Culture Intel

Why American Indian Treaties Matter Today: Interview with Annamarie Hill and Mark Bray

Treaty Exhibit at Eden Prairie Schools

One of the most misunderstood parts of American history is American Indian treaties. K-12 lessons about them range from a cursory explanation to absence. Common themes about them are that they no longer exist or that they are broken. There isn’t a consistent practice across the country or a common curriculum that would help teachers teach accurate content about treaties and sovereignty.

Thankfully, a visionary partnership of organizations and committed individuals decided to change the treaty narrative.  In August 2010, a Minnesota partnership created an exhibit called Why Treaties Matter, which educates us about the treaties between the US government and the Ojibwe and Dakota nations. The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) partnered with the Minnesota Humanities Center and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) with Minnesota Legacy funds to create the Why Treaties Matter exhibit. It has traveled to over 40 different organizations, schools and colleges and universities.

As a result of the exhibit, my perceptions have moved from a cynical “well the treaties are broken and not much can be done” perspective to a more realistic view of “the treaties are living documents and native people are exercising their rights under treaty law.” The exhibit taught me that treaties are legal documents and they will continue to exist as such. According to the Constitution of the United States, Article VI, Clause 2 (also known as the Supremacy Clause) treaties are the laws of the land. Dakota and Ojibwe people have inherent legal rights to exercise key pieces of the treaties like the right to an education, hunt, fish and gather on treaty land.

So what about the students? How has this partnership transformed their learning about treaties? Last year the Minnesota collaboration added a new partner, Eden Prairie Schools. The district had an opportunity to not only host the exhibit but pilot curriculum related to the exhibit. It was a chance for teachers to have more content knowledge in the form of educator guides they could share with their students. This was content not readily available to them in conventional history textbooks or other curriculum. The pilot was so successful that an opportunity for more curriculum testing is underway.

This month, Annamarie Hill, Executive Director of the MIAC, and Eden Prairie High School Social Studies teacher Mark Bray are bringing the Why Treaties Matter exhibit and curriculum back to the high school students.

Annamarie Hill, Mark Bray, Maia Caldwell, Nanette Missaghi
Annamarie Hill, Mark Bray, Maia Caldwell, Nanette Missaghi

How do we start to appreciate and understand that treaties still matter and impact all of us?  Annamarie and Mark share their insights about this process.

Annamarie Hill Interview

Annamarie, why do treaties still matter and why should we care?

Treaties are the law of the land. They show from the beginning how we transferred the land from indigenous control to the United States. They tell the story of how we got here and became the United States. How Minnesota became Minnesota. The treaties are obligations and they are living, breathing documents.


Why did you create this exhibit and want to work with schools?

We had the opportunity of funding and we had many needs. Of all the needs and issues, education rose to the top for me from what I learned from our tribal leaders, educators, legislators and community. We wanted to create something for the community. If we could be educated around indigenous issues, we could solve many problems and change beliefs about the treaties. We wanted to address the basic laws of our land and show when our legal relationship began. If we are not educated, what can we do?

What are the major myths about Dakota and Ojibwe treaties that your average American has about them?

The myth is that both nations are identical and we are the same tribe and people. Everyone thinks we are the same. The other common myth is that we always fought and were constantly warring with each other. Actually there were a lot of good relations between both nations.

What are the key pieces of knowledge we need to know about treaties in the 2st century?

Treaties are still living and breathing documents that are still in effect today. They are the laws that govern our land. Treaties still matter today and into the future.

Mark Bray Interview

Mark, why do treaties still matter today and why should we care?
The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It is what is in our hearts and minds and I personally think it is the right thing to understand that we made these promises as a nation. Even though we have dishonored the promises, we can fulfill them today. Honoring treaties is one way we can redeem ourselves. I should also add that understanding treaties makes us to be more effective citizens and they work for all students and honors our first people.

How do your students benefit from learning about the treaties?
Overall, 97% of the students who studied the treaties found them very worthwhile. Students have said viewing the exhibit is a moving and powerful experience and transforms them. In fact, one white student said that he never knew or realized what treaties were, what they mean, or what his connection is to them locally. He feels he has a more sense of place in his community as a result of learning about them in his classroom.  He really appreciates the cultural points he learned about the Native Americans of Minnesota.


What insights have they shared with you?
A common thread was that students were able to make a connection to the first people’s history in Minnesota by equating what they were learning in the classroom to the treaty panels. The panel experience was a new way of learning and covering information that has not been available before. This material is often overlooked or forgotten in the textbooks. Many said they had never learned about them before or how much they and native people affect the state government. They believe they are learning important information now.

What were the misconceptions?
The treaty exhibit brought out the myths and stereotypes that some of the students believed about Native Americans and treaties. Through our work, we are correcting those misconceptions. This is a human rights issue. If we don’t honor these treaties, any group will become marginalized. Another myth is that we are islands and that we can’t cross culturally to each to other. Like native students learning to sing opera or a white student learning to bead.

The impact of this work is threefold. The first is that when our students have difficult and controversial conversations about treaties with their families, friends and co-workers they will know why things are done the way there are when native people exercise their rights. Second, the pilot idea has spread to another school district in Walker, Minnesota. They will start a pilot this month. Lastly, the exhibit and pilot has provided an opportunity for interracial conversations between students, staff and community that break down the beliefs we have held for too long about treaties and indigenous nations. These new relationships will never be forgotten.

Three Lessons My Mother Taught Me on Race

This summer has been a whirlwind of events touched by many things but the biggest event for me was the passing of my mother on July 14th. I have been reflecting on the lessons Mumsey taught me especially the ones related to race. My mother’s life serves as an example of what everyday people can do to improve race relations and interrupt the racism that occurs every day in America.  My mother was not in the limelight of American race relations or famous as a civil rights worker on race and racism. These, however, are three lessons she left.

Lesson 1: We are one family made of many skin colors. My mother’s mantra for as long as I can remember is that we belong to one human family even though there are people who want to separate us into different racial categories. Mumsey always said that separating us by race was old fashioned thinking and we needed to think and act towards the future of oneness. She was not colorblind however. A favorite quote that is branded in my brain is that “we are the flowers of one garden”. She always talked about the beauty of the various skin tones, hair types and facial shapes. I am sure she wanted me to feel good about how I looked.

Lesson 2: Make real friendships across the color line. My mother was so amazing with making friends from many different races and cultures! Our house was always full of people having rich conversations about solving the world’s problems and she would be sure to keep them in good food and desserts. Since part of this time was during Jim Crow and after, with many Americans living in racially segregated neighborhoods, my mother’s integrated social gatherings were not popular with the friends she grew up with and they dropped her. Losing these friendships caused her pain but she never looked back. By the time it was the mid- 1960’s she had new friendships that she loved and valued.

Lesson 3: Be courageous. If anything, Mumsey was fearless. She quietly went about her business of ending racism within her sphere of influence. She invited her friends black, native and others into establishments that were known to be white only. She purposely walked into “colored only” restrooms while traveling in the south. She made a stand many times to stop racism and discrimination from happening when it crossed her path and affected her family and friends. Just recently, posted a practical lesson that white people can do to make the world a better place shared by Dr. Joy Degruy. It is a worthy lesson we all can learn from and do.

Of course, Mumsey had the privilege as a white woman not to do this work but she had the will and courage to choose a path that many of her white contemporaries did not do. The path she chose influenced me such that my world is tempered through a lens of racial oneness. A oneness that includes an acceptance and celebration of the integration of all the racial and cultural diversity that makes us who we are as human beings.  No one skin color is better than another and we need to continue to work hard to dismantle the structures and white privilege that exist to keep racism alive and well. If Mumsey were alive today, she would keep pressing forward and give us the encouragement to never give up. She would always quote her old friend Agnes Brawley, from Milwaukee, “The problem with race relations today is that we don’t have enough relations”! This was true back in 1950 and still is today. Thank you Mumsey for never giving up! This is your legacy.

Why Race Unity is More Critical Today than Ever Before

This past week we reached a demographic milestone that barely made a blip in the media: American children aged 5 and under, there is no racial majority. The reality is that the aggregate of black, Latino, Asian and American Indian children as a group out number white children. This is phenomenal because just last spring it was infant births that made a similar occurrence. It is ironic that the milestone almost coincided with the bi-racial family Cheerios ad debut. Children under five years old today are living in an America where there is no racial majority. This is a world different than I grew up in and different than the world in which I raised my children. The Cheerios ad is important for a couple of reasons. This is their world and they need to see these images of an interracial family and more of them. Kudos to Cheerios to posting it.

The fact that the ad sparked a deluge of racist comments underscores the need for us to discuss why racial unity is critical for the prosperity of the American people, especially parents of young children.  The good news is that Cheerios is marketing to families that fit this new reality.

So why is race unity critical? Our society will prosper at a quicker rate if we teach our children how to interact with love and respect across the races. UNICEF indicates that societies are healthier when all children have access to health care, proper education and nutrition. Take a look at any city where children of any race are treated poorly and I guarantee that that city is not prospering. I believe that developing and implementing equitable practices are key to prosperity.

Racism will continue unabated if we do not take action and work towards racial unity. We need to talk to our children about race. White families especially need to talk to their children about race without fear and eschew color blindness. Children see skin color as early as they see other colors. Birgitte Vittrup’s ground breaking work on race and children is a must-read for all parents. Our children generally see color and are not born with the social construct of race with its preconceived notions of color bias, stereotypes and the like. We teach this to our children. How wonderful it would be for us to take a moment and watch the children under 5 see how they treat each other. Our children can teach us.

The changing demographics are an opportunity for parents to be proactive in teaching our children how to work through our racial issues peacefully. Some of us fear this change and will choose racial segregation but I encourage us to have courage to make interracial friendships. It is poignant that with the negative firestorm about the Cheerios ad two major research groups counteract with positivity. Not only are interracial marriages are on the rise with 8.4% of marriages in 2010 being interracial, up from 3.2% in 1980. Gallup reported that  in 2011, 86% of Americans approve of interracial marriages.

Without parental interventions, the children in this demographic transformation will self-select across color lines, as Vittrup points out, as we all did when we were younger. We are putting our children at risk of not being able to interact with children of other races in 1st grade and up. The same fear that we have that we will say or do something racist will persist and occur at a faster rate in this diverse milieu than in our more racially segregated adult venues. A counter strike would be to make interracial friendships. Our future generations depend on the actions we take today.

Going Deeper into Culture Cut and Paste with Kevin Locke

This last week’s post Can Anyone Own Culture Today? generated a lot of questions and comments. A few people were concerned that I was saying that a Mexican can’t perform a German opera or a German can’t learn how to make enchiladas and open a restaurant.  This is what happens. As a commenter pointed out:  “we all humans love to learn”. Isn’t learning the same thing as cultural cut and paste? People do learn new things from other cultures like food preparation, customs and practices and use them in their life. The issue is how we do it. Do we do it with respect and authenticity or not? So what is the difference between learning and cultural cutting and pasting? What I mean by cultural cut and paste is that the learning goes to the next step. The next step is the cutting of that learning from the original culture and pasting or integrating the learning into one’s cultural every day. The difference between learning and the cultural cut and paste process is the application feature. Cultural cut and paste is the application or action step that a human takes to apply what was learned. Sometimes we learn something from another culture while on a trip or going to someone’s house and we don’t have any interest in using it at home. If we decide to do it, the issue is how to apply the learning in a respectful and authentic way.

Cultural Cut and Paste Process


Culture Cut and Paste

Upon reflection this past week, I decided there is another component to this process. It is the added dimension of “copy”. Sometime we copy something from another culture much like we copy text from one document to another. When we copy text, we leave the original text intact. Much like when we copy something from another culture, the original culture stays intact. Or does it? Let’s take a dominant culture encountering an indigenous culture for example. One cannot guarantee that when a dominant culture copies something from an indigenous culture that the original piece stays intake. I believe there are times that the way the dominant culture messages the copy and uses it could alter the original. This is a cautionary tale to consider as dominant cultures across the globe have interacted with indigenous cultures and continue to do so. All cultures are like precious natural resources and should be protected from materialistic decimation.  As stated in the previous post, we have a collective responsibility.

Cultural Copy and Paste Process

Culture Copy and Paste

In the context of a dominant culture, a corporation or an individual attempting to take or own another culture provides the context for why both (learning and respectful cut/copy and paste) are important. We are moving towards increased multiracial and intercultural interactions which behoove us to figure out how to apply our new learning in a meaningful and authentic way.

Another question that came up is: How do I know if I am ripping off another culture? So much of what we do is cultural cut/copy and paste. What if I am inspired by the fashion, music or something from another culture? Can I just take it and use it without giving credit? An example is what I noticed in the southwest during my last visit. Local Dine artists created and sold their silversmith turquoise jewelry to tourists at a price they thought was fair and market bearing. A quick trip to a nearby city or town off the rez showcased similar jewelry made by non-native artists who sold their work at quadruple the price of what the Dine used. This is an example of ripping off another culture for personal gain.

My last post featured insights from Kevin Locke, award winning Dakota flutist and hoop dancer. Readers had more questions and were interested in carrying on the conversation with him. So we are blessed to be able to ask him a few more questions.

Kevin Locke Interview

Thank you Kevin for sharing your perspective last week on the cultural misappropriation of the Dakota flute and that no one can own a culture. My readers are interested in what to do when they want to apply their learning and do a respectful copy and paste process. You have interacted with so many diverse peoples, what advice would you give to individuals or businesses who want to be authentic?

We have to shift our perspective from a material one to a spiritual one where we believe that we are all legitimate heirs to humanity’s cultural wealth. I believe that everyone has the right to achieve one’s destiny.

An example I can share is that a person can learn something from another culture in an authentic way. For instance, right now I am teaching a class on the Dakota flute for teachers to get trained on the authentic way of Dakota flute playing. We did a whole section on the indigenous American flute. The flute playing is so unique compared to the European classical style. It is unique in that the individual ornamentation of playing like the grace notes of vibrato, creating breath sounds, and the like, is individual to the flutist. Their individual style would be inspired by the song birds of their locality. So teachers are learning the Dakota foundations and origins in an authentic way.

How do you think people could handle the permission aspect when someone may feel awkward or don’t know anyone from the new culture they have learned to love and want to copy something?

This is a sensitive issue and the answer depends on the community. For example, the Meskwaki from Iowa, until recently, did not want their language written down. Some Lakota still feel that way today. The onus is on us to reach out to others and be respectful and authentic. I believe that it is our youth who have the great opportunity to achieve the goals of being respectful to everyone from other cultures.

Kevin, you have made me think. What about something that comes from one culture and becomes main stream in an inauthentic or false way into the dominant culture? The Dakota flute is a great example of a dominant culture copy and paste. You explained that a European way of playing the Dakota flute has spread across the globe and become main stream.  Now that we know this, what could a lover of the flute do to rectify their inauthentic cultural copy and paste?

This is an opportunity to pause and reflect. Once a person knows, they can introduce themselves to the underpinnings and indigenous foundation of the Dakota flute.

Thank you Kevin for your insights! We should take the time to reflect on our practice.

My main point is that as we continue to work together more closely and our cultural practices, beliefs, foods, jewelry, designs, etc. will be on display and be shared. As Kevin points out, we need to reach out to each other so we do not rip anybody off and have authentic, genuine friendships. It is up to us in 2013 to figure out how to be authentic and respectful towards each other.

Homework: Reflect on your own practice. What kind of cultural learner are you? Do you cut and paste or copy and paste? If yes, what skills are you using to ensure that you apply your learning to reach out to other cultures to copy and paste authentically?

Can Anyone Own Culture Today?

S. GomezNew Yorkers Tipi

This question has been on my mind lately as I observe our behavior at work, in the grocery store, shopping and social media. You name it, my thoughts are full. What culture am I writing about?  Is it the big culture, as in the dominant culture, or little culture, the culture we personally experience every day? I mean both, especially the dominant culture because whatever it does affects us all. The reality of New Yorkers making Dakota tipis in their living rooms and the Washington Redskins deciding to keep their name make me take pause. What do I mean by owning culture? Is that even possible? The easy answer is that no one can own a culture. In fact, my culture is my own, your culture is your own and the culture of our friends and neighbors belongs to them. This framework would allow me to think that no one can ever take away my culture. Is there a law against this? Should there be a law?

The reality though is different. There seems to a lot of culture cut and paste happening in the world especially with young people and corporations. Culture cut and paste means exactly what we do on a keyboard with words and sentences: a person finds something wonderful from another culture, “cuts” it from the original culture and “pastes” into their cultural lifestyle.

Recent examples are Selena Gomez at the Billboard and MTV Movie Award shows in her Bollywood inspired song, dress, bindi and dance; a Latina embracing East Indian style. Macklemore/Ryan Lewis and Pitbull (and many others) are White and Latino rappers, embracing the musical style of African Americans.

German BoyOrder of the Arrow

A global example is the Germans who love “Red Indians”. There are many groups of Germans who get together to practice the culture of “Red Indians” and they have been doing this for decades. They bead, they dance and sweat.  Indian Country Today said it best that it is “touching and occasionally surreal”. Let’s not forget our own American obsession in the Boy Scouts Order of the Arrow where boys take an Indian name, wear regalia, perform “Indian” style and pretend to be an Indian in order to get a badge.

Is this ok to do? Should we care? Who has the right to take something from one culture and use it or practice it without any interaction with the source culture? Anthropologists call this cultural reciprocity but I don’t think what we are seeing today fits that general description. The two most prominent American examples of one culture “owning” another culture that come to mind are:

  1. The boarding school experience for indigenous Americans with Richard Pratt’s purpose to “Kill the Indian and save the man”.
  2. The slavery period for African Americans.

Both examples illustrate that one dominant American culture acted in an unjust way that they owned another culture and could force American Indians and African American to give up their cultures. This foundation has consciously or unconsciously laid the foundation to give the dominant American culture permission for people to operate with their own cut and paste behaviors without asking anyone for permission or regard for the cultural source.

So what can we do in this day and age of a shrinking, flat world where we are having more opportunities to mix culturally than ever before?  Will there be a world of cultural property like intellectual property?

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 could be considered something in this vein. It is designed to protect the arts and crafts of American Indian nations from fraudulent practices in the United States. How robust a law is that and is it doing its job to protect what is set out to do? Will cultures, especially those so very unique and in threat of assimilation choose to protect their cultural heritage from the infringement of others?

Kevin Locke


I invite us to consider justice. Where is the beacon of justice on this discussion of taking and owning culture without permission? Justice allows us to look at things with our own lens and not rely on others or be pressured to do something that might be wrong. Justice in this sense is not the justice meted out punitively by a court of law but the justice that comes from us. The reality that everyone on the planet has a basic human right to live freely and be treated equally leads us to the concept of collective trusteeship as defined in The Prosperity of Humankind. The trusteeship “creates … the right of every person to expect that those cultural conditions essential to his or her identity enjoy the protection of national and international law.

When asked about this subject of people owning culture today and culture cut and paste, Kevin Locke, award winning Dakota flutist and hoop dancer,  had this to say:

“It is a paradoxical situation. Currently we all have our own identity and have the right to self-identify in any way. I believe that in the eyes of God the limitations of race, gender, nationality are trumped by the spiritual reality of oneness.

Kevin went on to say, “There is a paragraph from The Prosperity of Humankind that I really like and that speaks to this topic. It is the analogy of the gene pool. We are only as strong as the diversity of the gene pool. Likewise, we human beings are only as strong as the wealth of diversity in the human race. This diversity is critical for our survival. Our cultural diversity must be allowed to bear its fruit in the world.

“My personal example is the Dakota flute. Sometime in 1980 or so, someone changed the original Dakota tuning to a European style tuning structure. No one had a chance to find out what was there in the first place. No one in the dominant culture knew there was a Dakota tradition behind the flute.  What happened was that the new tuning process spread all over the internet, there were New Age recordings and it was popularized across the globe.

“I am in the process of recording the original Dakota songs so people will know the original source. The flute originates from a vocal tradition as represented on the flute. It is a style of poetry akin to Japanese Haiku.

“ The quote that I believe explains my point of view is this: ‘On the one hand, cultural expressions need to be protected from suffocation by the materialistic influences currently holding sway. On the other, cultures must be enabled to interact with one another in ever-changing patterns of civilization, free of manipulation for partisan political ends’. Therefore, it is ok to cut and paste other cultures as long as people are conscious of the origins.”

Let’s challenge ourselves when confronted with a culture cut and paste opportunity to consider investigating the practice through a lens of justice.  The following questions may assist us in this process of ascertaining justice:

  1. Does my potential cut and paste suffocate the cultural expression of another?
  2. Does the practice exist in my culture?
  3. Do I stand to make financial gain from it?
  4. Do I understand the context of its use and meaning?
  5. Is there a chance that I am desecrating or distorting it meaning?
  6. Is the potential for what I am doing free from partisan political ends?
  7. Am I suffocating the cultural expression of another for my own manipulative gain?
  8. Does it cause harm to the other culture?

The answers to these questions will lead us to make a just and equitable decision and hopefully prompt us to go to the cultural source and ask people their thoughts. If the answer is no, will we honor it? Every culture has the right to exist and be protected. Time will tell how the protective processes will be developed and implemented nationally and internationally. I believe that when we begin to interact with genuine friendships and mutual respect, many new things will begin to emerge. Imagine if the New Yorkers who want to make tipis went to the Pine Ridge Oglala Nation and asked what they thought about in-house tipis made of bright fabrics? Would they have their blessing? Now that would be something to see!

How do we, a diverse people with the capacity of justice in our hearts, cut and paste in a respectful and authentic way that honors the great cultural diversity of this planet? I believe, that when we come together to consult, and I mean all of us, we will grapple with the issues and figure out how to address these cultural issues in just and equitable ways.

So, can anyone own culture today? The answer is no. If we see the concept of ownership through our own eyes we would see that it is unjust.

What’s in a Name? Everything!

BebaBean1 BebaBean2

As I travel this great country I am amazed at some of the names of cities, towns, landmarks and commercial products that come from another time and space. Am I in a time warp, alternate universe or the twilight zone? It certainly could not be 2013. My first example comes from a Sacramento, California children’s clothing store. I was shopping for clothes and noticed a product  for parents to use to cover unexpected baby boy urine accidents called Pee-pee Teepee. It is shaped into the tipi form. Great concept but wrong name. This is an example of cultural misappropriation of Dakota and Lakota people. See my previous post on this subject.

Why should we care? Tipi is a Dakota word meaning dwelling. Ramona Kitto Stately, Dakota educator, says, “As a Dakota Art and Culture major and an indigenous woman, the Home (tipi) is the heart of the people.  It is the place where we live, where we nurtured and grew families.  The home never left us as we traveled in seasonal cycles, it came with us.  It was so sacred to the people and so necessary for shelter that it was owned by the women.  There is a specific protocol to putting it up, the door facing the east to greet the dawn.  The morning is the most sacred time of the day, we come out and pray and give thanks for the present, the gift of a new day”.

Ms. Stately goes on to say that “Sometimes the tipi symbolism show up in some our oldest designs which proves that the lodge was the very important part of our world.  It is on the Jeffers Petroglyphs which is over 5,000 years old. Taking a sacred object and associating it with a diaper is so incredibly disrespectful. It is proof that the master narrative and white privilege is alive and well in America”.

Please contact Beba Bean and let them know why they need to change the name. Beba Bean not only trademarked the name but wants us to know that it is a perfect shower gift!

Minnesota, the land of 10,000 and more lakes, has its own controversy with the word squaw. The s-word is a pejorative word for female genitalia, specifically American Indian. It is sometimes known as the s-word because indigenous women no longer want to say it and they believe it is equal to the n-word in its offensiveness. Why in the world would we continue to use such a word once we know it is offensive?  Since 1994, activists have been trying to remove the word from the state. Angela Losh and Dawn Litzau, then teenagers, led a successful movement to have Minnesota legislators pass a law to ban the s-word on 19 geographic features. They were successful and eventually the s-lake name was renamed Nature’s Lake. An issue remains because the town remains s-Lake.  In protest, Minnesota Ojibwe residents of the Leech Lake Reservation simply refer to the town as s-lake. Minnesota could learn from its neighbor South Dakota (and other states) who is making efforts to remove the words “negro” and the s-word from 18 sites.  Squaw Valley, California continues with the name and has its own website We need to work harder to remove all offensive names from American towns and cities.

Dr. Anton Treuer learned about s-word bread from the Old Town Baking Company. He complained to the company and wrote a great counter story to the name on Facebook. His post was later removed. There is now a Facebook page called S-word Bread Needs a New Name. Indian Country Today reports that the company will rename the bread. Kudos to Dr. Treuer for his advocacy and leadership that is making a positive change!


Just Google the s-word bread and several recipes turn up. Milton’s Bread Company is another example. Indian Country has another post about it. Many people have complained and now the bread has been removed from its website. Let’s hope the bread is gone for good. When we see examples of the s-word on products, place names and the like please contact the company and legislators to let them know your disgust. Without our actions, change will not occur. A couple of great resources to assist us in learning about indigenous people of America are Everything you Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask and Do All Indians Live in Tipis? by the National Museum of the American Indian.

So what’s in a name and why should we care? We should care that linking the traditional home of the Dakota and Lakota nations to a personal hygiene product is racist and culturally insensitive. It is an example of a majority culture taking advantage of a minority culture. When the names are taken for personal or professional gain we are marginalizing and mythologizing native people  but not inviting them to the table of friendship, decision making and the board room.

K-12 Leadership: The Good, the Bad and the Indifferent

The recent actions of two superintendents caused me to take pause. Why, because they are polar opposite examples of effective leadership. Their actions are two examples of what K-12 superintendents are doing to lead or not to lead their school districts into the 21st century. First, let’s take a look at a “good” superintendent. Recently, Albany Public Schools made headline news because a teacher required her students to write a report from a Nazi perspective as to why ”Jews are evil”. It was called “Pretend You are a Nazi”. Several students refused to participate and protested the assignment. The protest reached the ear of the superintendent Dr. Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard. She immediately began what would seem is a routine investigation as any superintendent would do. Prior to the investigation was recognition that she understood the intent of the lesson, the connection and understanding that as an assignment, students do need to address issues that are uncomfortable and use writing to learning how to argue from both perspectives. However, the distinction is that the exploration of multiple perspectives just for the sake of gaining diverse perspectives should never be undertaken at the expense of others who were victimized.

What distinguishes Dr. Vanden Wyngaard is how she chose to address the situation. She listened and responded to a perspective that is not typically acknowledged: the students. What makes her “good” is that she responded and not reacted. Dr. Vanden Wyngaard, as quoted in CNN, called the assignment “completely unacceptable.” “It displayed a level of insensitivity that we absolutely will not tolerate in our school community,” Wyngaard said, “I am deeply apologetic to all of our students, all of our families and the entire community.” Through the investigative process she invited the Jewish Anti-Defamation League to provide trainings to her staff and students. Wow! From what I read from the copy is that she was not threatened by a different perspective and decided to make much needed systemic changes in the curriculum and instruction. We can learn a lot from her example.


The second superintendent example comes from Georgia. The story continues to be in the news because of the wonderment that a high school in 2013, Wilcox High School was finally having an integrated prom. Steve Smith is an example of a “bad” superintendent. Mr. Smith stressed, according to a CNN report, “the segregated proms aren’t organized by the schools”. He later wrote that  “he and the county’s board of Education “not only applaud their (the student’s idea), but we also passed a resolution advocating that all activities involving our students be inclusive and nondiscriminatory. I fully support these ladies, and I consider it an embarrassment to our schools and community that these events have portrayed us as bigoted in any way”.  Mr. Smith also was quoted as saying his high school will consider hosting an integrated prom in 2014. Consider!  How’s that for leadership savvy? At first, I thought that the superintendent was responsible for finally making changes to the prom policy but found the contrary to be true. The prom was actually organized by an interracial group of students who decided enough was enough. A segregated whites only prom was still held in the county.

What makes Mr. Smith a “bad” leader? It is the fact that he is not taking the opportunity to lead his students and families into 21st century multiracial America. He did not stand up to the parents and the school board by supporting his students with an integrated prom. By allowing the district to not host any prom as a strategy to not host an integrated prom sends a terrible message to his students. The message he sent to them is that white and black students should not mix and be friends. This is unacceptable. Proms are an example of a school related activity that should be hosted by district officials with the help of volunteers not parents who want to keep white students away from black students.

Who makes the lists of “indifferent” superintendents? They are the leaders who accept educational racial disparities and gaps in their programming and achievement and do nothing about them. They allow mediocre teachers to continue to teach poorly to the very students who need access to the best educators and they allow principals to improperly lead their schools by perpetuating inequitable conditions of learning and achievement.  Children under the care of these “indifferent” superintendents do not reach their potential. Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond recently summed up what indifference looks like today and what America needs to do for the better. Superintendents can learn from her research and expertise. She was interviewed by Dr. Eric Cooper on NCEBC (National Council on Educating Black children) blog radio and shared her views called: Educational Inequality and America’s Future: What Must Be Done? Her key points:

  • We should treat our children as our most precious resource.
  • We need to advocate for an equitable school system.
  • Provide equitable funding, resources and opportunities to all students not just the students who come from affluent families.
  • We should pay attention and provide equitable education to English language learners, low income students and students of color. Provide the supports needed for success. This is an investment.
  • Provide high quality teachers to students and high quality programming as well.
  • Provide job embedded professional learning opportunities for teachers.
  • Invest in high quality teachers and principals.
  • Take care of our children by providing health care, housing, high quality pre-school, access to learning opportunities and meals.
  • Provide enriched curriculum for all children not just basic skills.
  • Analyze what is needed for children and then provide the necessary supports.

We must keep our school districts and superintendents accountable to provide equitable education for our students. It is critical for us to work together and advocate for changes or our nation will continue to decline in educational outcomes. What will we tell our grandchildren and future generations? That they were not worth the investment? As Dr. Darling- Hammond eloquently states: “We should treat our children as our most precious resource”.

Why We Don’t See Culture

M. Williams Stefani W. Redskins V. Secret Boy Scouts

Another day passes and I encounter another colleague who behaves as if he or she does not have a culture. How do I know this? By the words they say and the actions they take towards others. Example, “My ancestors gave up their culture to become an American”. This may be true but the ancestor chose to adopt another culture- a variation of the English speaking dominant European American culture. Another common statement told to me is, “Why can’t we all get along? We are a melting pot”. To be accurate, only white people can claim kinship to the melting pot myth. People of color are not able to “blend” into being white.


A common activity at work and school is to host “diversity and inclusion” events that are often billed as being multicultural. These events mostly showcase people of color sharing their cultural story through a window and mirrors activity. The prime objective is to educate white people about diversity. The European American cultural experience is missing except as spectators.

These statements and activities stem from an unspoken and even unconscious belief that many European Americans do not have a culture and in, fact, only people of color have one. This is culture blindness. It is not being aware that you have a culture and, as a result, think only people of color or people that speak different languages have culture. An unintended impact is to feel free to “take” from other cultures and be entertained.

A contributing factor to culture blindness is white privilege. A white privilege that is rooted in a belief that European American culture, specifically derived from England, is the desired way of life in America.  Everything we do is measured against those norms including beauty, type of speech, dress and religion to name a few. This privilege allowed white people to believe they “had the right” to study others and tell them what kind of culture they had, point out deficiencies, measure other people’s brains for their own gain and photograph them in order to document them before they became “extinct”. John Winthrop upon seeing empty American Indian villages full of corn and other crops ready to harvest wrote in 1634, “God hath hereby cleared our title to this place”. I believe that this statement began a racial narrative that people descended from Europe, specifically Anglo-Saxons knew better and deserved the best.

White privilege fed into another contributing factor of culture blindness that I call the National Geographic phenomenon. The stories (ethnographies) and photos from social scientists, like anthropologists, became the stuff of college curriculum and National Geographic magazines. Any white child growing up in the USA, educated in its schools and reading their parents National Geographic subscription would learn that only people of color with darker skin, had a different language and were “primitive” had a culture.

White Americans, in those contexts, did not talk about their culture in that way. No one came to “study” them. They also did not need to address their culture because it was normed and not on the verge of intentional extermination. Still today, a typical college classroom curriculum has students focused on learning about the Pueblo, the Nuer and the like but never their cultural self. This practice creates a cultural knowing gap that perpetuates blindness. National Geographic has an exoticizing effect on the cultures by treating them as different, mysterious and the “other”.

These factors have unconsciously lead major corporations, leaders and entertainers today to take a misstep towards exoticism, cultural misappropriation and potentially racism. Cultural misappropriation is defined as a practice of a dominant culture taking (stealing) music, art, a religious practice, etc. from an indigenous culture and using it in an inauthentic way and without permission.  It is a serious problem today. Current examples are:

None of us are immune to avoiding culture, exoticizing or unintentionally misappropriating another person’s cultural practice but we need to make an effort to stop. We really need to be intentional about working on ourselves by increasing awareness about our cultural self, increase knowledge about other cultures and taking action towards change. We are at a critical juncture in America as we move towards a more culturally and racially diverse society.

Practical steps for improvement:

  1. Self-reflection: Do you know what your culture is? What is your cultural identity? Take a moment to explore and find out. Take an interest in exploring your cultural self. Who are you and what cultures make you who you are? Talk about your culture to others.
  2. Get out more. Talk to people from all walks of life and make cross-cultural friendships.
  3. Stand up and speak out when a colleague or friend decides to keep a mascot or purchase something that is inappropriate.
  4. Hire more people from a diversity of cultures and races. Be sure to create pathways for multiple perspectives to be heard or else you will have segregated silos at work.

Once we are confident of our cultural identity then we can branch out and connect with others from differing cultures in authentic ways.  Change requires action. Action requires confidence. Confidence requires faith.

Race, Satan and Our Need To Change

Social media has been atwitter with commentary on the casting of Satan in the History Channel’s miniseries: The Bible. Did the producers purposely cast an actor who looked like President Obama? I will not address this question but instead focus on what I think is the root of the commentary and offer solutions. Does racial prejudice continue to operate in America in regards to accepting a person of color, especially a black person, to be in a position of authority?

History Channel

This is old news, and you may be asking yourself why would someone write another blog about another instance of racism? I get that. The permanence of racism is alive and well. Just yesterday the New Times reported that a licensed psychologist had testified that race plays a part in predicting future violent behavior!

A quick scan on our nation’s hiring data confirms that, while great inroads have been made for people of color in positions of authority, we still have a long way to go. We continue to have a serious issue with coconscious and unconscious racial bias towards people of color. The data across all areas tell a similar story:

  • 4.2% people of color hired for CEO positions
  • 18.5% people of color for 5 of 20 Silicon Valley companies reporting
  • 2 % African American and 2% Latino for superintendents
  • 22% people of color for the current Supreme Court Justices
  • 16% people of color for members of Congress
  • A lack of American Indians across the board

There are a few ways to think about this data:

  1. There are no qualified people of color to fill these positions. Therefore racism does not exist. America elected a black president so there is no more racism.
  2. Hiring managers talk behind closed doors and decide that only 1, 2 or a handful of people of color should be in authority. This would be a reverse affirmative action policy.
  3. There is racial bias in hiring.
  4. Deficit thinking is at play. Hiring managers believe that black people, Latinos and American Indians are not as smart as whites and Asians. It starts in grade school when students are identified for special education and gifted and talented services. K-12 tracking fuels the practice of segregating white students in enriched classes with little or no students of color except for Asians. Black, American Indians and Latino students are relegated to special education. It is no wonder that students believe that black, Latino and American Indian students are not smart. Because they are not present, a deficit belief starts to take root.

What can we do to change our beliefs so that our behaviors reduce and eliminate our racial bias and prejudices?   A few studies illustrate that with effort racial bias can be reduced. One study (Perceptual Other-Race Training Reduces Implicit Racial Bias) found that racial bias behaviors are malleable and can be changed with effective training. Another study (Can Racial Bias Be Changed?) concluded that a person’s attitudes about racial bias can positively or negatively affect outcomes.  Another compelling study (Racial Bias Can Be Changed by Teaching People to Differentiate Facial Features Better in Individuals of a Different Race) focused on helping people differentiate faces of people from other races which reduced their racial bias.

My key point is that we have the ability to eliminate racism by working on ourselves. Here are a few suggestions:

  • First, we need to make genuine interracial friendships. My mother’s dear friend Agnes Brawley, living in segregated Milwaukee, used to say: “The problem with race relations is that there are not enough relations”. We need to build friendships across races and cultures. This will help reduce prejudice and racial bias.
  • Second, we need to acknowledge that we have unconscious and conscious racial beliefs and act on them every day.  It will take effort and training, day by day, for us to make positive changes.
  • Third, we need to start having courageous conversations on race. Talking about race and addressing issues should not be a fear anymore. We have to believe in ourselves that we will not be afraid of offending someone or being called a racist.  Glenn Singleton of Pacific Educational Group offers a practical framework for action called Courageous Conversations on Race.
  • Fourth, Tod Ewing offers up a spiritual solution in his book. He states that a powerful step for racial healing is taking a step to see heaven in the face of black men.
  • Fifth, researchers have found it is possible to eliminate our racial biases but we must be internally driven or otherwise motivated to suppress them.

Deciding to take action is a first step to help us change our beliefs about different races. The rest involves hard work, internal motivation and practice to see positivity instead of deficits in people of color.

Commentary on the Five Myths of Talking About Race With Your Child

I recently read Jaime- Jin Lewis’s article called Five Myths of Talking about Race with Your Child in the RIISE blog. Ms. Lewis is spot on! Every parent and educator of children should read it and practice her tips of addressing the myths. I would like to add two more myths to the list. Perhaps there are others as well. Please send them in to the comment section.

Myth 6: Having Same Race Friendships Are Enough

In working with K-12 educators over the past few years, I have heard parents tell me that they are worried that their children only hang out with friends from their racial group. The children have no interest in building friendships across the color line. These parents recognize that their children are in danger of developing bias that left unchecked will grow into unhealthy beliefs about people of color. See Ms. Lewis’s Myths #1 and #3. The question to ask parents is what interracial friendships do they have? Parents are a model of social interaction for their children. One of the best ways to interrupt same race self- selection that children do is for parents to show them the way through their own multiracial friendships. It simply is not enough to talk about race or the benefits of diversity. Children should experience interracial relationships regularly, the earlier the better.

Myth 7: Sending Children on Mission/Service Projects is Enough

Sending children of any race on cross-cultural/racial mission or service trips can confuse them and may send them on a path of superiority. Over the years, parents would tell me that they were so proud of their children going to an Indian reservation or a country of color because they were learning about diversity and embracing it. Parents knew that valuing diversity is a key step to help reduce prejudice and is an important part of living in 21st century America. The major issue with this strategy is that it can promote privilege, specifically white privilege. The privilege that comes from a young person thinking they are doing good helping human kind but perhaps perpetuating a “missionary” attitude. A missionary attitude can be defined as someone trying to help others from a position of a “do gooder” or place of racial, cultural or religious superiority. The term became cemented into the American lexicon during the mission period of the last century with Christians forcibly Christianizing American Indians. The belief was that the spiritual beliefs of indigenous people were inferior.

Parents can’t count on the religious or service organizations providing a race conscious or culturally competent orientation.  It is recommended that parents sit down with their children and have a heart to heart talk about the purpose of their trip and address race and cultural issues.

Ideally, service should be two way and co-created without any hint that one race, culture or belief system is better than another.

Talking about race to anyone can be challenging but it is critical to start the conversation with our children. Ms. Jin-Lewis’s article is a great place to start. What other myths exist that need to be surfaced and discussed? Please share in the comment section.

Are Cultures Nations?

Last week I read Jill Barcum’s commentary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I noticed she used the word nation for cultures that exist in the United States. Why is this remarkable?  In this talk of nations in the United States, where are the actual nations? Examples include the Dakota, Ojibwe and Cherokee to name a few. This is my response to the commentary and a portion of it was published on February 17, 2013:

It was with great anticipation that I read Jill Burcum’s article, The United States- A Nation of Nations. Instead I became saddened that her commentary focused only on one group of people in the United States- the descendants of the European immigrants and settlers. Ms. Burcum’s commentary is based on a larger text called American Nations which I have not read.

With all due respect to the writer and intent, I believe the article contributes to a false and one-sided narrative of our country. It is also an example of how we are all miseducated about the truth of who we are. Case in point- The only nations within the United States are the Dakota, Ojibwe (Anishinabe), Hochunk, Oneida and many others. Nations are sovereign entities that can create treaties and govern their people. Cultures do not. Nationalities do not. Folkways do not.

The groups outlined in the article-Yankeedom, midlands and the like are contemporary mashups of regions, culture and folkways. They are not nations. This commentary perpetuates the myth to us, our community, our children and new immigrants that the USA is only comprised of white people and only their cultural aspects are important. Yes, I do agree with Ms. Barcum’s statement that we have “multiple regional cultures in North America” but they do not make virtual nations within our union.  Only indigenous nations have that right.

The cultures that make us mighty are African American, Dakota, Ojibwe, Japanese American, Chinese American, Mexican American, and, yes, European American in addition to many more. Acknowledging and validating this reality gives us strength. Each cultural group contributes to the dominant American culture through the vitality of their cultural beliefs, practices and traditions. In fact, we have many sub- cultures in Minnesota such as Ojibwe (Anishinabe), Norwegian, Dakota, Swedish, African American cultures for example.

The overall commentary leaves the rest of the United States out of the United States. It begs the question as we move to 2040- who is an American and how will we work together to change the narrative from myth to the truth of who we are as Americans?

What is Culture, Race and Ethnicity?

What is culture anyway? Is it race, religion, food or a way to dress? Do some people have culture and some don’t? That is what I want to discuss in this week’s post. The classic anthropological definition of culture is that it is a way of life that includes belief, traditions, food, rituals, behavior, language, facial expressions and music. This is not an all-inclusive list. Dr. Yvette Jackson, from the National Urban Alliance says that culture is “whatever is meaningful and relevant to a person”.

Culture is what we pass down to our children every single day through our speech, dress and actions. Every country has a dominant culture that houses its language, governance, education, belief and family structures to name a few. In the United States, the dominant culture is English-American, sometimes referred to as WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant), that originates from English Puritan roots from 1609. Let’s unpack this: We speak English, we dress in English style clothes and have Christian style of beliefs rooted in Puritanism. That is not to say that America was not influenced by the Iroquois, Africans, the Spanish or the French. We were but, have you noticed, we are not speaking Algonquian, French, Swahili or Spanish as the national language? Language is THE carrier of culture. It means that the English colonists created the USA and spread their cultural hegemony from sea to shining sea.  My observation is that in the national context culture is labeled as entertainment, art and having high status and excellent manners a la “being cultured”.

Words that have become synonymous with culture are race, nationality and ethnicity. In case you are wondering, the USA is not a culture although we will encounter people who believe it to be true. The USA is a nationality that is designated on a passport. Adding to the fray is the word ethnicity. This is another word that gets mixed up with culture as well. It stems from the Greek word for nation and really stands for a social group who share a geographic region, language and culture. Over time though, the national media continues to confuse us as does the US Census Bureau. Take a look at any survey and I guarantee that you will be asked to supply your ethnicity when you know full well you are being asked to disclose your race.  The US Census Bureau categories are another story that needs its own discussion.

Culture is not a race though we will commonly hear people make references to the white culture, the black culture and the Indian culture. What gives? Race is a social construct invented by the Swedish taxonomist, Carolus Linneaus, back in 1758. We can thank him for the lovely terminology of negroid, Caucasoid and mongoloid. His invention has been disastrous for the world and we have inherited a false belief of people based on skin color. Even though we know there is only one race, we continue to give it importance by perpetuating that there are five races. American society is obsessed with race.

So are there white and black cultures? I think not. If we decide to go down the white culture and black culture path we run risk of racially stereotyping people e.g. “all white people eat watermelon and all black people have no rhythm. However, within each of these racial groups, many sub-cultures exist trying to survive. For example, if all the white people of the world were put in a line, one would find cultural distinctions of Russian, Dutch, English, Portuguese and Euro-American to name a few. Ditto for black people. What about whiteness and blackness? Those terms have become popular as well in the American lexicon. What do they mean? I prefer to label them cultural behaviors associated with each race. Despite the fact that the Human Genome Project and American anthropological Association have all proven beyond a doubt that there is only one race Homo Sapiens Sapiens, we hold onto the false belief that skin color is the prime determinant of intelligence and behavior.  There you have it. I have contributed to perpetuating race in the guise of unpacking what it means to be us in the early 21st century while trying to be helpful!

The major reason we must be clear about definitions is that we need to bring culture back into culture and not be cavalier about it when so many cultures are in danger of becoming extinct and their languages no longer spoken. This just happened in Scotland, is a huge issue in Indian country and across the globe. Home work for this week:

  1. Identify your culture, nationality and your ethnic heritage.
  2. Share this information with a friend and post.

Don’t wait to find this information out when you travel and you are “outed” by others. That is cheating!