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Appalachian, American Indian Students Bridge Cultural Divide

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by Black Issues


Appalachian, American Indian Students Bridge Cultural Divide

CUMBERLAND, Ky. — Kristen Foley, a fourth-generation resident in Harlan County, is separated by 1,253 miles from some new friends — Sioux Indians living on the Rosebud Reservation in Mission, S.D.
Through a course offered jointly at Southeast Community College here and at Sinte Gleska University on the reservation, Foley and other Appalachian students are learning about the Sioux and at the same time gaining a new way to look at themselves.
Foley is one of 16 students taking the course. They and 10 Lakota, or Sioux, students at the South Dakota school are corresponding by e-mail, reading literature from each other’s culture and sharing essays on common themes.
The students, from two of the poorest parts of the country, have discovered that they also share a respect for family history, a reverence for their traditional cultures and a closeness to nature and their land.
The class, offered this fall for the first time, teams a Native American history course at Sinte with sociology and English classes at Southeast. It’s believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.
Offering minorities the chance to see themselves through the lens of another culture is not new. Nor is it the first collaboration between Appalachians and American Indians.
Roadside Theater, a traveling performance group based in Whitesburg, Ky., has worked for 15 years with the Zuni Indians of New Mexico. The collaboration led to a touring production called “Corn Mountain, Pine Mountain,” which featured traditional Zuni and Appalachian dance, music and storytelling.
“If you learn something about another culture,” says Roadside manager Donna Porterfield, “it takes you deeper into your own culture.”
The new project is unique, however, in that it encourages students to deal directly with each other on issues of land, economics and culture.
Appalachian and American Indian students talk via e-mail about how they are viewed as inferior by people in neighboring, more prosperous places; how they struggle to earn respect for their traditional culture; and how they hope to improve life in their harsh environments.
More than one-third of Appalachians live in poverty. And the 18,000 Native Americans on the Rosebud Reservation, along with those at the neighboring Pine Ridge Reservation, have the shortest life expectancy of any group in the Western Hemisphere except for Haitians.
So far, drawing on each other has affirmed the values of each group.
“They [the Eastern Kentuckians] seem to know about poverty,” says Phyllis Stone, a Rosebud Sioux who is raising a grandchild, working and going to college. “And the misuse of their land is very much like us.”
One emerging theme for students in both classes is the problem of trying to create jobs without damaging the environment. Another is struggling to find work where jobs are scarce. Still another is coping with being a member of a minority that doesn’t always find respect in the mainstream.
In an e-mail note, one American Indian student says bigotry against Indians was worse than bigotry against Appalachians because Appalachians could pass themselves off more easily as non-minorities.
The idea for the course came from Todd Williams, an English professor at Sinte, and Roy Silver, a Southeast Community College sociology professor who is one of the instructors of the course. The two met at a recent conference.
“I saw a lot of parallels between the situation here and the situation in Appalachia,” Williams says. “The land-use and exploitation issues, the ownership issues, the economic issues — I could go on and on.”    

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