Setting The Record Straight
For many American Indians, the media coverage of the Red Lake tragedy is only the most recent example of how modern reservation life and tribal culture are mischaracterized.
By Garry Boulard
Dr. Jon Quistgaard is unhappy with the way the national media has
portrayed the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, the nearby city of Bemidji and American Indian life in general.
“This is actually a very vibrant area and we have many things going for us in terms of educational offerings and being a community that interacts positively with Native Americans and vice versa,” says Quistgaard, president of Bemidji State University, “and for that reason I did not want people to go away with an impression that really wasn’t accurate.”
That such coverage is even a matter of discussion is the result of a tragedy: On March 21, Jeffrey Weise, a 16-year-old student at the reservation’s Red Lake High School, went on a shooting rampage inside the school, killing nine people before turning his gun on himself.The national media descended on both Red Lake and Bemidji in the days and weeks after the slayings. In many cases, reporters who were unfamiliar with the area and its people described the reservation and its outlying areas in terms that many residents considered either offensive or exaggerated.
National Public Radio’s Greg Allen, for example, characterized the reservation as a place where “poverty and unemployment are chronic problems.” A CBS broadcast called the Red Lake Chippewa Tribe, “one of the poorest in the state,” while The Chicago Tribune’s Don Wycliff, in a column describing the difficulties that reporters encountered trying to piece together a story that took place in a remote rural section of the state, said Red Lake “is on the other side of the moon.”
“The media reports also characterized the surrounding region as devoid of resources, sensitivity and prosperity,” Quistgaard wrote in a column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press on May 24, adding that “these narrow perceptions overshadow the numerous strengths of the tribe and the larger Bemidji area community, which are inexorably linked.”
For many American Indians, the media coverage of the Red Lake reservation tragedy is only the most recent example of what is often viewed as an inadequate understanding of modern reservation life in particular and tribal culture in general by the outside world.
“I am afraid that many people are still laboring under stereotypes of the poor, drunken Indian, and that America sees us as some kind of relics from the past, as though we were locked into museum cases and were on exhibit,” says Dr. Henrietta Mann, chairwoman of the Native American studies program at Montana State University in Bozeman. “There is just in general a failure to see us in terms of our contemporary significance.”
Says Carrie Billy, deputy director of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium: “We’ve been trying to figure out for years how to tell our story in a more effective way so that we don’t have to keep repeating what our history is, the evolution of the tribal colleges and what the Indian reservations are like.
“But it doesn’t seem to sink in because we are always having to explain ourselves all over again, and not only to a new journalist who may not be familiar with such matters, but also to most members of Congress. “In fact,” Billy continues, “when it comes to testifying before Congress, half of our time is usually spent going over our history before we even get to the issue that we are supposed to be discussing. Other groups don’t have to do that.”
American Indian educators have also been particularly frustrated over the notion that reservation life is one that is largely devoid of higher education opportunities, when itnfact there are more than 30 tribal colleges nationally, the vast majority of which offer two-year degrees.“The interest in higher education within the reservation is something that we think is pretty much on the increase, and has attracted Native Americans of all ages,” says Tom Urbanski, public information officer at Fond Du Lac Tribal and Community Colleges in Cloquet, Minn.
The other tribal colleges in the state are Leech Lake Tribal College in Cass Lake, White Earth Tribal and Community College in Mahnomen and the Red Lake Nation College at the Red Lake reservation.
“We are the only combined tribal and state community college in the country,” Urbanski says. “And anyone can come here, both Indian and non-Indian. Among our Indian student population, we draw off the reservations of northern Minnesota, with some 81 tribes represented.”
At the Red Lake Nation College, academic dean Mary Ringhand says students are excited about the idea of taking classes and being connected to higher education opportunities beyond the reservation. “Education beyond the high-school level is a new thing to many of our students, and I think they are responding to it very well, particularly now that we have accreditation agreements with other four-year schools here in Minnesota.”
At the same time, in a move to make American Indian culture more a part of campus life, Bemidji State University unveiled its American Indian Resource Center in the fall of 2003, a $2.6 million facility that houses the school’s American Indian studies program and also serves as a place where American Indian students can study and socialize.“Building the center was a real statement for us,” Quistgaard says. “It is a structure, yes, but what it represents is what really matters — a place where educational opportunities for Indian people are enhanced, and where the Indian perspective is brought to our own community.”
“It really does serve as a place where people can come together,” remarks Jackie Ryder, office manager and administrative assistant for the center. “We are within easy driving distance of the three largest Indian reservations in Minnesota and the fourth and fifth aren’t that far away either.”
Continues Ryder: “So a center like this really does a great service to the community by allowing the representatives of the different tribal colleges to meet here in a way that promotes a greater cultural understanding.”
BSU officials also see the center as reflective of a move to promote more diversity on the campus, particularly by increasing the number of American Indian students.
“We have transfer agreements with all of the tribal colleges,” Quistgaard says. “In some cases they are fully accredited with full articulations, while in other cases it is a little bit more limited. But either way our goal is to work as much as we possibly can with the tribal colleges because they are the ones that will increasingly be providing us with students in the future.”
BSU’s current American Indian student population stands at 200 students, a third smaller than what it was in the 1970s, but up from only 135 two years ago.
Student enrollment at the tribal colleges has also been an uneven thing, although Fond du Lac Tribal College, with a headcount of 1,784 in 2004-2005, has recorded increases for the last six years.
“Our increases have obviously not been particularly large,” says Fon du Lac’s Urbanski. “But they have been steady, and we are very happy about that.”
Student enrollment at Leech Lake Tribal Colleges is just under 200. White Earth Tribal and Community College has roughly one-fourth that amount, while Red Lake Nation College averages 50 to 75 students per semester, says Ringhand.
“It is true that many of the tribal colleges do not have significantly large student enrollments,” says Billy of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. “But they are performing a vital service in providing educational opportunities for communities that in the past had only limited access to higher education”.
“And that is one of the reasons why so many of these colleges are seeing steady increases in their student populations,” Billy says, “because Native American students want to take advantage of opportunities just like anybody else. And now that there are so many schools actually in areas where Indians live, we think those increases will continue.”
Says Mann, “There needs to be a greater understanding of a co-existence of the culturally different people of this land, we need to learn more of what I call cultural competence. I was educated in White mainstream America, I went to their schools and I think I have an understanding of the larger society, so we really need to see that understanding work in the opposite direction, too.”
Such understanding, adds Mann, would not only reveal that while the
problems of the mainstream culture — unemployment, divorces, alcohol and drug addiction — are also those of the reservation, so are the triumphs. “There are Native American professionals, Native Americans who go on to receive their graduate and post-graduate degrees, Native Americans with intact families, all coming out of or living within the reservation,” says Mann. “We have the same ability to fail or succeed and laugh and cry as everybody else.”
To enhance access opportunities for American Indians, BSU has launched an ambitious recruitment effort among area reservations. “We have to reach out and make sure potential students in these areas know about higher education opportunities,” says Quistgaard. “Our job is made somewhat easier by the existence of the tribal colleges, and the fact that we have articulation agreements with them.”
Both BSU and the tribal college representatives have also made their case at area high schools with large American Indian populations: “The idea is to reach out in as many different directions as we possibly can,” says Quistgaard, who notes that enhancing access opportunities for area American Indian students is not just a primary part of the university’s mission, it is “probably the biggest part of our mission. And I can’t help but think that the tribal colleges can only help us in that regard because they are providing opportunities for learners who may be place-bound or have other challenges that keep them from coming directly to a state university.”
Either way, Quistgaard says, “We learn from each other, and if it all goes towards enhancing opportunity, I have to think that that is a good thing.”
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