By Jacob Factor, Features Editor (Photo by Jacob Factor/The Bison)
“I am not supposed to be alive. We were supposed to die off, as endangered species do, a century ago. And so, it is with great discomfort that I am forced, in many ways, to live and write as a ghost in this haunted American house.”
“But perhaps I am not dead after all, despite the coldest wishes of a republic that has wished it so for centuries before I was born. We stubbornly continue to exist,” said David Treuer, an Ojibwe Native American, in a 2008 editorial for the Washing-ton Post.
For many, this is what being Native American means. It means having no one else look like you. It means no one understands your culture. It means people think you don’t exist anymore.
This is true for Sierra Davis, a sophomore honors biology major at OBU. She is Choctaw, Kickapoo and Otoe.
She said she grew up in Texas and went to a school where she was one of the only natives.
Davis said when she was in elementary school, and it was Cow-boy and Indian dress up day, she was the only one dressed as an indian in the traditional regalia.
When she got to OBU, it wasn’t much different.
According to the OBU Factbook for Fall 2016, Davis’ freshman year, natives made up only five percent of OBU’s total student population.
Davis said it’s important to know that all people of minorities go through the same struggles. It may just look a little different.
“When you think about a problem that you face because you’re a certain ethnic group, just because it applies to you doesn’t mean that doesn’t apply to just everyone in general,” Davis said.
“I may not be black; I may not be white. I can’t be those things, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand your struggle because I’m a smaller minority than you are.”
For Davis, when she walks into a room, she said she has to tell her-self that it’s okay she’s the only person with her skin color.
“[I had to] willingly sign off in my head, ‘Sierra they’re not going to be like you,’ learn how to be okay with me and learn how to stick up for myself and know that I am my own person and that I am valid,” Davis said.
For past generations, this was also a struggle, but they couldn’t tell themselves that it was okay.
Clay Phillips, the director of Spiritual Life at OBU, is Choctaw, and he said his grandparents grew up in a time where it was important for natives to assimilate into white culture.
His grandparents went to a boarding school, one of a few, that was made by the government specifically with the goal of bring-ing native children up in white culture.
Phillips said his grandparents weren’t allowed to speak their language, and if they did, they were severely punished. They weren’t allowed to dress, dance or sing in the traditional way either.
“If you could go back to that great grandmother or grandfather, I can guarantee you that they would be proud of who they were,” Phillips said. “But the reality is those Generations were taught that if their kids were to survive, they needed to lose that culture, and they needed to suppress who they were.”
This, Phillips said, is the reason for a loss of culture in native people. Lineages that were assimilated no longer have anything to do with the culture.
Phillips said there is a difference, however, between his grandparents’ generation and his.
“For the first time, it’s been okay and encouraged to talk about our culture, talk about our identity and celebrate it as something that was honored,” he said.
Now that it’s okay, Phillips said he’s seen a resurgence of culture in native tribes. His tribe now has a stickball league, and their brother tribe, the Chickasaws, now has their language on Rosetta Stone.
Phillips also said there is a new kind of native culture evolving in his generation.
“There’s a lot of common struggles that [tribes] have, and there are common themes and threads that run through all natives even though we are very different people,” he said.
Because of that, there’s kind of a new culture that is taking shape, and it’s one that says, ‘I’m native,’ as opposed to, ‘I’m just my tribe.’ There’s kind of a dual culture evolving that says there’s a greater native culture that we can all resonate with on some level, and then there’s the culture of my tribe that is specific to who we are.”
Phillips and Davis also said blood quantum is becoming less important.
During the 1800s, natives were judged as native by the government based on what percentage of their blood came from native people. Before that, though, it didn’t matter to native tribes what percentage of what tribe you were. You could still be a part of a tribe if you barely had any of it in your blood. Some tribes even admitted freed black men into their tribes.
Davis said now she sees people who are as little as 1/16 native participating in cultural activities.
“Everybody bleeds red, so it doesn’t really matter how much you are,” she said.
Phillips said blood quantum isn’t important, and that heritage is instead.
“This is a person of our tribe based on their culture and Heritage. It’s more than just your blood quantum,” he said. “Being Choctaw is not about the chemistry that’s going through my veins.”
There are still effects of the assimilation of Phillips’ grandparents’ generation he said he sees.
“Natives have been ostracized for so long they’re not a majority, or [they’re] such a small minority that people feel like it’s not that big of a deal,” he said.
Davis said she feels that effect here on campus, specifically with OBU’s Native American student organization, the First Nations Council.
A few years ago, First Nations Council met for weekly meetings, but their numbers dwindled until they didn’t have enough members to meet.
Davis said she thinks it’s because people get too busy with the things they have to do, they forget about what’s still important.
Native people can forget about being native, and since they had no one to teach them about being native, or they’re only a small percentage, they think they can’t be involved in something like First Nations Council.
Davis said it doesn’t matter how much someone knows about being native; there are people like her that can teach about the culture.
She said there has to be someone who will take the initiative to revive the native culture on campus.
“If we are going to overcome that assimilation, we need to revive our culture and we need to revive our languages. People need to learn because that’s who we are,” Phillips said. “As assimilation continues to happen there may become less and less full-bloods and half-bloods, but our culture and our language will last longer than blood quantum.”
“If we allow our own wishful thinking and complacency to finish what George Armstrong Custer began, we will lose what we’ve managed to retain: our languages, land, laws, institutions, ceremonies and, finally, ourselves.”