program that grants a special category of assistance to Indians is not in place in Indiana, largely because the effort to initiate and manage the program seems outside of the Legislature’s interest or administration’s vision.

The recently arrived but perhaps immediately Indiana’s highest profile American Indian, IU basketball coach Kelvin Sampson (Lumbee) arrived with television camera crews in tow to speak about the importance to students of American Indian role models. Kids “need to see people who look like them succeed.” Using several minority student athletes as examples, Sampson noted his belief that the single most important piece of a person’s — like a culture’s — character is perseverance.

That night, Grammy Award-winning Native American musician Bill Miller folk-rocked and Indian-fluted a happy crowd in a benefit concert at Radio Radio, establishing a scholarship for Native American women students.  

On Friday, Myles Brand, president of the NCAA, and several of his colleagues spoke for the first time in a public session about the use of American Indian symbols as college team “mascots,” a hot-button issue for Indians and non-Indian sports fans. The candid presentation demonstrated the NCAA’s commitment to effectively forcing a reduction in such imagery, making the Indian mascot the disappearing breed. Perhaps as importantly, the session made clear the leadership’s agreement with Native Americans’ objections to the dehumanizing equation of Indians to eagles, tigers or panthers. The decision on this “issue of human dignity,” Brand said, reflected the NCAA’s core value of providing an environment of respect for all college athletics.

Such lively debate might eventually make the role of the Indiana Native American Indian Affairs Commission more visible. In an information-gathering session later that day, seven members of the 13-member commission lent their ears to the audience’s ideas about education, networking and public relations. Even the state’s Native American license plate was subject for discussion. With no funding for its activities, it seems the commission will primarily serve as a conduit for others’ initiatives.
Proposals may indeed be forthcoming as the lively exchanges of the conference turn into action. Primary organizer Johnny Flynn (Potawatomi), lecturer in religious studies at IUPUI and a veteran of the American Indian Movement’s 1973 action at Wounded Knee, has named the campus initiative the Coming Home Project and is already planning next year’s gathering.

Throughout Indian Country — which now more visibly includes Indiana — such thoughtful advocacy seems to be the key to bringing Indian voices and visions together. And in demonstrating their continuing presence to the mainstream culture, Native American Indians make their best case for gaining understanding and support for the necessity of their perseverance. 

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