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Invisible No More: Reflections During Native American Heritage Month

Sherry Salway Black is Board Vice Chair of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. She is wearing a black blazer and has short silver hair.

This article was written by Sherry Salway Black (Oglala Lakota), Board Vice Chair at Johnson Scholarship Foundation.

It’s that time of year again when we celebrate Native American Heritage Month. Officially designated in 1990 by President H.W. Bush, the acknowledgments and activities today have expanded beyond the grade school stereotype that “Indians and Pilgrims celebrate Thanksgiving.”

Much has changed over the 40+ years I’ve worked for and with Native people, communities and organizations. Now stories about Native Americans, I’m happy to say, are told all year long and mostly by Native people themselves—which has not always been the case. This November, the stories are more numerous, mainstream and educational than simply the “First Thanksgiving.”

Native people have made inroads into areas where we have not been historically. This includes the three branches of the federal government—legislative, executive and judicial.  There are five members of the House of Representatives who are Native. There had been six, but Deb Haaland, formerly a representative from New Mexico, was appointed Secretary of the Interior in 2020. She is one of 52 Native people appointed by the Biden Administration in top leadership positions at various departments, boards, commissions, and in the White House. There are now five sitting federal judges who are Native, two of whom were more recently appointed by President Biden. And on November 15, 2023 the Senate confirmed a Native person to be a U.S. ambassador.

Native people now have more of a presence in pop culture and entertainment. There are popular television series such as “Reservation Dogs,” “Dark Winds” and “Rutherford Falls”—to name a few—that have Native actors, directors and producers. While not told from the Native perspective, the recently released Scorsese-directed movie, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” showcases an unknown part of the history of the Osage people, featuring powerful Native actors. Season 2 of the four-part PBS series, “Native America,” premiered in October. It is directed and produced by Native people with active input from the community and “reveals the beauty and power of today’s Indigenous world.”

There are amazing award-winning authors such as Pulitzer Prize winner, Louise Erdrich, or author Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose book “Braiding Sweetgrass” recently spent two and a half years on the New York Times bestseller list. I don’t want to go down this road too far, as I’ll never be able to note the countless Native people who are leading in new areas and benefitting their communities with positive stories—and role models.

We should also acknowledge the great strides that many tribal governments have made over the past few decades, building their economies, preserving their cultures and creating a better quality of life for their citizens. They are doing this by exercising their sovereignty in small and large ways. Tribal enterprises and Native-owned businesses have grown dramatically over the past decade providing employment, income and the opportunity to build wealth. The number of Native-led nonprofit organizations is growing, meeting needs and making inroads in development finance, arts and culture, philanthropy, activism, health delivery and education, to name a few.

Native people have taken on the challenge of changing the narrative about their people, breaking down the stereotypes. We are not a remnant of the past, but very much alive and thriving today. Out this month is a book to share our stories.Invisible No More: Voices from Native America” is a joint venture between First Nations Development Institute and Nonprofit Quarterly. I’m honored to be one of more than two dozen Native nonprofit leaders who contributed to this multi-year effort to elevate our stories and our voices.

“Invisible No More” includes lessons for philanthropy about the importance of including, engaging and supporting Indigenous peoples’ efforts. The Johnson Scholarship Foundation has been a leader in supporting education for Indigenous people for over 30 years, providing more than $30 million in scholarships and other grants to institutions across the United States and Canada. JSF chair and former CEO, Malcolm Macleod, recently released a new book, “The Practice of Philanthropy: A Guide for Foundation Boards and Staff,” which also shares lessons learned and strategies from his more than 30 years in philanthropy.

I wish every month of the year celebrated the Indigenous people of this land. The books, movies and Native people represented in more areas and actions, such as land acknowledgments, raise awareness that we are still here—not a historical artifact.

This important work continues.

For more information about the Johnson Scholarship Foundation’s work in funding programs for Indigenous Peoples, click here.

Online Learning and the Impact on Students – Will Some Students Get Left behind?

I believe that the pandemic created by the coronavirus is causing some significant learning issues at all levels of the education system. Early in my career I was the Director of an Upward Bound program that prepared American Indian students for college. During that time, I learned about students’ learning styles and modalities. I found that it was common for American Indian students to rely on kinesthetic learning as their preferred learning style. American Indian students also learned better in darkened environments and were equally strong as visual and auditory learners. Many students had photographic memories that were geographically based. The most effective strategy we utilized was informal peer teaching. Peer teaching worked because the students were able to communicate with each other more effectively at their level of comprehension. There are a multitude of factors that enhance peer teaching success, including language, cultural backgrounds, cultural norms, ability to interact and understand communicative instruction at various levels and many others. Perhaps we need to learn more about peer teaching strategies given our current crisis.

man holding a baseball batMany of the American Indian students were gifted athletes having exceptional eye-hand coordination. This probably was inherited from a day when they had to survive using a bow and arrow, atlatl or spears. Total geographic recall was absolutely necessary for survival in the environments that they lived in at the time. Back then getting lost would have been fatal in almost every instance. It was very important for us to know the cultural backgrounds of our students and the mode in which they learned best. One approach was not congruent to success given the varied backgrounds or our students. Our approaches to learning styles were individually focused to better help the students maximize their learning potential. Fast forward to today, where there is a considerable body of research that suggests that learning styles are questionable. I am not intimately involved in education as I was 20 years ago, thus my expertise on this matter may be somewhat dated. However, a compendium of research suggests online learning is less effective than face-to-face classroom experiences.

In those early years in Upward Bound the majority of our students were bilingual, speaking their Native language from birth and later learning English when they attended boarding schools. The primary methodology involved writing and reading following the western methodological theories and pedagogical practices which often times created learning challenges for many of the Native students. Many bilingual Native students overcame the educational challenges by creating their own internal cognitive processes and methods. Many of these students mastered both their world of learning and the educational challenges of Western pedagogical approaches. These students excelled in college because they were able to use multiple ways to process and evaluate information within their learning styles and modalities.

This was equally true for American Indian students who primarily followed their natural learning styles. Being able to learn using both methodologies enhanced their cognitive processing skills and generally created a student who was better prepared when they went on to college.

The reason that I have concerns is that almost every college has moved to online learning. This could hinder students who rely on alternative learning modalities, styles and differing world views to be successful in the classroom. Peer interaction is diminished in virtual interactions and the opportunity to socially interact while teaching and learning from each other hurts some students. As educators who have been thrust into a new learning/teaching reality, we must not lose sight of how we can best help our students.

girl at computer pc workplace home officeIt is clear that the coronavirus is not going away soon and it is imperative that we implement strategies and identify new resources to help students who need additional support during this period of time. One of the things that is helpful would be a review of strategies that were developed over the last decade to assist all students with disabilities. For example, the Center for Online Learning and Students with Disabilities has an excellent website with updated information and promising practices that will help our students achieve. If you are a teacher, it is important to be more interactive with your students. Teachers should be looking for behavioral changes, increased frustration and any other indication that the student is being distracted from learning. The website for the National Disability Rights Network is another resource for information to help guide your performance while working with our students with disabilities.

We have to continue to find ways to reach those students who are not learning and growing in this new reality. I know this first-hand as my little 2nd grade granddaughter is struggling and I know she is brilliant, no bias here. She is exactly the kind of student who could face challenges going forward. THINK!

American Indian Business Leaders Blaze a Trail to the Future with New Advisory Board

There’s an adage about having a direction that says, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

A couple years ago, the American Indian Business Leaders, with the assistance of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, spent some time examining where we wanted to go – and how to get there.

The American Indian Business Leaders was founded in 1994 with the mission of empowering Indigenous business students in the United States to foster economic improvement in Native American communities. We’ve grown from one chapter at the University of Montana at Missoula to 120 chapters at universities, tribal colleges, and high schools with more than 250 tribal nations represented. With 2019 marking our 25th anniversary, it was an appropriate time to evaluate where the next 25 years would take us.

Young man wearing Indigenous Entrepreneur shirt

Through about a year of analysis and planning with input from respected leaders throughout Indian Country, AIBL learned what programs were most successful, and also, which ones needed improvement. Specifically, we realized that we could only guess at how to prepare our students to participate in corporate America because we didn’t know what attributes corporate America needed.

We’re excited that in the future, AIBL will get those answers straight from the executives themselves. AIBL is building a new advisory board with representatives from many of America’s best known corporations. We expect to hold the first meeting in the first quarter of 2020.

We anticipate having 8-10 members on the advisory board, and I’m happy to share that it will include Sam McCracken, general manager for Nike N7, Nike’s product line that supports the N7 Fund to provide sport and physical activity programming to kids in Native American and Aboriginal communities. Longtime AIBL supporter Trina Finley Ponce, the diversity and inclusion program manager at HP, also has agreed to join the board along with Micah Highwalking, senior operations manager at Dr. Pepper.

Two men on stage in front of American Indigenous Business Leaders logo

In addition to advising us on corporate culture, the advisory board will help us cultivate relationships with corporate America that can benefit our students in numerous ways. We’ll be using them as a sounding board to learn what kinds of skills we should be helping our students develop. That feedback is important as we prepare our students to work in corporate America. We also know it’s important to hear from people in a diverse range of businesses as each business and industry has its own corporate culture.

We also anticipate that the advisory board will act as a bridge to greater diversity for corporations wanting to be inclusive of Native Americans and our culture.

We at AIBL are proud of our first 25 years supporting Indigenous business students. We look forward to a future with even greater opportunities.

Prairie Bighorn Blount is the executive director of American Indian Business Leaders (AIBL). She grew up on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in eastern Montana and is an enrolled member of the Fort Peck Sioux Tribe. Before joining the AIBL organization, she worked in Washington, D.C., providing contract management services to help support economic development within American Indian communities.

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.