History Matters

11 Important Lessons About the Native American Experience

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Image: Jaime Handley on Unsplash

I moderate a quarterly webinar called “In the Valley: Strengthening the Team.” The webinars showcase our employees, highlight the diversity of our team, and foster inclusiveness in the Mississippi Valley Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Our most recent episode was titled “The Native American Experience” featuring three Native American Corps of Engineers employees. They represent the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska, and the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

This was one of the most rewarding discussions I’ve facilitated. I gleaned 11 key lessons through preparing for and conducting the webinar:

  • Our panelists truly treasure their Native history, practices, and traditions. They appreciate the opportunity to share their stories.
  • There are 576 federally-recognized tribes in the United States. There is significant diversity between each tribe’s culture, traditions and language. Relationships vary between the tribes, individual states, and the U.S. government.
  • There are more than 300 tribal lands in the United States.
  • All Native Americans were granted citizenship by the U.S. government in 1924 under the Indian Citizenship Act.
  • Utah was the last U.S. state to guarantee Native Americans the right to vote (1962).
  • American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978. Before then, Native American religions and spiritual ceremonies were prohibited.
  • Native American culture emphasizes connection to the land and nature.
  • The US government established more than 350 boarding schools intended to accelerate the assimilation of Native Americans into mainstream American culture. Children were stripped of all Native practices including the use of their languages. Many children were abused. Many children perished while in the custody of these schools.¹ (One of our panelists, Mark Gilfillan, serves as a U.S. Army liaison with tribes and families in the return of Native children buried on the grounds of the old Carlisle Indian Industrial School.)
  • There are numerous examples of betrayal and tragedy inflicted on the Native American population. To heal and restore trust, it will be important to listen, understand, empathize, and engage with these communities in positive ways.
  • Native Americans have a proud history of serving in the U.S. military. Twelve thousand served in World War I. Forty-four thousand served in World War II (more than 10% of the total Native population at the time). They have served in large numbers in every combat operation since. The National Native American Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. will be dedicated on Veterans Day, 2022.²
  • The story of Native Americans is far from over. They seek to restore their lands, sovereignty, traditions, language, and identity. Their proud stories continue.

There are many ways to learn about the Native American experience. In preparation for this discussion, I read Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life, by David Treuer. The panelists also recommended the following resources:

  • Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians but Were Afraid to Ask, by Anton Treuer
  • Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, by Wilma Mankiller
  • Books by Louise Erdrich
  • Books by Vine Deloria Jr
  • The National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.
  • “Tribal Nations: The Story of Federal Indian Law.” YouTube video
  • Films and videos produced by Vision Maker Media, many of which are on YouTube

I learned more about the Native American experience in the two months preparing for and facilitating this webinar than I have learned at any other time in my life. I’m grateful to be a more informed and empathetic citizen and leader.

Footnotes:

  1. After our webinar, the U.S. Department of the Interior published its first investigative report on Indian Boarding Schools, which provided more information on the schools and reinforced our panelists’ accounts. The citation is included here for reference. “Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report,” May 2022. https://www.bia.gov/sites/default/files/dup/inline-files/bsi_investigative_report_may_2022_508.pdf
  2. Dennis Zotigh, “Native Americans Have Always Answered the Call to Serve: National VFW Day 2020,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 29, 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/blogs/national-museum-american-indian/2020/09/29/national-vfw-day/.

Learn more about me on LinkedIn or in my About Me story on Medium.

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[The views and opinions presented herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the DoD or the U.S. Army. Appearance of or reference to any commercial products or services does not constitute DoD or Army endorsement of those products or services. I am an active duty military officer and do not participate in Medium’s paid program. All of my content is free.]

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US Army officer sharing experiences from three decades of military service. Connect with me here or at https://www.linkedin.com/in/dianamholland

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Diana Holland

Diana Holland

US Army officer sharing experiences from three decades of military service. Connect with me here or at https://www.linkedin.com/in/dianamholland

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