November marks the beginning of Native American Indian Heritage Month, the goal of which is to share the varying cultures and traditions of native peoples.
Most people have some amount of pride in and knowledge of their own heritage, but it is important to have a better understanding of the heritage of those we live with as well.
“When we say ‘North Dakota State University,’ the Dakota is in reference to a tribe,” Dr. Donald Warne, chair of NDSU’s Department of Public Health and member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, said.
“And when we say ‘land-grant institution,’ whose land is it? It’s American Indian land,” Warne said, highlighting the irony of commonly referring to North Dakota or the concept of a land-grant institution without awareness of what those phrases mean.
“So it seems to me that the people who live here would want to have an understanding of the cultural heritage of the first inhabitants,” Warne said.
“There are significant differences in what we believe as indigenous people and what is accepted by modern society,” Warne said. “For example, the concept of land ownership is foreign, but the irony is that the earth has been here for billions of years and will be here long after we are gone, and to think of owning the earth for the sliver of an instant that is a human lifetime is, objectively, pretty silly.”
The concept of money is also one that doesn’t make sense from an indigenous perspective.
“It’s essentially an artificial proxy for value — the only reason it has value is because we believe it has value,” Warne said.
From an indigenous perspective, things that drive our society (such as money and land ownership) don’t hold much weight as compared to communitarian qualities.
“Historically, we needed each other to survive; we had communitarian systems where everyone had a part to play, every life was valued and had an important place,” Warne said. “So from my perspective there is a lot that modern society could learn from indigenous perspectives about what is really important.”
“In Lakota we say ‘mitakuye oyasin,’ which basically means ‘we are all related,’” Warne said, “And we are physically. All of our carbon, our minerals, our water, everything we are made of comes from the earth. That spirit of inter-connectedness with all living things is a beautiful way to approach life, but I don’t think that’s a high priority in modern society.”
The concept of land ownership is applicable in a big way to what is currently happening in North Dakota with the Dakota Access Pipeline and those opposed to it. In fact, the so-called private land of concern wasn’t privatized until the U.S. broke the 1851 treaties that established it as native land.
“I find it supremely ironic that American Indians are being arrested for ‘trespassing.’” Warne said.
But Warne hopes that differences can be made with education about indigenous perspectives.
“The reason Native American Indian Heritage Month and other things like it are so important is because of a lack of understanding, which leads to racist behavior,” Warne said, bringing up the example of caricatured mascots of American Indians used in sports.
“If it was the Cleveland Negroes, everyone would see that as racist, but since it’s the Cleveland Indians, we are celebrating them in the World Series,” Warne said.
“I was raised with core values that center around respect toward the earth and others, along with the concept of equality with other beings, which doesn’t fit so well with concepts of hierarchy,” Warne said.
“We are doing some good things here at NDSU — we have nine American Indians who are in faculty and senior leadership roles, which is very unusual. We also have the only Master of Public Health program in the nation that has an American Indian specialization. So there are good things going on here, but hopefully we can move forward with acceptance for diversity,” Warne said.
Several events are scheduled at NDSU and in the Fargo area for Native American Heritage Month, and can be found at https://www.ndsu.edu/news/view/detail/26452/.
“Hopefully these events will promote understanding, acceptance and respect,” Warne said.