Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why Is There a Totem Pole at the University of Chicago?

Walking to my graduate school class in Haskell Hall I'm struck by this sight.

Yes, a totem pole.

A plaque nearby tells that the pole was commissioned for a trade exposition in Chicago in the 1940s. It came from an Indian tribe located in the Coastal Northwest. The school came into possession after the pole sat in storage for many years.

In the late 1970s or early 80s the pole was installed on campus in the stairwell of the anthropology building.

I have complicated feelings about the pole and its location. My mother's tribe, the "Flathead," moved inland from the coast to hunt buffalo, but I don't know much about totem poles.

But I do know that it's located in a place nearly devoid of Native American culture. Indians are largely absent at the University of Chicago. Only thirty American Indian students attend the school. Unlike the first university I attended, there is little here for Indians. There is no Native American Studies department, no powwow, no cultural events. We lack a presence here. It's as if the entire school forgot Indians existed, except for this pole. And it's viewed as nothing more than a curiosity.

To me the pole feels lonely. Carved from the wood of a rainforest on the coast, by the hands of a skilled tribesman, it stands here near the stairwell devoid of context, devoid of meaning.

I identify with it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

How to Raise an American Indian Baby

My daughter was born Dec. 18. As I watch my wife feed baby, I ponder her future as an Indian.

My wife and I currently live away from my homeland and tribes, which are located in Montana. The question arises: how do we keep our daughter in touch with tribal cultures that are very much about place and being there? Will she have an Indian name, as I do? Will she know how to point with her lips, as my tribe does? Will she feel at home in the tribal world?

I don’t have any easy answers. I’m acutely aware that for me being Indian means being around the people and places and practices that make up a culture. She must see lip pointing. She must learn how to bet $20 on stickgame at the powwow. She must know how to speak her language. And she must be given a name.

This is not a new story: Indians have been leaving home for a long time, most often for school and jobs. It started with the boarding schools, but now it also means going to that PhD. program in the Midwest. I'm aware that sometimes in going away Indians get lost. Some never came back and some lost touch. There are people in America today who are part Indian, but have no connection to their culture.

I think of this because it’s possible that I will always live away from home. As a writer, I have a “liberal arts” skill set. My reservations do not seem to have a need for such things. There are few jobs for those without hard, technical skills. I’ve returned home time and time again to find that there are no jobs for me.

Living in Chicago, the burden of culture rests with me as the father. If we were living on the reservation, American Indian culture would permeate everywhere, in every thing. I have to be that for my daughter. I have to be the source of all things Indian. My conscious effort to raise her “Indian” must accompany the everyday.

I need to make baby aware that she is Indian. I remember my niece as a young kid went around saying “I’m Indian” in her cute way. Baby must go home with us as often as possible to see her extended family, her grandparents, aunties, uncles, nieces.

Baby can travel home summers to stay with her grandparents and her auntie and uncle who live on or close to our reservations. I spent time as a kid staying with my Grandma on the rez, going to tribal summer camp.

Today my daughter is wearing the moccasins a family friend made for her. When we return home for summer vacation we plan to bury her umbilical cord stump according to the ways of my Mother’s tribe. Baby will grow up Indian even if she lives in Chicago with her mom and dad. We just have to try harder so that she knows.

This presents an opportunity. We can choose the best, what’s the most worthwhile, constructive and engaging things about being Indian. Baby doesn’t need to experience the acute racism and discrimination of the reservation border town I grew up in. She doesn't need to be tied to the self-destructiveness many of us associate with being Indian.

I want her to see the reservation as one the places she belongs, along with the city. I want her to see that the world is hers.