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My Native American Heritage

This year for Native American Heritage Month, I have been reflecting on my own Native American heritage. I am Oglala Lakota through my father and German American through my mother – and I’m blessed with this lineage. However, since it is Native American Heritage Month, let me focus on that side.

Sherry Salway Black is an infant in her father's arms in this family photo taken in Pine Ridge Village.

Sherry Salway Black is an infant in her father’s arms in this family photo taken in Pine Ridge Village.

I was the only one of four siblings born on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota – and I’m the only one that has spent their career working with Native peoples and Native issues. I didn’t grow up on Pine Ridge – my family was part of the federal American Indian “relocation movement” from the mid-1940s – early 1960s – a policy of assimilation. After getting my undergraduate degree in Pennsylvania in the mid-1970s, I felt drawn to “return” to the reservation, to meet family I had only talked to on the phone and to see the place I was born, as many “urban Indian” young adults from relocated families did at the time. I haven’t “left” Indian Country since – working with and for Native peoples for more than 40 years.  To bind the tie even tighter I married into the Seneca Nation.

Being Native means different things to different people.  To me, it means I have a rich, vibrant network of relatives, friends and colleagues, both Native and non-Native, across the country and the world, who work for the betterment of Native peoples. To me, being Native means lifelong learning about the diverse, magnificent and resilient Native communities to better understand and assist in development.  To me, being Native means I have been blessed with financial support for my undergraduate education and my graduate degree which led to a career where I have been passionate about my work.  I’ve worked directly in communities with Native peoples and tribal nations, locally with Native organizations, and nationally with national Native and non-Native organizations and the federal government.  Being Native led me down a unique and rewarding lifelong path.

This postcard shot of Pine Ridge village was taken during the 1950s.

This postcard shot of Pine Ridge Village was taken during the 1950s.

I have received so many opportunities because of my Native heritage. Many generations of leaders, both Native and non-Native, made this possible through their work, commitment and advocacy along with sacrifices by our ancestors. What do I owe in return? Being Native means you might be eligible to receive certain benefits but these benefits come with certain responsibilities, certain obligations. The importance of giving back – or reciprocity – is so vital to Native societies.

In this month to celebrate and recognize Native Americans and their innumerable, vast and continuing contributions to this country, and in the season of giving and appreciation, let each of us, with our unique and diverse heritages, give thanks for all that we have. And do not forget to reciprocate, or give back, for your good fortune.

How AIBL Challenges and Inspires Native Business Students

American Indian Business Leaders (AIBL) was organized in January 1994 and was recognized as a 501(c)(3) organization in 1995 on the University of Montana campus in Missoula, Montana. Michelle Henderson (Assiniboine) was a graduate student in the MBA program and wrote her thesis on AIBL. She approached School of Business Administration Dean Dr. Larry Gianchetta to be the chair of her thesis committee. The original idea evolved from concerns expressed by many tribal leaders that recognized the need for business educated and business experienced tribal members to assist with tribal economic development. Michelle became the first executive director of the AIBL organization, and Larry became the faculty advisor to the University of Montana AIBL Chapter.

American Indian Business Leaders black and gold logoThe mission of AIBL is to increase the representation of American Indians and Alaska Natives in business and entrepreneurial ventures through education and leadership development opportunities.

AIBL’s vision is to become the preeminent national nonprofit organization serving American Indians and Alaska Natives by providing business and entrepreneurship education, leadership development training, and the necessary support to help young men and women who aspire to purse studies and careers in business, entrepreneurship, or related disciplines.

Today, AIBL has student chapters throughout the United States, and the chapters fall into three categories: High School, Tribal Colleges, and Universities.  Each of the chapters has a least one faculty advisor. Faculty advisors and student members can go to the AIBL website (www.aibl.org)  and click on chapters to find all the resources necessary to organize and run chapter meetings.  Each year the primary focus for the student chapters is the Annual Leadership Conference. This year our annual Leadership Conference will be April 26-28 at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler, Arizona (more details on the conference can be found on the AIBL website).

The Leadership Conference has students going to learning sessions in career development, personal development, networking, etc. Many of the corporate sponsors will be attending the conference and will be available to discuss both internships and career opportunities. We also have many sponsors interested in our AIBL students, representing well-known Indian owned businesses who have both internships and career opportunities for students. Students participate in competitions such as Business Plans and Chapter of the Year. Members of the National Board of Directors are located across the U.S. and come from industry and education. They are dedicated to the mission and vision of AIBL and will all be available at the annual Leadership Conference.

Students participate in the general session of the 2017 American Indian Business Leaders annual conference.Finally, go the AIBL website and click on conferences. You will see the students involved in all of the activities available to them engaged in life-changing experiences. You will also see the remarkable speakers that come to present at the AIBL conference. A large part of the AIBL experience throughout the academic year is the fundraising students do to pay their way to the conference, as well as preparing to do very well individually and as a chapter in the competitive events. Each year we ask a few of our AIBL alumni to come back to the Leadership Conference and share with the students what impact AIBL has had on their lives. This is always a very powerful experience for our current AIBL students!

If you have any questions, please contact AIBL Executive Director Prairie Bighorn at prairie.bighorn@aibl.org.

 

What is an ‘Indian Giver?’

Do you remember during your childhood when someone gave you something but then took it back? The person might have been called an “Indian giver.”

Horses in a field with sunsetThe term was always hurtful for me because I knew firsthand the generosity of American Indian people. At our ceremonies, it has always been a custom to have what we call “giveaways,” a tradition of honoring and respecting others by the giving of gifts ranging from blankets to horses.  Leaders were chosen in our society by how much they gave away to the people, not by how much they owned. It is a high honor to share with others.

The term “Indian giver” originated in the pre-Colonial land transactions involving the entrepreneurial Dutch and Indian landowners. The Dutch had learned to manufacture wampum — small shells used as currency and jewelry among Indian tribes — that was used for land trades. The land was then broken up and the titles were later sold in Europe to future settlers.

Native American wampum money artUpon arrival, the new settlers found Indians unwilling to honor the contracts because they believed that the transactions were only valid with the person involved in the original purchase. They were trying to do the honorable thing.

It was from these confusing first transactions that Europeans came to believe that Indians could not be trusted and therefore forced them from their lands. The Indians were merely trying to maintain the integrity of the original transaction. Hence the term “Indian giver.”

I have never known of an Indian person to give someone a gift and then take it back. All my life I have only seen generosity from people who had very little in the way of material possessions.

Indians gave the ultimate gift to Europeans: their land, which holds vast natural resources that include oil, coal, timber, minerals, water rights and rich farmland. Yet today, American Indians are some of the poorest people in America.

Native American Heritage month logoNational philanthropic support for American Indians falls far short of what is needed. American Indians languish in some of the most remote, untenable areas in the country, where poverty and despair are common. Less than 1 percent of all charitable giving goes to support Indian causes.

The term “Indian giver” is a misnomer. In our community, giving is a way of life … and always will be.

What are your plans to give this year? Natural disasters have decimated entire islands like Puerto Rico and the need to help has never been greater. Pick a good sound organization and give and then give some more.

Richard B. Williams (Oglala Lakota/Northern Cheyenne) is a passionate and committed advocate and fierce champion of Native education in the United States. From 1997-2012, he served as president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, a national non-profit scholarship fundraising organization for American Indian students attending tribal colleges and universities which provide culturally based education and are run by the tribes. He presently serves as Indigenous Peoples Programs Consultant for the Johnson Scholarship Foundation.