“Up until a couple of years ago I honestly did not know that there were any Indians left in Michigan,” Jim Sumbler, producer and director for University Broadcast Services, said. “I had heard that there were still some in the Southwest somewhere, maybe some Navajos, maybe some Apaches, I’d heard those names, but I had no inkling that there were any left in Michigan.”
Sumbler’s misconceptions of Native Americans are not uncommon. Many people do not realize just how many Native Americans there are in Michigan. In fact there are 11 recognized Native American tribes in Michigan, a state whose history is so intertwined with Native Americans that its name came from the Algonquian word for “big lake.”
The Lansing area is no exception. Today there is a strong Native American community in and around Lansing. The Great Lakes area is home to the “Three Fires” tribal group, which is comprised of the Chippewa (Ojibwa), Ottawa (Odawa) and Potawatomi. But, due to the diverse nature of MSU’s student body, there are also Lumbi, Navajo and Choctaw members in the area as well. Despite the great diversity of Natives on MSU’s campus the culture of these people is for the most part misunderstood or not explored at all.
One of the most common images of Native Americans comes from the simplistic Thanksgiving image taught in grade school classrooms. There were some starving pilgrims, some helpful Indians who wore big headdresses and war paint and a big turkey involved that we got to draw by tracing our hand and giving it legs. But for many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is not a monumental holiday because the idea of being thankful is part of everyday life. “Everyday is a day of thanksgiving,” Pat Dyer-Deckrow, a faculty advisor in Native American Indian Student Organization (NAISO) and a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, said. “We thank the creator for everything we are given and for what we take from the land.” [birchbark]
Aaron Payment, a member of the Native American community at MSU and of the Sault Saint Marie tribe, sees the idea of being thankful as an exemplification of Native American culture. “Thanksgiving is a symbol of the welcoming nature of the Indian people,” Payment said. “The pilgrims were starving, so we shared our food and taught them how to plant their own.” To really understand Thanksgiving we have to get past the superficial celebration that public schools reduce to wearing feather headdresses and eating turkey to see the important cultural elements of openness and giving, Payment said.
Though many college students realize that the stereotypes perpetuated in the grade school image of Thanksgiving image are inaccurate, what many people do not realize is that it is just one of many contrived notions about Native Americans that many people buy into.
Sumbler, an adopted member of the Ojibwa tribe and a faculty adviser for NAISO, admits that there some general misconceptions about Native Americans that even he held when first getting involved with the Native American community. “The biggest assumptions [some people make] would be similar to the mistakes I made in trying to figure out where did all the Indians go? You know, questions like ‘Do you live in a teepee?’ and ‘Do you ride a horse?'”
These seem like silly questions to Sumbler. “The answer [from most Native American students] is generally ‘Yes I ride a horse; I have an ’84 mustang and yes I live in a teepee, it’s a great huge teepee; it’s so big that it has a name. It’s called Hubbard Hall.’ ” [Pat]
The assumptions people make about Dillon Lappe, the academic assembly chair for NAISO and a member of the Lumbi tribe, have more of a modern stereotypical twist to them. “People assume I’m a rampant environmentalist,” Lappe said. “And the casinos; people assume that I can get them into casinos or that I know someone who owns a casino.”
Journalism junior Melissa Beard, a member of the Sault Saint Marie Chippewa tribe, is bothered by the stereotypical belief that Native Americans always receive government handouts. “They do have the Michigan tuition waver, but you have to be 25 percent Native American to get it,” Beard said. “The government says that I’m only 24 percent even though my grandmother was a full blood Native American. Government tuition assistance is not easy to get.”
Another misconception about Native Americans is that they all live on reservations. But this is not the case. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, about one third of Native Americans live on reservations. The majority of Native Americans now live in urban neighborhoods.
Preserving Native American Values
Once people get past the misconceptions they have of Native Americans they will discover that there is a whole unheard of culture underneath, full of its own unique values and way of life. For Native American students who follow traditional native spiritual practices, even walking outside on campus can be fulfilling and inspiring.
Beard, who is the public relations chair for NAISO, believes that being Native American has given her a heightened spirituality and sense of the earth. “I definitely think that there is a different sense of the environment, of the earth [amongst the native community],” Beard said. She said that feels a connection with her late grandmother when she smells her grandmother’s favorite flower. “I just know that there are some days when I am walking, and ever since my grandmother died, I will smell lilacs out of nowhere, yet there are no lilacs around me. I really believe that once you die you become part of the earth again,” Beard said.
Beard’s connectedness with her grandmother is not unusual in Native American culture. Unlike American’s focus on youth, Native Americans revere their elders. “Today’s American culture is all about youth,” Dyer-Deckrow said. Dyer-Deckrow believes that society is wrapped up in the materialism of beauty defined as youth. “In Native American culture we honor our elders,” Dyer-Deckrow said.
This respect for elders coupled with a heightened sense of community creates a tight social network for many native students.
“For a lot of native families, what they do is travel around and go to Pow-wows. It is a sort of bringing together of people…It is a big social event for people who are otherwise separated. It is just like a big community event where people can get together and celebrate shared experiences,” Lappe said. Pow-wows are traditional Native American events where Native American’s and non-Native American’s come together to dance, sing, and celebrate Native American culture.
The transition to university life can also be hard for students who come from reservations or have a strong tie to their native tribe. Sumbler, who has worked with many Native American students over the years, said that the sense of community that exists among Native Americans helps people cope with moving away from home. “Being away from that built-in support group is, I know, difficult for many native students,” Sumbler said. “That is one reason that we have NAISO.” NAISO is an MSU program that helps Native American students make the transition to university life.
The Generation Gap
Like many college students, Native Americans are still trying to fully understand their cultural identity. But the increased homogenization of American culture and interracial marrying of Native Americans make it difficult for many Native American students to distinguish their culture and identity from any other.
Dyer-Deckrow said this is of big concern for the Native American community. “My concerns with the upcoming generations are do they really know where they come from, who they are?” [Lappe2]
Some think moving to college is a threat to Native Americans’ shared culture. They fear that the younger generation of Native Americans will go off to school and leave their culture and values by the wayside. “We want our youth to be educated, but we always worry that they will never come home, or that they will distance themselves from their native culture,” Dyer-Deckrow said.
The tribal separation wrought by the dispersal of Native Americans away from reservations is also causing a cultural gap to develop. “I’m used to growing up in an area where I was more or less the only Native American in my high school, so I have always identified with the Native community,” said Lappe. “[However,] I’ve always felt an awkward separation [from my culture] growing up in metro Detroit; it is not really a cultural environment.”
Beard agreed and said, “There are still a lot of things that I don’t know about my culture.”
Bridging the Gap
This is where NAISO comes in. The goal of NAISO “is to promote education about Native American culture and heritage for both native and non-native students,” Beard said. NAISO meetings themselves are a unique blend of Native American students, non-native students, and MSU community members who are interested in learning more about Native American culture.
It also creates a social network for Native students still adjusting to life at MSU. “NAISO is a great way to meet people who have gone through similar experiences, and understand the challenges that come with [being a Native student],” Lappe said. “But it is also good to learn about other people’s culture.” Lappe, being a member of a tribe outside of the Three Fires tribes, or Great Lakes tribal region, has greatly enjoyed learning about different Native American tribes. 
NAISO promotes education about Native culture any way it can. It has a great resource in the Nokomis Learning Center, a non-profit Native American cultural learning center near Lansing, where Native and non-native students can go and learn about the Anishinaabeg, or “the people,” as the Three Fire tribes refer to themselves. The group also holds bi-weekly meetings with guest speakers who teach students about different aspects of native culture, such as birchbark biting, a Native American art form.
NAISO, in an attempt to break down the misconceptions of Native Americans and to create cultural understanding, openly encourages all students, regardless of their cultural heritage, to come and learn about Native American culture. “It is important that non-native students come and learn more about Native Americans and share it with others,” Dyer-Deckrow said. “Students didn’t learn about Native Americans in high school, and they will miss out on part of their college education if they don’t learn about the diverse cultures in the world today.” [native2]
The Next Generation
When it comes to dispelling stereotypes and misconceptions and producing a more well-informed and culturally sensitive society, the younger generation may have the key to change. NAISO has made great strides toward cultural education, but the rest of the MSU community has to meet them half way. It would be a shame for the culture of the original inhabitants of this land to be lost in the annals of history. But the growing interest in Native American history and the participation of native and non-native students alike shows that this culture is being saved from extinction.
Editor’s Note: In addition to being NAISO’s public relations chair, Melissa Beard is part of The Big Green’s writing team.