On an unusually warm and sunny day for mid-November, I stood outside on campus, stack of surveys in hand.
“How much do you know about Native Americans?” was the title of my questionnaire, with nine questions varying between past and present issues. Arming myself with a wide smile and my best attempt at an engaging demeanor, I wandered through a crowd of students in search of answers. Purposefully, I chose a broad variety of students as far as ethnicity and personality were concerned, chasing down the quintessential OSU T-shirt and jeans, and pierced and tattooed students as well.
I could sit here and tell you what the 50 people who filled out the surveys answered wrong or right, but these answers were not nearly as striking as the verbal responses I received. Students are, in many ways, the people in closest contact with the heartbeat of diversity and knowledge. Yet as I told them the reason for the survey, to access awareness of American-Indian issues, I was inundated with a flurry of responses before respondents even glanced at the questions.
“I don’t know anything.” “I’m not going to get anything right.” Or, “I know I should know more, but I don’t.”
What was so compelling was not that everyone I talked to that day did or did not know the answers to my questions, but that there was an almost universal admittance of lack of knowledge. In such a cognitive landscape of scarcity, is it any wonder that misinformation and misconceptions abound?
“So what?” some might say, “What does awareness of Native American issues do for me, or for anyone else for that matter?” Much more than you might think.
Why does it help us to be aware of Native American issues? Two reasons. One, for the same reasons remembering any other atrocity that humans inflict upon one another is essential. To sweep the past under the rug, to minimize or rationalize the depths of human selfishness and ignorance, does a disservice to all.
You can learn your whole life through teachings and triumph, but it is from our mistakes that the most important and lasting knowledge is gained. Our mistakes tear away the veil of false ego and show us who we really are, enabling us to learn with humility.
Yet, as important as the past is, the present is at hand. Why should we be aware of America’s indigenous populations? Because they are still here. At this very moment, some disservice, some ignorant action, is being perpetrated on native communities through corrupt government laws established by an uninformed and unknowing majority.
The wrongs committed against the indigenous people of America do not end with our history books. They continue even today.
Despite all this, hope remains. We as people in a democratic and capitalist nation tend to forget that it is actually the citizens and consumers who hold the power. They need us, our votes and our money. Withholding either on a large enough scale is a way for people to have their voices heard. Support only those politicians that work toward collaborative efforts with tribal communities. Boycott those companies who wreak havoc on Native lands, and contribute instead to those that work toward the revitalization of Native communities.
In this way, we can demand the changing of policies and inequity. On a small scale, there is always something to do, whether it is writing a congressman or attending a Native American cultural event. Every step toward understanding is necessary, the modest as well as the mighty.
So if you too find yourself saying, “I know I should know more, but I don’t,” then don’t let it end there. We can ignore the trepidation of stepping outside of the familiar and challenge ourselves by expanding our understanding of culture and social issues. There is more to being a human being than hiding beneath habit and convention. It is through broadening our view of the horizon that we can begin to see truth emerge from fiction, and we begin to live a more genuine existence.
Dawn Bartley, a fourth-year in social work, works at the OSU Multicultural Center and the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio (NAICCO).