Culture Intel

Can you say hello in Ojibwe?

Can you say hello in Ojibwe? How about in Dakota? These are two beautiful examples of languages that are experiencing two critical processes today. On the one the hand they are severely threatened because people are speaking them less and less. On the other hand, they are being revitalized by passionate native speakers who are determined to share them and keep them alive. Speaking one’s language is a dynamic way to retain culture and to converse and really have fun. Language holds the key to really understanding the meaning of life, metaphors and cultural perspectives.

There is another reason why is it is essential to say hello in Ojibwe and Dakota. It can serve as a metaphor for people living outside of native communities to reach out to their native neighbors in bonds of fellowship. For people outside of indigenous language communities, greeting a native person in their first language is a small step to make a new friend and break down the cultural walls that keep us divided. I checked in with two people to gain perspectives- Dr. Anton Treuer, professor of the Ojibwe language at Bemidji State University and Elma Strom an educator of Finnish descent who lives in northern Itasca County, Minnesota.

Tony Treuer

Tony, what is your perspective on learning one’s native language and for people outside of indigenous tribal communities to learn how to speak Ojibwe?

This is the issue I have devoted my personal and professional life to for all of my life. A language encapsulates the worldview of a people. Each group of humans on the planet has a unique view of the world and a unique way to deal with its problems. For example, in Ojibwe, the word for elder is gitchi-aya’ah which means great being. The Ojibwe word for an elderly woman is mindimooye, which means one who holds things together. So in the Ojibwe world you don’t have to teach anyone to respect their elders because it is built into the words already. In mainstream America, elders do not receive the same level of respect or adoration as Ojibwe elders experience so this worldview that is encapsulates an Ojibwe perspective of the world and can be shared with others. All languages have unique views and unique ways to view the world that can influence others in positive ways. Native people have a lot to offer to others and there is many ideas to learn from our native brothers and sisters.

Tony, if someone is interested to learn Ojibwe where do you suggest they go or start from?

There are many ways. Ojibwe has a free online dictionary that you can look up words to learn meaning and pronunciation. Ojibwe is taught at 20 universities and there are several speakers throughout the region. There are many books and resources available as well. You may go to Bemidji State University’s Ojibwe Language Resources webpage for a list.

Tony, why is it important for people not associated with a tribal community to learn Ojibwe or another native language?

First it is a powerful way to overcome the fear of reaching out to a group of people who they have never associated with or worry they will offend because of past and present treatment. Already 50% are students of color and 85% of teachers are white and female with limited understanding of native communities. As a result, everybody has to do better with speaking cultural languages and linguistic languages. Learning a native language provides a safe starting point for some of the most important work of our time. We all need to be brave, lean in, and learn how to say hello in another language- the languages of our children.

The exclusion of native voices in the schools system promotes the dominant culture instead of providing a nurturing multicultural environment where all students thrive and learn. Learning another language is an easy way to provide empowerment for our native students and cultural competence for all of our students.

Elma Strom

Elma what prompted you to learn Ojibwe?

I have traveled to several places in the world. Every time I go, I try to learn the language of the people so I can say hello, thank you, I love you, and other pleasantries just to be able to communicate a little. It occurred to me after moving to northern Minnesota I needed to learn the language of the place that I live. And part of the motivation for learning the language of the place I visit and now the place I live, is that there is so much cultural understanding embedded in the language. I have also learned from past experiences there are many instances that some things don’t translate from one language to another and it is important for me to learn the language and know the pronunciation and meanings. It requires courage to make mistakes and to be able to speak properly.

By studying the Ojibwe language I could understand a little bit of the worldview of the Anishinabe. A person’s language shapes the way they think and I want to be culturally aware especially since I am living here as a squatter on Anishinabe land. The experiences of the native people has affected me since my youth regarding my choice profession, my standard how I live on the land, and my spiritual search to be able to respect the Ojibwe people from whom we can learn so much.

Overall, I have learned that there are some things that cannot be expressed in English so what is expressed in Ojibwe or other languages can really enrich the human race.

Elma please tell us how you learned Ojibwe-

I searched for books and bookstores didn’t have anything but found a pimsleur (language learning program) course from the local library. That is how got started. Later, I joined an Ojibwe language table with several youth. One table was about greetings, another animals, another about trees for example. It was great fun to learn together with young people in this way. It is so different than how English is taught. I made new friends along the way as well.


There is a lot to learn from Tony and Elma regarding the importance of learning to say hello in Ojibwe and other indigenous languages. Indigenous languages are important contributions to humanity because they share a unique worldview that can contribute to the well being of society. Important concepts and ways of being missing from a language can offer a new perspective. Furthermore, if we wish to understand and make friendships across communities it will require a courageous effort to make friendships and learning each others languages can help unpack meaning. Cross-cultural conflicts can be avoided if we take the time to understand what a concept means in English and Ojibwe and other indigenous languages.

Chi mii gwetch Tony and Elma for inspiring us to learn how to say hello in Ojibwe! There are two ways to say hello or give a greeting- aaniin and boozhoo. Your homework is to learn their exact meanings and discover how they are different and when to use them. Also, take a moment to think about how you will reach out to make new friendships.




What if, during this holiday season…

You know December is a month of many holidays, Christian and Jewish holidays are the most familiar, but at least 36 are known of according to Wikipedia! Considering all the religious strife and misunderstandings we are experiencing across the globe, in our cities, and in our neighborhoods, what if we do something different from what we usually do at this time?

What if we go beyond our particular belief or non-belief perspective to share a holiday with a person who believes something totally different from us?

What if we go to an interfaith or non-belief event just to see what it is like?

What if we attend that interfaith or non-belief event, where many beliefs and sometimes non-belief perspectives are present, and are open to listen and learn with no agenda?

What if we went to someone else’s holiday celebration with no intention of trying to convert them, worry we might be going to a bad place or brush them off because we think they are completely crazy/weird?

What if we invited people, whose beliefs and faith/non-faith practices are different from us, to our holiday celebrations with no intention of conversion, proselytizing, or persuasion?

What if we just have a coffee/tea/favorite beverage with someone from another faith/non-faith tradition just to be friendly and talk about how we celebrate or don’t celebrate?

What if we were open to the possibilities? Possibilities include opening our minds to different ways of thinking and practices that help us to be more open and tolerant of other beliefs. Our fear decreases. Peaceful interludes can occur. The more fellowship we have invites more opportunities to dialogue and consult together. Just imagine how different tomorrow will be. Make it a fabulous and peaceful December!

Racial Reconciliation- Hopeful Beginnings

I am very hopeful about 2015 being the year that we start the collective process of healing and racial reconciliation. How wonderful to be so inspired after the dismal year of race relations in 2014 and what continues in 2015.

A Bright Spot

What has inspired me after the Dakota Women’s Commemorative March back in November 2014–of which I wrote–could be the beginnings of a grass roots effort. Two weeks ago, I attended an event hosted by Jean Maierhofer, Hennepin Technical College (HTC) Diversity Officer, in Eden Prairie. HTC is hosting the Why Treaties Matter exhibit and kicked off the event with a showing of Dakota 38 followed up with a panel led by Darlene St. Clair, St. Cloud University professor of American Indian Studies, and two Dakota high school students. These are my observations.

What started off as a typical Q and A soon led into beginnings of what I thought of as racial reconciliation. I must admit as I was sitting in the audience I was humbled to consider that we have so much to learn and practice about it.  What is racial reconciliation anyway? My first thoughts are that it is a process of bringing the oppressed and the oppressors together in dialogue to acknowledge the hurts and oppression through truth telling and figure out how to have justice in order to live a full healthy life together. Truth and justice are intertwined and are the foundation of racial reconciliation.

Jim Miller, the creator of the Dakota 38, is an inspiring example of someone banished from his own land, having the courage to start a healing process for himself through re-tracing the journey his ancestors made on their journey to be hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. The film itself is a tour de force that documents his experience of going through the white towns and meeting descendants of the very same people his ancestors encountered. His demeanor of love and forgiveness towards the white people in the film is unbelievable and is an example for us all. The film should be required viewing for every United States citizen.

So back to the event- the comments from the interracial audience I think are illustrious of how racial reconciliation thinking has evolved over time in Minnesota. Other parts of the country may have similar or different thoughts. One white woman said that she appreciated the film but wanted everyone to know, especially Darlene, that she did not commit any crimes against the Dakota nor did anyone else in the room. Why do we still bring all of this stuff up when we can’t do anything about it? She didn’t believe she was racist. Darlene replied that that is not the point. The point is that every Minnesotan needs to be willing to take a full accounting of what happened in the past and the long standing impacts of these actions. Dakota people need to do the same. She elaborated that the film, inadvertently conveys that racial reconciliation is a one-time event rather than the long process that it needs to be.

As Darlene was responding to the woman, she seemed to agree with Darlene by nodding her head and was comfortable with Darlene’s perspective on the situation. Darlene appreciated her comment because it probably took a lot of courage for to speak up and share her experience.

Another comment from a white man was that he was very moved by the film and apologized through his tears, for what the white people did to the Dakota people. He earnestly offered to be a part of other activities. His comment led to another from an Ojibwe man who said that movies like the Dakota 38 and comments by Darlene have an agenda of producing guilt. He explained that Indians did bad things to white people and that white people did bad things to Indians. Making people feel guilty doesn’t get us anywhere. He believes we need to move on. No need for racial healing or reconciliation. His comments were countered by a white man who shared his personal experiences of seeing that up to 20 years ago American Indians were not welcome to eat in cafes and restaurant in South Dakota. He believes that American Indians are the last racial group in America to be racist against. He mentioned the American Indian sports mascots as a current example.

So how did Darlene wrap up this discussion? I haven’t mentioned that Darlene is Dakota and is a direct descendent of one of the men hanged, Tihdonica, as well as Dakota people who protected whites. She has a vested interest in how these discussions turn out. She could be angry, resentful or bitter but instead chose a wise, courageous and very truthful answer. Darlene said that talking about the injustices is not about producing guilt in people or to make people sad. Instead, we all need to acknowledge that we are the beneficiaries of the taking of Native lands and resources whether we participated in these events or not.

Jean Maierhofer was touched by the events that evening. She said:

 “The Dakota 38 film had a profound impact on me.  In fact, I haven’t stopped thinking about the film and the Dakota people since the screening on March 23.  The film reminded me once again how much of American history is untold and waiting to be discovered by those that are willing to look and listen with an open mind and heart.

 The part of the film that continues to linger with me was at the end, when we find out the fate of one of the young Dakota men that shared their journey in the film.  It was truly heartbreaking.  As I learn, or relearn, the history that took place in Minnesota, I do not want to forget the psychological scars that get passed down from generation to generation because of traumatic events that took place in the past.  Working with young people, I recognize how important it is for them to feel proud about their culture, their history, and their identity.  I also recognize that working in higher education I can help open people’s minds and hearts so that the history of what happened to the Dakota people can be told.  And, that we can all start healing together as a community who live in this beautiful place we all call home – Minnesota.”

We left the meeting hopeful for continued opportunities to come together in Eden Prairie. Let’s galvanize together and share what you are doing in your communities. This will inspire us to get started or continue what we have started. What are we learning, what can we share? Please post here.

The Remarkable Untold Story of the 14th State of the United States and the Delaware Nation

Have you heard about an Indian Nation wanting to join the newly forming United States of America in 1778? Me neither. In fact I found out by accident and I thought others would also like to know about it.

When I was on tour at Freedom Hall in Philadelphia, I had to wait in line for the Liberty Bell so I dropped in on a speaker at who was sharing information on the historic happenings in the early days of the forming of the United States. My jaw dropped when the park ranger told the story of Chief Kukwèt’hakèxtun(Whites Eyes). In 1776, Chief Kukwèt’hakèxtun of the Delaware Tribe of Indians went to the  Continental Congress to make a request on behalf of his people.

He asked permission for the Delaware Nation to become the 14th state of the United States of America.  The request was later voted upon and accepted. The ranger went to say that White Eyes was assassinated shortly thereafter. After his death, the Delaware Nation was not accepted into the newly formed nation. In fact, the 14th state opportunity went to Vermont.

I quickly raised my hand and asked, ” How can this true and we don’t know about it? I was an undergrad in American History and never heard of the story”. He said it was true on both fronts–that it happened and that it is not common knowledge.

I have been trying to find more about this ever since. At one point, I found a citation in Exiled in the Land of the Free by Vine Deloria Jr. et all. The authors state that in, “1778, the Confederate Congress of the United States made a treaty with the Delaware Indians. among the terms of that treaty is an offer to work mutually toward the concept of an American Indian state joining the United States:

Article VI

And it is further agreed on between the contracting parties should it for the future be found conducive for the mutual interest of both parties to invite any other tribes who have been friends to the interest of the United States, to join the present confederation, and to form a state whereof the Delaware nation shall be the head, and have a representation in Congress: Provided, nothing contained in this article to be considered as conclusive until it meets with the approbation of Congress…. (113).

I also found a blog post about it but not much more.

Then I got lucky. I met a descendent of Chief White Eyes, Larry Heady, and asked him if the story was true and what perspective he had on the 14th state.

Larry Heady

This is what Larry has to say:

 I am Delaware.  We keep this story alive among our people—I even have an old powder horn with a beaded bandolier showing the 14th or “unlit council fire.”  In those days, my grandfather Kukwèt’hakèxtun had been advised by his grandfather Nètëwatëwès that the English would someday go away but the Americans were here to stay—we must find a way to live with them.  Both Kukwèt’hakèxtun and Nètëwatëwès saw the need to try to hold on to all Indian lands west of the Alleghenies and the Ohio River.  We had already lost our homelands in New Jersey, New York and Eastern Pennsylvania, so we must hold one to our new lands in Ohio and Indiana.  More than anything, our people wanted a seat at the American’s council fire (Congress) to ensure the preservation of our people.  So, my grandfather negotiated a treaty that pledged the support of the Delaware people in the American’s struggle for freedom.  He met with the Continental Congress at least three times that I know of.  Eventually, the Americans pledged that we would have a permanent delegation to the Congress in exchange for Delaware material support on the “western front” of the Revolutionary War.  This was the first Indian Treaty signed by the new United States of America, at Fort Pitt on September 17, 1778.  My grandfather was murdered the following November by Pennsylvania or Virginia militia…

 Can you imagine how different our history would have been if there had been a permanent seat in Congress for our native Nations?  Diplomacy and oratory were well known and valued among our people.  To have our rights and interests recognized as equal to those of the original 13 states!?  What would Indian Country look like today if that had happened…??

 We may never know the truth of this story beyond the basic facts or why it has been buried to history. What I think is important is that we bring it back to light as well as the man who originated the idea of the 14th state of the United States of America. What will it take for it to become part of the story?  I would hazard that many other stories will need to come to light as well. Stories that may upset the pilgrim and Indians myth but are critical for all us to start the healing process of racial reconciliation in this country. Acknowledgment of truth is one key to the process. Our miseducation can lead us to want to hold on to stereotypes and myths like the Washington Redskins and other mascots or not want to honor the many American Indian treaties. When we don’t our history we really can’t know ourselves.

Learning to heal together- One small example


I haven’t blogged in 6 months because I felt the world did not need one more statement on why there is racism, that racism is bad, or we need more cultural competence. This is not to say that people should not fight to end racism with truth and reconciliation or leading us towards cultural competence. Instead I waited for inspiration. Inspiration came just a short time ago from my experience in the Dakota Women’s Commemorative March. My friend Ramona Kitto Stately, Director of American Indian Education at Osseo a Public Schools, invited me, Maia Caldwell, an Eden Prairie High School social studies teacher, and her 9th grade civics students who were learning about tribal sovereignty.

I learned the importance of starting with oneself to begin the healing process in one’s own community. I saw with my own eyes the power of starting with yourself in your own backyard.

Ramona and Nanette
Ramona and Nanette

My own backyard is the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Minnesota has some healing to do regarding the treatment of the Dakota and Ojibwe people. There is lots to read and do about it and one can get caught up in guilt, shame or in one’s own trauma depending on if you are native, white, or depending on your background. The March is an excellent example of coming together to heal in a positive way.

Every other year descendants of the Dakota women, who were forced to march after the Dakota and U.S. War of 1862 to the Ft. Snelling concentration camp, march in unity to commemorate them. The commemoration is done in their traditional ways. The power is in doing it for themselves and not waiting for Uncle Sam or others to do it for them. All people are welcomed to join them not in a reenactment (which is a common practice) but in a spiritual coming together no matter one’s faith tradition or not.

Walking on the land brings a feeling of reflection. How could the women and children walk this trail of tears in moccasins that would get soaked in water from the snow, when did they get to eat, how did they get to use toilet facilities, and how did they stay warm? Walking in silence allows each person to reflect and wrestle with the atrocity that came before them.

Another powerful moment was what happened at the end of each mile. A woman would take a prayer flag made of willow, previously gathered from the concentration camp forest, and recite the names of two women who made the original march. Ramona’s great great great grandmother Pazahiyayewin and Kevin Locke’s great great great grandmother Mniyáta Ožáŋžaŋ Wiŋ (Beam of Light Over the Water Woman) were commemorated. A prayer was sung evoking Wakan Tanka the Creator, other prayers were silently said, and tobacco was offered by participants. Although the spiritual context was Dakota, each person could feel unified from their spiritual or non-faith tradition. The healing was in the remembering and acknowledging the pain. For me I thought about the phrase “Thy name is my healing oh my God and remembrance of a Thee is my remedy”.

Mniyáta Ožáŋžaŋ Wiŋ (Beam of Light Over the Water Woman)
Mniyáta Ožáŋžaŋ Wiŋ (Beam of Light Over the Water Woman)

Ramona puts it this way-  “We walked to regain a voice that was silenced with the removal of our relatives from this place, MniSota Makoce, our sacred homeland.  We walk to gather the energy of the land, heal the soul wounds and to never forget the atrocities perpetrated against those who have lived here and taken care of the land for centuries”.

The commemoration affected each person differently. Maia Caldwell said “Our day couldn’t have started out more perfectly. As we were waiting on our bus for the marchers to arrive at our meeting place, three young Dakota women joined our students on our bus to warm up. It was wonderful to watch them visiting together. Within minutes we were witnessing what this day was all about: an opportunity for healing and reconciliation between two cultures. The rest of the day was wonderful as well. At the end of the day one of my students said to me: “I learned more today than I ever have in any classroom!” One of her students shared his experience with Minnesota Native News.

Eden Prairie participants
Eden Prairie participants

I encourage all of us to start with ourselves and be interested in our local communities. What happened in the past that has not been acknowledged? What needs to be addressed? What needs to be healed? Make friends from other races and cultures in your community and start to talk about it without blame and guilt. Imagine the transformation that can happen when we begin to acknowledge the past, honor each other in our cultural contexts, listen, experience and reflect. No one knows what will happen because we have not really done it yet. Where will you begin? Please share your experiences so we can learn together.

Ramona says wisely that tears are healing and a good way to begin.


Race Unity: Unfinished Business

These past few months have been a doozy for reading and listening to racist statements from the likes of a basketball coacha ranchera Norwegian zoo commemoration of a Congolese people displaysoccer fans throwing bananasthe continued use of Indian mascots and a Princeton student who will not apologize for his white privilege–just to name a few!

But what really stands out is the level of openness of a white man openly killing a black teenager for listening to loud music.

Every day there is a new post about an incident– not including the everyday microagressions that people of color deal with and never report. How much longer are we going to stand by and not be outraged as citizens, as a country? When will we take collective action to start the termination of racism by creating an inclusive truth and reconciliation process with healing our wounds? I think a first step is to recognize our human oneness. What happens to one happens to us all.

Race Unity Day is coming up on June 12, 2014 and I thought it would be an appropriate time to take action. Race Unity Day was created in 1957 with the sole purpose of focusing attention on racial prejudice. Race unity can be defined as the belief that there is only one race of human beings and that skin color is a superfluous difference of our phenotype stemming from our physical environments. Science has already proven this to be fact and the American Anthropological Association has also confirmed this just in case there are doubters. If we continue to perpetuate race and racism then we are going against science.

Take a stand for Race Unity on June 12th by posting photos, personal statements and stories and tag them #RaceUnity on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. Begin new friendships with people who don’t look like you and start discussion groups at school, houses of worship and work. Be creative!! Let’s show America that science and love are more powerful than ignorance, hate and apathy. Racism is a serious barrier to achieving peace and tranquility in this country. Let’s wipe out racism in our lifetime!! Take a stand for race unity!

Three Men, a War, and Race: Honoring Our Veterans on Memorial Day

Lewis and Charles Graves ArmyEdward C Gleed Plane001


In honor of Memorial Day I want to share a family story. I have always wondered how common it might be. Just after WWII broke out in 1941, two brothers and their brother-in-law decided to enlist in the army. One chose the navy and two wanted to fly planes and chose the air force. There was a little problem for them: Jim Crow segregation laws that permeated the US Army. At that time, your skin color determined your future. It soon became clear that the two brothers of African American and Cherokee descent and their brother-in-law of African American descent as well, would not be able to enter the army of their choice. At that time black men were relegated to janitor or cook positions. It is no wonder that someone might want to pass if they could.

No one knows what, when and how they discussed circumventing the race rules but we do know the outcome. My father and his brother convinced their mother to go to the Topeka, Kansas Department of Vital Statistics to change their birth certificates from Negro to white. She mentioned to the clerk that the hospital had made a mistake. My grandmother’s request was a success because two new certificates were mailed with the desired white race classification. My father was admitted into the Navy and my uncle into the Air Force.

Their brother-in-law enlisted in the army and was assigned to the 9th Calvary. Later he was accepted into the army’s experimental pilot training program for Negroes which became the famed the Tuskegee Airmen. He was also assigned to military intelligence. In a few short years, my uncle flew to fame as the pilot of the iconic Lucifer Jr. P-51 fighter airplane and became the commanding officer of the 302nd Fighter Squadron. He retired with honors as a colonel and flew three air-to-air combat victories. He later was interviewed by filmmaker George Lucas and his story was used in the Red Tails film.

My father had not yet changed his name in 1941 but had created a new racial identity that he shared with his white peers. He became someone of French ancestry who was “descended” from a line of French barbers. He later was dismissed due to a foot ailment and did not see action. After the war, my father created a new name with a French flair and a white identity that he chose to live with for rest of his short life. He died at the age of 55.

My uncle, of the changed birth certificate, became a distinguished pilot and retired with honors. He also created a new racial identity of white, albeit with his birth name, and never shared this with his military colleagues or his children. To my knowledge no one (except his white wife) ever knew he had a dual life.

I always wondered what happened to people who were admitted into the army and were later caught with false certificates regarding racial status. Did this happen? Was this a common practice? I googled the topic and was unable to find examples.

I often reflect who is the real hero here. My Uncle Cres, my father or my other uncle? How could it be my father or my other uncle? Why did my father and Uncle Charles go to such depth and risks to separate themselves from their African American and Cherokee heritage? Living with a secret must have taken a psychological toll on both of them. I may never understand my family’s decisions or what decisions I would make in trying to live within the confines of Jim Crow but I accept the choices that they made.

In spite of the strict restrictions on all three men, they made their decision to serve their country no matter the odds and to accomplish their goals. I am proud of them all! As we honor all veterans this Memorial Day, let’s give thanks to all who have served no matter the color of their skin, gender or sexual orientation. I believe they all are heroes and heroines!

Wisdom From the Freedom Riders: Interview with Bettie Mae Fikes and Claire O’Connor


Bettie Mae Fikes
Bettie Mae Fikes

Claire O'Connor







What would you do if you were fifteen years old and an unknown speaker came to town to ask you to join a movement?  To join a struggle for civil rights?  What if you were eighteen and invited to a college meeting and at the meeting a man asked you to join a movement to fill the jails in Mississippi? Would you join? I spent time with living legends who said yes. Their lives changed forever and they never looked back. In fact, they are quite humble and matter of fact about their role in challenging segregation!

The Freedom Riders were young people recruited during the early 1960’s to push for change that would allow southern African Americans full voting rights as guaranteed in the US Constitution.  The practices and de facto laws of Jim Crow denied such voting rights. Ms. Bettie Mae Fikes became a Freedom Rider and later became a member of the Students for Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Selma. She also became a leading voice of Freedom Songs. Ms. Claire O’Connor also arose as a Freedom Rider in Jackson, Mississippi and later went back to serve in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi for several years.

We are here today with many benefits because Ms. Fikes and Ms. O’Connor fought to make our world a better place so that everyone has the right to vote and are able to sit and eat in any restaurant of our choice no matter the color of our skin. It is not every day that one gets to talk to a legend!

So I asked myself, what would I ask them? Would I ask them about the sufferings they experienced in the struggle? What about their accomplishments? I could be nosy and ask what Dr. MLK like and Malcom X were really like? These are all great questions but not the ones I wanted to ask.  We still struggle today to fully achieve the dreams of racial integration and the oneness of humanity with the ultimate goal of eliminating racism, so I thought it best to focus on what they have learned and what advice would they give us working in the fields of social justice, equity and diversity.

Interview with Ms. Fikes

Ms. Fikes we are so blessed that you are taking the time to answer my questions. You have been busy with the 50th anniversary commemorations across the country.

What did you learn as a young woman supporting the Freedom Riders and being in the Civil Rights Movement?

Nanette, you are very welcome! At first I wanted an opportunity to avoid church and school and it wasn’t until my friend was hurt that I realized that I needed to stand up. What if I had just listened to Dr. King and done nothing? I wanted to be a part of something.

I have learned that there has been a lot of change but some things remain the same. We have come to a place now that nothing is the same as it used to be. A lot of our history has been forgotten. We can never forget! If you don’t know your history how can you move forward? The time will come when you have to stand up and will face a struggle. Which side are you on?

I believe will all have to tell a story. Are we equipped to tell it? We can’t imagine what our ancestors suffered  but we can validate and honor what they did for us today. The history is still raw but many of our children don’t know our history. Somebody had to die, somebody had to cry for us. I find that a lot of people don’t understand this work because they haven’t been in a struggle.  If you have not been in a struggle, you don’t know what to do. If yes, then you know what to do when the time comes.

When the time comes, what will you do, what will you say? Get on the freedom bus. This work is not over. Justice for one is justice for all. Get ready!

Another thing I learned is that education is the only thing that can’t be taken away from you.

What guidance can you give us to fully realize the dream?

Education, spirituality and love are the three key things in life. How can you fight something you can’t see? If you can’t see, you will be left behind. Let’s put love back in the game. Let’s love and help each other. If we don’t know how to love, we don’t know how to give.

Will we all have to die for freedom? My guideline to you- forge for something that you believe. Most importantly keep your eyes on the prize. This is spiritual warfare. Dream big! Sing loud from your heart. Don’t be a nervous Nellie and be too scared to fight for what you believe in.

I have to fight for social justice today because someone did it for me. We still have to get on the bus today because the fight isn’t over. You must keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.  We have the education today but have left out spirituality and love for each other. Nowadays we spend less time reaching out to each across communities for whatever reason. I believe we are here as servants to help coach each other. I think we should take the time to go meet people from many different communities, connect with them and to learn about their struggles. Once we learn them we can ask what can we do to help.

I woke up every day with the song of freedom in my heart. Do we do that today? I summon you today to read about this history and choose life.

Interview with Ms. O’Connor

Thank you as well for spending time with me. You are getting ready for the 50 year Freedom Summer Reunion in Jackson. How exciting!

Thank you Nanette. I am looking forward to our reunion this summer!

What did you learn as a young woman being a Freedom Rider and later being in the Civil Rights Movement?

The power and joy in being involved in change and protest was very motivating for me.  There is a sense of joy to be a part of a movement. It was also thrilling to be a woman to be a part of something so important when women were not typically called to action.  I learned an absolute that change never comes from the top and in fact it always comes from the bottom. History usually buries this fact. Another thing is that change comes in little steps. So often we are waiting for the flood of change to happen but really it is uncountable steps of change. Floods are made of many tiny drops. Nowadays, I think people are forgetting about the small steps. They remember the 1960s and the fiction from the movement is that all the change for civil rights happened overnight. In fact, there were tiny steps that started in the 1930s. Many years later, there was the flood of going to jail. SNCC started because of the efforts of one woman, Ella Baker. Truly great leaders like Ella are typically lost to history and don’t get the credit.

What guidance can you give us to fully realize the dream?

We need to act. This is the time to push for change. We all have a responsibility to do make social justice and equality happen now.

The lesson that Ella taught us is forgotten. We need to organize at the community level in order to make real positive and enduring change. I can only talk about my community not about other communities. I cannot presume to know what they need. People need to express their own dream. Our job is to [learn] how to listen. You can’t tell people what their dreams are. We can ask what do you want me to do and how do we want me to work. Typically we give clothes to the goodwill for example and believe we are helping others. It is not charity that we need but social change and justice. Doing good for others is our daily responsibility but what we are talking about is much bigger than that. Our job is to build a society of justice that we all deserve. We need to be critical thinkers and ask why something is the way that it is when we see inequality or something doesn’t feel right. Then think about possible solutions. It is not social service but social change that I am talking about.

Where is the anger, where is the outrage today?

Concluding Remarks

Let’s not do what others have done and have Ms. Fikes and Ms. O’Connor’s stories be lost to history. The message of these women is still needed today. Let’s find inspiration in their words and actions and apply them at work, at home and in our communities.

The power of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Imagine that!

Indians Meet Indians: What Happens When Two Groups of People Have the Same Name? Interview with Dr. Anton Treuer.


Anton Treuer

Every child in America knows the story of Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue and “discovering” America and its peoples. He named the indigenous inhabitants Indians because he thought he was in India. People from India were already called Indians by the Europeans. The name stuck in both places. Since 1492, the English speaking world has had two groups of people called Indians. What do we do today when two people have the same name in English? It is an interesting by-product of globalization that many cultures called Indian from India and America get a chance to interact in the United States. What an opportunity! It makes me wonder if this has happened anywhere else on the planet.

The use of Indian as a native identifier is what is commonly used in Indian country today and has been for hundreds of years.  This post will not discuss the issues around the word but for the record, many American Indian people prefer to be called by their tribal nation. For current context read Everything You Wanted To Know About Indians but Were Afraid To Ask and a new video by the National Congress of American Indians.  In the United States 2010 census there were 3.2 million Asian Indians and they are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the country.  In Minnesota, Indians from India are the fastest growing ethnic group and doubled their numbers from 16,887 in 2000 to 33,031 in 2010. In 2010, Eden Prairie, Minnesota Asian Indians were 4.2% of the city residents compared to the native Indians at .2%. This population growth has even influenced the local AMC Theater chain to dedicate screen time to Bollywood movies.

The Indian demonym, (the term for the identifier) has become confusing as more people from India have immigrated or are working in America and mixing with all groups of Americans. Several identifiers are commonly used. For example, the US Census uses Asian.  I grew up hearing East Indians to distinguish from American Indians and currently I read and hear just Indian.  Sometimes I hear or read Asian Indian. Some of my friends from Indian have told me that those words are offensive to them. They prefer Indian.

Another point of confusion is the federal and state censuses. For starters, as students and families register in public schools, they have to identify themselves by race. The typical census forms show several categories from which to choose but the two that are available to both groups is American Indian/Alaskan native or Asian/Pacific Islander. If one is new to this country, American Indian could be a choice to make. This choice becomes an issue when schools need accurate reporting data for No Child Left Behind reporting and accuracy for the American Indian Education programs. As a result, Indians from India show up on the American Indian data reports. It is important for public institutions, for example, to have accurate data because they receive state and federal funding based on what should be accurate representations of their populations.

I reached out to Dr. Anton Treuer, celebrated author of Everything You always Wanted to Know about Indians but Were Afraid to Ask and professor of American Indian history at Bemidji State University, to weigh in on this discussion.

Interview with Dr. Treuer

Thank you Tony for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. Also, congratulations on the publication of your new book, The Atlas of Indian Nations!

Thank you! It is being previewed now and will be sale in September or October.

Tony, what are thoughts about this phenomenon of two groups of people living in America with the same name?

First of all, it is important for all people to be validated and respected. It is easy to see how the term being used for two different people would cause confusion. And that confusion may fuel or trigger misunderstandings, hurt feelings or misassociations. So navigating a path forward, it would be useful to have a mutually agreed upon terminology that makes everyone happy. I think the discussion gets bogged down because Native Americans do not have a universal mind on terminology. That doesn’t mean though that people don’t care although sometimes it can get read that way.

Who owns the name? Is that even possible?

That’s a tough one to answer. Names should be owned and originated by the people they reference. Unfortunately that’s not how they have originally evolved. Going forward it would be good to empower Native Americans and people from India to choose the labels that make most sense to them for self-reference and for other’s reference.  Some confusions need to be clarified from context rather than calling people feathers or dots; or green vs. red.

Thank you Tony for sharing insights and ways we can address this reality! What I hear you saying is that we should look to the people themselves to share how they would like to be called rather than making up a name for them.

We cannot undo the past but it important what we do today. First, it is critical that data which affects groups in regards to achievement, voting areas and state/federal funds for example, needs to be accurate. Second, everyone has the right to identify themselves with a name and nation as stated in Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights document.  The many diverse cultures called Indian from the United States, like the Dakota, Ojibwe, Mesquakie, for example, and India such as Hindi, Punjabi, and Bihari, for example, present us with a unique opportunity to celebrate our new diversity!

Never Giving Up On the Dream! Four Virtues to Make it Happen.

Dr. King’s dream of a world of children being judged by the content of their character rather the color of their skin is one that still rings true 50 years after he said it at the March on Washington. It should be repeated again and again until the dream is fulfilled. The concern is that for some of us it is a dream that we have forgotten, resisted or given up on altogether.

Whatever the reasons, we should remind ourselves that we can still make this dream come true. I believe practicing virtues are a way for us to fulfill the dream. A virtue is a behavior that is positive, moral and ethical and is a way of being that leads us as individuals to a better place. The Virtues Project is a great place to learn more about virtues and get specific definitions. What are the virtues needed for us to fulfill Dr. King’s dream? There are four foundational virtues that come to mind for me: Love, persistence, freedom from prejudice and forgiveness.

Love is what we need to show and practice to everyone, no matter their skin color, every single day. The Virtues Project defines love as treating people with care and kindness because they mean so much to us. We should love all children, ourselves and everyone who comes across our path.

Persistence is that virtue of never giving up on something despite difficult odds. It is such an important self-discipline that underscores the foundation of fulfilling Dr. King’s dream. The Habits of Mind is a resource that offers much about this virtue. In practicing these virtues to fulfil Dr. King’s dream we should identify the ones we need to work on the most and persist in making them a part of our routine.

Forgiveness is a virtue that implies that we must give up grudges that we have held towards others. Learning to give others and oneself another chance after having done something wrong is immense. This virtue is one of the hardest to do because forgiving oneself is tough. Go the Virtues Project for more.

Freedom from Prejudice is simply taking the time to reflect on the personal prejudice one may have towards judging people by the color of their skin. Taking action to self-correct that prejudice is the next requirement.

Let’s give the dream and fulfilment some perspective.  It took 371 years for slavery to end, 188 years for everyone in the United States to get to exercise their right to vote, 202 years for everyone to finally be able to lawfully worship their religion without penalization. Dr. King expressed his dream in 1964. It has been a short 50 years with many accomplishments much but I believe we are in the next phase of fulfilment.

As we reflect on Dr. King’s dream, on his day of commemoration today, let’s remember the words of the great Nelson Mandela: “It is impossible until it is done”. Let’s make it so together. No matter who you are: student, retiree, office worker, ceo, average person, etc.; we all have a part to play!


Navigating the “Holiday Season”: Observations and Perspectives

December has sprung and the “holiday season” has begun. Or was it Thanksgiving or Halloween? No matter the start, what is clear is that the concept of the “holiday season” has evolved in the United States. Is it because of political correctness, an actual change in the dominant culture about their meaning, or something else? For unknown reasons, the Christmas and New Year’s holidays have become increasingly secular in terms of religion.

I have noticed that in my lifetime, December holidays have become more of an American holiday that people of many faiths practice without having any religious connotation. Everyone wants to have a tree, take a picture with Santa Claus and open presents. A few non-Christian countries also have people celebrating Christmas too. Once what was a time for Christians to celebrate Christmas and New Year has become a generic holiday cheer. Although the behaviors of Christmas and New Year continue like the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, mistletoe and ringing in the New Year at midnight.

I also have noticed that Christians don’t say Merry Christmas in public anymore like I heard growing up and even into the 1990’s. What happened? Has it been the rise of Hanukah, the Winter Solstice celebration and Kwanza that influenced a change? Political correctness or what? Who is offending whom? Was it the retailers, consumerism, the rise of religious harassment laws designed to keep out the Christmas tree because we won’t allow a menorah? Has December become tit for tat by throwing out the religious baby out with the bath water as it were? Let’s not speak of religion for fear offending people?

Another thing I have noticed is the rise of the holiday cheer, the holiday season, etc. language in public and in the media. For example, starting after Thanksgiving we begin to hear “We are in the holiday spirit or in the holiday season”. And then you only hear Christmas songs and see Christmas themed messages. If holiday season is indeed meant to include the Jewish Faith and African American religious traditions why not include their songs and traditions too?

There is also the “holiday party” issue. Some companies, institutions and organizations host parties that include the sharing of gifts, holiday food, holiday decorations and/or Secret Santa activities in December. They are called winter luncheons, winter parties or just plain holiday parties. Should employers host these activities? These activities are challenging if one practices a different faith. It can also be interpreted that the company is putting pressure on their non-Christian employees to participate or the employee may be seen as a Grinch who stole Christmas if they don’t.

Could reviewing religious statistics shed light on this change? According to two researchers Pew and Gallup we have more religious diversity than ever before. A summary table includes:

Christian Other Religions No Affiliations
PEW (2007) 78.4% 4.7% 16.1%
Gallup (2012) 77% 5% 18%


The most interesting finding is that there is increasing diversity within all groups. In fact, the no affiliation group, under 30 age group, is the most diverse of all and has no interest in finding a religion! This group keeps growing. The Harvard Pluralism Project delves deeper into the diversity. They state that 6% (17 million people) of the United States practice what they call a diverse religious tradition. This group continues to grow as well. Overall the data indicates that change is occurring in the religious sphere in this country and may be playing a small part in the change of meanings.

In the spirit of the “holiday spirit”, I asked my friends of many faiths or not to weigh in how they interpret the holiday season.  I won’t identify the belief or non-belief orientations of my friends. Some of my friends didn’t realize there was an issue. Some are offended by the “holiday Season” terminology and believe Christ has been taken out of Christmas. In fact, a few believe that thought comes from the elder generation. Their children no longer associate Christianity with Christmas. Others believe that once this holiday season ends, there simply isn’t any interest in the other religious holidays. The holiday spirit drops off the map. One person said that her parents told her she couldn’t say Merry Christmas because it offended people.

Some have told me to get over it because they believe these holidays have morphed into American holidays and are not seen as religious.  They have become secular holidays. Some are offended when others assume that everyone has a holiday in December.

So what is a person to do in this “holiday season”? A thought is to embrace it no matter one’s belief or non-belief. I say, enjoy it if it is your tradition and welcome that others may have another belief. Employers could consider an inclusive method of figuring out how to celebrate the holidays of their employees. I learned from educators that they purchase a diversity calendar and highlight the holidays of their students in a spirit of celebrating diversity and inclusivity throughout the year. Another thought is to be grateful that we have freedom to believe or not to believe. Many countries do not allow freedom to think or believe outside the dominant belief or practice. That is a lot to be thankful for this holiday season.

Maybe this is what a country looks like as it is learning to get along religiously. There isn’t a text book on how we are supposed to behave. A thought to consider this holiday season, welcome everyone from their religious or non-faith tradition as they celebrate their holidays. Pay attention to all the days of the year as our friends and co-workers celebrate their days with genuine interest. Be curious. When someone says Merry Christmas, Merry Winter Solstice or Happy Hanukkah avoid being offended. One of my favorite quotes offers a perspective of inclusivity:

O people! Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. This will be helpful as this country achieves more and more complexity with religion and the people not affiliated with a religion.

The First Flute Meets a Suburban High School: Interview with Kevin Locke

Kevin Locke

What if you were the last person on earth that knew one special tradition? What would you do?  Would you have the courage to speak up and take a stand or would you step aside and let it die?

I know someone who had to make that decision and is spending his life standing for a tradition that no longer exists anywhere on the planet. That person is Kevin Locke and the tradition is the Dakota/Lakota flute. Kevin is committed to ensure that the Dakota flute tradition will flourish for future generations. Listen here for a sample of Kevin’s talent.

Kevin is a hoop dancer and award winning indigenous flutist who has traveled to over 93 countries as a cultural ambassador of Dakota traditions. He has a vision called the First Flute to educate students on the traditional finger patterns and musicology of the Dakota flute. Kevin is a national treasure who serves as an example by tirelessly working to keep a global treasure alive for all of us.

He is a master traditional artist who has made major contributions to preserve the traditions and cultural diversity of the United States. Specifically he has taken the time to meet with elder flutists when he was young to learn the songs, record them, perform them across the planet and is now taking the next step of preservation.

So what is the first flute and what is Kevin’s vision for preservation?

Kevin, what is the first flute?

It is the title of a workshop I created that emphasizes the universality of the flute. Wherever you go on the planet, everyone has one. I also share a definition on my website.

What is your vision of sharing indigenous flute music in America?

The flute is a great entre. The American Indian musical esthetic is so unknown in the world, especially the US and so we can use the flute to educate people.

So what do you do in schools with the first flute?

Students can make their own flutes so they can internalize and familiarize themselves with a type of music that otherwise they might see as foreign or exotic. They also then take ownership. Students learn the notes and the Indian musical scale and then move on to basic melodies. Soon they can play any style song. The first flute program builds capacity and to play authentic indigenous songs in concerts.

Kevin with BandKevin with Wind EnsembleRecently, Kevin brought the First Flute program to Eden Prairie High School in Minnesota. It is a Minneapolis suburban high school with about 3,000 students, 35% of which are students of color and .06% are native. The school created an opportunity to test the first flute project to great success. At first glance, one might think that that type of school would not fit the profile of teaching students indigenous music. Also, we might believe that indigenous music only for native people only and should only go to the native schools. Actually both are important and need to be nurtured. Let’s find out why.

The benefit for non-native students is to learn an authentic musical style is that it interrupts stereotypes they may hold about indigenous people and opens them to a whole new world of music.

The benefit for native students is that they also learn about a tradition that has been lost to them and it is a vehicle for them to connect to their native language. Specifically in the case of The First Flute curriculum, students learn the Lakota language through playing the flute. It is an ingenious method of revitalizing the Lakota language.

School music programs all across the country play music that is cited as “Native American” music and teachers, rightfully so, believe them to be authentic. They look professional, printed in a book or a website and state it is a native song. Many however, are composed by European American composers “inspired” by native music like the “Ojibwe Love Song” and the like.  They are not authentic. The first flute project counteracts that use by providing authentic curriculum and music for schools.

Kevin, what is your biggest take away for this project at Eden Prairie?

The main thing is how much interest the students had for playing the flute and then to realize there is no limit to what they can learn.

What are your next steps?

First I need to finalize the curriculum. There is also interest in sharing Dakota songs for school choirs. My main goal is to continue to use the First Flute as a springboard for keeping indigenous music alive and well.

Thank you Kevin for taking the time to share with us. Also, for opening our hearts and minds to how we can from you to be a steward of our great cultural resources such as the indigenous flute. The First Flute at Eden Prairie High School is an example of many cultures coming together in a common love of the flute. It is important to make indigenous music to be at the forefront of American music because it is the first music of this country. Why shouldn’t everyone take pride in the beautiful cultures that make up America?