“The early bird gets the worm,” my dad would always say. He is notorious for waking up between four and four-thirty in the morning. In those early dark hours, you can hear his steps, the smell of coffee brewing, and the sound of newspaper pages turning. I’m not going to lie. I was incredibly annoyed by this, much like the rest of my siblings. Admittedly, I took a lot of my parents’ teachings for granted at an early age. Today, I have a deep appreciation for my dad and the lessons he offers.
I was born in Shiprock, New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation, in April of 1984 along with my twin sister. We were welcomed in this world by my mom, dad, four brothers and two sisters. Understandably, Mom and dad called it quits after having twins, bringing it to a total of eight children.
Growing up loud and obnoxious, I didn’t have the best relationship with my dad. He was more calm, patient and diplomatic in his approach. He had to be. He was one of very few Native American business owners in the Four Corners region (the quadripoint where the boundaries of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet). My dad owned an auto body shop for 13 years before closing the doors.
Closing the business didn’t stop my dad in pursuing a leadership role within the Native community. He got deeply involved in helping Native seniors, veterans and youth by fundraising for his projects. To this day, many of the programs he spearheaded continue to operate.
My dad wasn’t very open in communicating his affection toward me. I never heard him express his love verbally. Though he made an effort to show his love in other ways. When I was in my late teens, my dad gifted me a Navajo rug dress. I was the only daughter to receive this. I also graduated from plain ol’ moccasins to buck skin moccasins. My dad was teaching me another lesson, a lesson that I was now a woman.
Fast forward about six years, I was in college and I received a call from one of my siblings. My dad was caught in the middle of trouble with the law. I’m not going to share any details out of respect for my dad and family. What I will say is that I admired the way he handled the difficult situation and humbly accepted the consequences of his actions when he really could have justified his actions. While my dad was getting settled in prison, the family was trying to adjust to this change. We didn’t know what to do next. Selfishly, my biggest fear was what other people, families, and friends were going to think of us.
With the initial exchange of letters between my home in Lincoln, Nebraska and the Fort Worth Federal Penitentiary, I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed at times.
What if someone sees this letter? Will they know that my dad is incarcerated? What will they think of me? Did the mailman notice the address? I hope he doesn’t think I’m exchanging love letters with a prison inmate.
After the average exchange of two letters per month, I got used to the letters coming from my dad. At first, I didn’t know what to say. The last time I had written notes was back in high school with my silly girlfriends. After several months, I began to look forward to reading his letters and responding. Our letters allowed us to communicate on a more honest and deeper level than we had in the past.
Five days before I turned 25, I received a letter dated April 20, 2009 from my dad. This is when I received the most memorable and most precious letters of all from my dad.
“My Dear Child,
It’s almost time again when you will be celebrating your birthday. Sorry I won’t be there to enjoy the festivities, but my heart is with you always. Besides, it’s only been a few years since you two came to challenge us to undertake an extraordinary hardship, yet a blessing of extraordinary proportions. I am wishing you a happy birthday and all the good that comes with the fulfillment of life’s purpose…
The stupid nurse put you both in my arms! When you were first breathing air on your own. I was pacing back and forth in the hallway when they came out with two sets of small blankets in a roll. I was not sure what they were doing but they said ‘Congratulations Mr. Lee, here are your twin girls.’ I was taken so much by surprise! I could not speak, but before I could say anything, one placed the roll of blanket in my left arm and the other put the other roll in my right arm. I could not move! I could not tell if I have enough grip on the blankets. I felt like I had no control of the little babies. I was afraid I might grip too tight and squish the poor little creatures. I could see the little bitty heads!
Anyway, they finally took the babies from me as they were laughing! That is how our journey began, yours and mine. You were such a wonderful gift and still one. I want you to know that. You know how much your mom loves you, but you probably don’t know how much I love you too. This is just to let you know that you always have your parents pulling for you no matter where you are and where we are...”
This was the first time I had ever felt a strong expression of love from my dad. These were words I never heard before, words that so many others have never heard in a lifetime, and words I will never forget. After wiping my eyes and blowing my nose, I thanked the Creator for this truly wonderful blessing and for bringing my dad and I closer to one another. For months, we continued to write one another. Even after he was eventually released from prison, we continued to write.
We later graduated to phone calls and texts. I still can’t believe my dad texts. I don’t understand what he’s saying most of the time, but I get the idea.
I have always believed that nothing happens by mistake. I don’t believe in coincidences. The years have been very difficult for my dad, but through his incarceration we have been able to build a strong relationship that includes understanding, encouragement, and laughter. I am truly grateful for the relationship we have today. It took willingness, honesty and courage on both our parts to get over our fears and slowly break down the uncomfortable wall between the two of us.
Today, we’re able to sit across from one another (when I’m able to make it to New Mexico once a year) for hours. Our conversations are not general. When we communicate, we do so on a deep and meaningful level. Time is precious and words are powerful, neither should be wasted. (Wow. I sound like a fortune cookie.) I try to make the best of what I got because one day it won’t be there.
Obviously, I came into the situation with pre-judgments. I assumed all prison inmates were very bad people that did very bad things. When my dad was sentenced and settling into his cell, I was busy thinking about what other people thought. I have to remind myself, often, that what other people think of me is none of my business. Everyone has a right to feel, and so do I. I no longer feel shame. Sometimes, there are good people out there that make bad choices.
My dad would be proud to know that this bird woke up at four-thirty this morning to write this blog. He was right after all. It only took about 25 years for this bird to realize I get a lot of work done and am most productive in the early morning hours.
If there were anything I would want you to get out of reading this blog, it would be that you realize you too are a blessing of extraordinary proportions.
Randall Warren Heavilin (Navajo) is a classically trained cellist and composer from Austin, Texas. A graduate of The Berklee College of Music, Heavilin: composes, performs, and produces a variety of music for films and other media outlets.
Recently, Randall has composed the score for Yellow Fever, a documentary film that follows the Uranium boom on Navajo lands, and the effects that it has had on the people living there.
As in the United States, young native people in Mexico are looking for, finding and reviving their language and health traditions. Mexico’s constitution recognizes Mexico as a pluri-cultural nation state and Intercultural Universities have been created in a number of Mexican states to reflect cultural plurality. In the fall of 2012 a delegation of students, faculty, and alumni of the Institute of American Indian Arts visited the Universidad Intercultural de Estado Mexico (UIEM) located in the town of San Felipe Del Progresso, a little over 100 miles northwest of Mexico City. The visit was part of the International Student Mobility Partnership on Cultural Diversity. The group included students from Canada and Malaysia as well as the IAIA and UIEM students.
The UIEM is a relatively new school having been in existence for about 10 years. The UIEM classroom building is in the shape of a coiled serpent and the administration is in a building shaped like a conch shell. Thus reflecting important symbols in the Indigenous cosmology of the region and reinforcing the Indigenous nature of the school.
The UIEM classroom building as Nahuatl dancers prepare for welcoming the Mobility Students
The UIEM serves the five Indigenous peoples in the State of Mexico, the Nahuatl, the Mazahua, the Otomi, the Matlatzinca, and the Tlahuica. The UIEM offers several areas of study including Language and Culture, Intercultural Communications, Intercultural Health and Wellness, Sustainable Development, and Art and Design.
The Language and Culture Program offers classes in each of the 5 Indigenous languages as well as English. The model for teaching language is a dynamic model that relies heavily on cultural expression such as dance, food and clothing.
In the Health and Wellness program, students learn the Indigenous healing traditions as well as some Western medicinal techniques. The focus is on traditional processes such as massage, herbalism and the use of the temescal (sweatlodge). The UIEM sponsors rural health clinics as outreach into the indigenous communities and is in the process of building a clinic on the campus.
The Sustainable Development program addresses a number of issues related to sustainable food and housing. In addition to courses related to sustainable development, the UIEM maintains a research facility that works with a community on housing and food issues.
Faculty from the Sustainable Development program discussing alternatives for water storage at UIEM’s research facility
The idea of an intercultural university is quite radical in Mexico. While the constitution talks of a pluri-cultural nation state, the reality has been one of trying to assimilate the estimated 12 million indigenous peoples into a more European world-view. This has been done through denying indigenous knowledge and indigenous languages and their role in today’s world. But Indigenous knowledge and world-views as expressed by Indigenous language have become more and more important as a result of climate change and for Mexico, NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). NAFTA is seen as the foundation for the introduction of large-scale industrial agriculture: investments by those outside of Mexico that displaces the Indigenous farmers. The UIEM is providing a counter-narrative for Indigenous people to regain strength in their culture and traditional values.
The UIEM is a small school, serving about 1000 students, most of which are Indigenous, but there are a number of mestizo students. Students come from the villages in the mountains as well as from the cities and towns surrounding san Felipe del Progresso. Many ride the bus system for hours to get to the school, others find a way to pitch together their money to rent places to stay in San Felipe. The poverty is overwhelming and to see these young people fight the poverty to get their education is inspiring. The tuition at UIEM is about 40 American dollars per semester, but while we see this as an incredible bargain, even that small amount is a major challenge for the majority of the UIEM students. But even with these challenges, UIEM and its students represent a faith in Mexico’s indigenous future.
The opening ceremony for the Fall semester shows the importance of Indigenous spirituality to the school and its students.
I recall an old television show from my childhood, The Twenty-First Century, hosted by Walter Cronkite. Each week he (Walter Cronkite was a well-known television news journalist during the 1960’s and 70’s) would show us some new wonder from the future that would put an end to human suffering and inconvenience. I seem to recall an episode describing a future in which food was no longer necessary, replaced by super nutritious, ultra convenient capsules that needed to be taken only once per day. Now that’s a relationship with food that I could embrace!
Food is my final addiction frontier. Unlike alcohol, drugs and smoking, however, it is a stubborn presence that will remain a part of life forever. Hunger is a constant in our lives, returning each day reminding us of our powerlessness over the great force that is life. Like so many others, I struggle mightily with this force. For the time being I have made my peace with that daily appearance of hunger and its friend food. Since 2011 I have lost 90 pounds and have managed to maintain my weight for the past four months. I’ve written about my journey for Indian Country Today Media Network and The Daily Yonder.
Like so many Native people, I have type 2 diabetes and have struggled with my weight for years. Today, however, my glucose levels are normal and I no longer need to take medication. Many people have asked me how I was able to begin this journey after so many years. Truth be told, it is a mystery to me but I’m fairly sure it had something to do with my spirituality and the willingness to admit I am powerless over hunger and food.
In my recent article for Indian Country Today Media Network, I discuss a book by Michael Moss, “Salt, Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” in which he exposes in painful detail as the food industry’s fight for America’s “stomach share-the amount of digestive space that any one company’s brand can grab from the competition.”
Moss discusses the massive forces at work among processed food companies to get us and keep us addicted to their unhealthy products. Data shows that the companies are unbelievably successful. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35.7 percent of all Americans are obese, triple the rate from one generation ago. As of 2010, 25. 8 million people-8. 3 percent of the U.S. population-have type 2 diabetes, closely associated with obesity.
Native peoples top the list for type 2 diabetes in the U.S; 16. 1 percent of Native people served by the Indian Health Service have type 2 diabetes.
The growing availability of cheap, processed, addictive food has created a perfect bad health storm for our people.
I’ve heard it said that Native peoples are like the canaries used by coal miners to warn of the presence of poisonous gas in mines. What happens to us is a portent for the future for everyone if the same path is taken. Unfortunately, in this analogy, we always end up being the first to die.
Rather than accepting this role of the harbinger of death, we can blaze a new trail to health that can inform other communities. The Growing Native series will help guide all of us on this new path by shining a light on efforts that communities are exploring in their work to live in a good way.
Hawk Henries is a gifted flutist and flute maker from the Nipmuc tribe in southern New England. He has performed at various venues across the United States and around the world. Hawk first learned to make flutes after he ruined his own flute and was forced to repair it over the course of several months. Those months of repair lead to a passion for creating flutes that has lasted over 20 years.
Hawk believes in creating his instruments through traditional techniques and the use of hand tools.
As Father's Day approaches, my heart is overwhelmed with a sense of bitter sweetness. It is at this time that Video Letters will be re-released through Vision Maker Media at the request of my three grown daughters. Our hearts are in mourning at the loss of their father Marvin (featured in Video Letters) as we lost him in the fall of 2012. My daughters miss him intensely. It was through Video Letters that they were able to reconnect with the blessedness of having a father and it is through Video Letters that they will always be able to see him and feel the love that he had for them.
In recent years, we have all reconnected on several levels. My oldest daughter was able to have him present at her college graduation and at the birth of her second son. The second oldest child was able to spend some very valuable and quality time with him fishing and hanging out in “father/daughter” time. The youngest of the three was able to rekindle her relationship with her father via phone conversations and solicit fatherly support during the time her husband was deployed in Afghanistan.
We are all sad at his untimely death but grateful for the time and opportunity that we were able to have with him. As always, Marvin was gracious and accepting of my husband and I of his wife. We shared quality time as a blended family and we truly considered everyone FAMILY.
Ironically, the one place that he fought so hard to get away from, was where he met his untimely death. I am sad, with Father’s Day approaching, that my children (once again) will not be able to share it with their father. It was the one thing that they so longed for all of their childhood but on the same note, I am grateful that with VIdeo Letters other children will be able to connect with their mothers or fathers and find balance in this world, the same way that my children did. I am grateful because I know that with this sadness comes great joy, the joy of knowing that Video Letters will let the world know my children’s father and what a wonderful human being Marvin Poor Bear was.
Editor's Note: This is an account from the curricula developers for the "Standing Bear's Footsteps" educational site. They talk about their experience at the National Council for the Social Studies Annual Convention this past November. We thought that this would be good launching point into the curricula they developed. The trial of Standing Bear opened in Omaha on April 30, 1879.
This session was presented as a three-hour clinic. We began our session with introductions and a question prompt of “What is ‘home’?” Each participant shared, with one even highlighting that where she lived wasn’t her ‘home’. This was a perfect transition into the introduction, “What is ‘home’ for the Poncas?” Larry led a brief discussion about the historical aspects of the tribe and how the documentary, curriculum and the workshop sections of the project began to take shape. Then Cindy led an examination of the shift in social studies education—from content to skill-based curriculum, and from test to project based learning and assessment. She explained the curriculum design and how it can be used in a multitude of ages and subject areas. She showed the participants the different components of the website, and how it all worked. The participants were very excited and applauded the efforts of the project.
We took questions and then watched Chapters 1 and 2 of the documentary in their entirety. Two participants were in tears at the gripping story the documentary was putting forward. Larry answered a few questions and then we walked through two sample activities from the curriculum. Cindy handed out a printed version of the curriculum so participants could view the activities up close. Then for Chapter 3 we used the Digital Learning Objective, to show the diversity of the movie and curriculum. Chapter 4 and 5 were shown in their entirety and the participants voiced how easy the documentary, website and curriculum documents were to use. We showed Chapter 6 and 7 and then Larry took several more questions about the tribe.
Cindy examined 21st Century Skills and Project Based Learning and how these skills for our youth, particularly Native youth, must be taught in order to be proficient in the media-heavy world we live in. We showed the Bright Eyes video on YouTube and then transitioned into the workshops. We linked in to YouTube and the videos that VisionMaker had posted on their YouTube account. We showed two samples of the videos and talked about the project as a whole and how to integrate this into a curriculum.
What does Growing Native mean to you? That is a question we posed to the Growing Native Advisory Council as we went through pre-production. The answers we received were varied, but connected – it’s growing us as a people in a way that sustains us as a people, it’s taking things that we knew and that worked in the past and building on that, it’s illustrating the interconnectedness of everything that we do. Growing Native is understanding our past in a very deep way; really coming to realize the nature of the challenge of our present; and beginning to think creatively and transformatively for what we need to be doing for our future. With each story we share, we hope to convey these ideas to audiences in an honest and respectful way.
The Festival of Native Arts at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks is one such story. This festival, and others like it, has the unique opportunity to bring multitudes of people together in one place to share their enthusiasm and respect for their cultures. Singers, dancers and artisans from across the state of Alaska come to the UAF campus for three nights of cultural celebration, and the event is organized and ran entirely by students.
From the Festival website –
This tradition began in 1973, when a group of University of Alaska Fairbanks students and faculty (representing a variety of colleges and departments) met to consider a spring festival focused on the artistic expressions of each Alaska Native culture. In less than three months, perhaps for the first time in Alaska, Native artists, craftspeople and dancers from all major Native culture groups gathered together at UAF to share with each other, the University community and Fairbanks their rich artistic traditions.
As the student’s prepared for the 40th Anniversary, I caught up with one of our interview subjects for the episode, Marina Anderson (Tlingit/Haida), who would be emceeing the evening’s events. “This is the largest student run event in UAF history,” Anderson observed, “and this is the longest Festival we’ve had in almost 20 years. It used to go four or five days, but then it was cut down to two for a long time. Now that it’s back up to three days, and possibly four days next year, I think that really speaks to the growth and support the Festival has attained.” That support is evident when you look around the Festival. Bustling crowds of visitors jockey for position at the artist tables set up in the main hall outside the dance auditorium, while dance groups anxiously await their turns to be led to the ready room for last minute run-throughs before their performance.
But this isn’t some flash in the pan visual extravaganza. These dances and songs have deep, personal meaning to the performers and oftentimes with the audience members themselves. I spoke with Dr. Theresa John (Yupik), a professor at UAF, and she told me, “These songs and dances are the pathway to passing down knowledge and healing for our people. The language, our stories, our words… these things are embedded in our dances and they create a connection to our history.” Dr. John, who has been involved with the Festival since its inception in 1973, told me that the Festival came about at a critical time at the University. The Native students were struggling to find their place in the larger community, and felt disconnected from their homes. The Festival came in and helped change all that.
“Students now take pride in who they are and where they come from,” dancer Marjorie Tahbone (Inupiaq) offered. Tahbone is former Miss Indian World 2011 from Nome, and she dances with UAF student dance group Inu-Yupiaq. This group is unique in that it combines the cultures of the students, who have become like a family, Tahbone says. “In some cases, dancing was banned in some villages, and as a result there are fewer songs for them to learn. The diversity on display at the Festival really uplifts the spirit, through watching you can see a little bit about others’ traditions.”
Anderson echoes this sentiment, adding “the Festival really built character for a lot of the students who participated. I have one friend who really came out of his shell over the course of the Festival. At first, he would be dancing and he would take his glasses off. He’s blind as a bat without them, so he took them off so he couldn’t see the audience and get embarrassed. By the last night, he was dancing with them on. That’s the kind of strength and pride that the Festival represents.”
The Festival of Native Arts, and by extension other programs that exist to promote Native culture, has represented a steady shift of focus on the role of culture in the classroom. Culture was once something either indifferently omitted or even violently repressed in the classroom. Now, culture in the classroom is celebrated. “About time, that’s what I’m saying!” Tahbone remarked, adding “That shift has and will continue to create a ripple effect that will change the way youth think about themselves to the point that now we are comfortable and proud of being Native.”
To illustrate that ever expanding “ripple effect” that Tahbone mentioned, look no further than the Fairbanks Native Association’s Children’s Performance. The Fairbanks Head Start works with dozens of little ones for their debut dance every Festival, and they have been doing it for years. Each batch of children grows up having the experience of Festival, and knowing that their culture has a place in the larger community, a place they can be proud of. “This joining of generations together is symbolically critical,” Dr. John stressed to me, “because in that time and place, when people gather together, despite being busy teachers or busy students or just busy… when people gather together, our ancestors join us and celebrate with us, reuniting us.”
As the Festival draws to a close, the “Heartbeat of the Drum” ceremony takes place. Each dance group sends out a drummer and they surround the auditorium. Singing in unison, the audience rises to their feet. It is in this moment that Dr. John’s words seem to resonate with crystal clarity. The steady beat of the drum reflects the unity of purpose that each person in that room represents. Times may change, people will come and go, but the beat of the drum continues. It sustains. It is past, present and future. It is Growing Native in the best possible way.
My name is Blue Tarpalechee and I am Muscogee (Creek) from Okmulgee, Oklahoma. I work at Vision Maker Media as the Project Coordinator, a title I’ve held since August of 2012, where I manage the development of the educational materials for our programs and serve as an Associate Producer for the Growing Native series. Be sure to check out our Growing Native page at nativetelecom.org/growingnative