Native American Heritage Month brings knowledge, dialogue and a new perspective to campus
News | Jon Westmark
Students were able to learn about the history of the Dakota and Ojibwe nations from the traveling exhibit "Why Treaties Matter," on display from Nov. 6-16 in the Brushaber Commons. | Erin Gallagher
In an address to the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference on Sept. 26, Richard Twiss addressed American Christians. “Frankly, most of you don’t give a rat’s petootie about Indian people,” he said. “I don’t blame you, you don’t have time for us.” His words issued a challenge to the Christian community to mobilize around the reconciliation process with Native American people.
November, Native American Heritage Month, provided an opportunity to continue the process of healing. On Nov. 13, a ceremony organized by the Lower Sioux Indian Community brought Minnesotans together to remember the forced march of the Dakota people across the state, which led to hundreds of Native American deaths 150 years ago. The Bethel community also took part in the discussion, bringing in reconciliation advocates Twiss and Jim Miller as well as the exhibit “Why Treaties Matter,” which documented the history of the Native Nation’s history of treaty-making with the U.S. government.
Bethel communications professor Scott Sochay served on two committees in organizing the events on campus. Sochay, a member of the Little Traverse Bay of Odawa Indians, and the sole Native American faculty member at Bethel, sees Heritage Month as more of an informational tool than a celebration of culture. “The purpose of the events [on campus] is to educate the Bethel community about the Native American experience,” he said. “What has [Native American] history been like and how does that interact with Christianity and faith?”
According to Sochay, building authentic relationships with Native Americans are the only way to bridge the gap in perception between Native and majority American culture. He cites surveys which indicate that 90 percent of people receive their information about Native Americans from the media and not person-to-person contact.
“Scholars say we’re stuck in history,” he said. "The media tends to show us back in the old western days shooting bows and arrows, wearing feathered headdresses and hunting buffalo. When most people think of a Native American they don’t think of a professor wearing a polo shirt and khakis.”
The door to Sochay’s office is filled with news articles, art and sketches of “what’s on the minds of people in Indian country” to help combat these stereotypes. According to him, this Native American Heritage Month was the most successful in his time at Bethel. “Students definitely were more engaged,” he said.
Tom Duke, an organizer for Healing Minnesota Stories, believes faith communities like Bethel “can play a key role in promoting and experiencing healing.” But for Sochay and Twiss, the benefits go both ways. According to Sochay, his Native American heritage has given him a community-oriented perspective in an Evangelical context that focuses primarily on the personal. Twiss also believes his cultural heritage offers insight into what it means to be Christian. To show this, he is building a sweat lodge on his property to experience with other Christians the “frailty of humanity and the goodness of God.”
For Twiss and Sochay, understanding the perspective of Christians from other contexts is a glimpse of heaven. “God’s going to pull people of every tribe and tongue and nation and culture together,” Sochay said. “It’s ultimately only when all things are summed up in Christ that we’re going to be rid of our petty squabbles and issues of culture, but until then God has created us to be diverse.”