What I know of Native American culture is shrouded in spoon-fed lies. The more I learn, the more the image of school age me being made to choose between the costume of an “Indian” or a “pilgrim,” to re-enact a whitewashed Thanksgiving with offending hoots and hollers, sends me into a shameful rage. The version of natives I knew was fetishized by my obsession with Pocahontas, who I dressed up as for Halloween, oblivious to any degree of inappropriateness. Later, I delved into making dream catchers and became yet another white woman yearning to make a profit without any understanding of the cultural significance of the craft. Still to this day, the prevailing image of Native American tribes in pop-culture is one of violence — of men on horseback with warpaint and tomahawks, while music, movies, and tv shows pander to the pioneer aesthetic of the wild west.
When I moved to Oregon, I wanted to fully dive into the history of local tribes. Very few results came up when I began my search in 2015, the references telling me much of their lives and histories had been encroached upon, diseased, and exterminated. Luckily since then, I have noticed many annual events educating and inviting Corvallisites into the cultures of our landcestors, such as the annual Klatowa Eena Powwow coming up this Saturday, and the yearly Champinefu Lecture Series. One of my most meaningful interactions with native culture came from a past co-worker, a residential Skills Trainer at the Children’s Farm Home in Corvallis.
She taught us dream catcher lore and how to weave them from branches — that the first should be a gift, and when you take from the trees, you should always give something in return. She spoke to our youth on equal ground, helping them envision a forest of pain that has been growing for centuries on colonized ground, trees shooting up from addiction, violence, and abuse — symptoms of a sick society. “We have to make a new forest,” she said. From hope and love, in order to heal.
The spirit infused in her lessons and stories gave me a deeper insight into the pain and disruption caused by imperialism. I am increasingly aware of how little I actually know about our landcestors and the histories that were stolen from them. The American education system and government continue to fail the country’s youth with biased and misinformed history lessons and celebratory white supremacist holidays like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. These practices are proven to set up native children for failure, with the Bureau of Indian Affairs reporting 29 to 36 percent of native students dropping out of school. This is especially prevalent in areas where there are regular complaints over a lack of understanding of native culture.
This miseducation further drives a wedge between native and non-native students, as explained by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, award-winning author of An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. In her commentary The Miseducation of Native American Students, Dunbar-Ortiz explains how miseducation “diminishes the understanding and compassion of non-Native children, warping their conception of a history that often erases Native Americans altogether.”
The forest of pain planted by our imperialist forefathers bears the fruits of today’s ignorance, inequality, and insensitivity to the sanctity of native culture. It has barred us from valuable lessons needing to be learned from our landcestors. The divisiveness and dejection we feel as Americans can only be mended by a greater understanding of our nation’s roots. A culture of colonization has left us starving for connections to our land and to each other. To heal and find harmony, we have to learn from those who believe(d) in giving back to the Earth wherever they lay claim.
By Stevie Beisswanger