'Knotheads' oppose new museum
Despite hundreds of years of broken treaties, relocation, and even genocide, the Native Americans will survive because they are able to adapt, a Potawotami tribal member told Buena Vista University students and staff.
Jeremy Finch, the cultural director of the Potawotami Nation in Shawnee, Okla., talked about the recent grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., Native American traditions, and present-day survival in a philosophy tea at the Woods House Thursday. Finch later lectured on Indian land rights issues at an ACES event in the Estelle Siebens Science Center.
Before speaking with students and staff at the Woods House, Finch asked whether anyone had any tobacco. It wasn't because Finch wanted a smoke, but because he wanted to appease the spirits who like tobacco as an offering. "These practices are seemingly eccentric," Finch admitted.
He used his request to make the point, though, that many practices in one culture may seem eccentric to another. When someone once asked him whether he could tell a myth, Finch said that he could, and began to relate how Eve was created from Adam's rib.
Finch's anecdote evoked laughter, but it was also a way of getting his audience to open up to a different perspective.
"The word myth is a very loaded word," Finch said. "The stories we tell are very constructive in nature and they are planks in the construction of our cosmology. Our stories are our stories. They are our history. They are real."
Though there are certain things with which all cultures agree, Finch said there differences among cultures.
"Within the physical realities there is a lot of room for interpretation," Finch said. For example, Finch said Potawotami culture does not see the west as where the sun goes away but the point from which night comes. Differences between cultures are most frequently seen in language, Finch said.
"It's a very long process," Finch said. "It defines people. It defines cultures. It is a framework for this different reality. Different realities make for different people."
To illustrate his moderate stance in Native American issues, Finch challenged criticism of the new National Museum of the American Indian by the American Indian Movement.
"These knotheads that are yapping about the National Museum of the American Indian are idiots," Finch said. He took a more philosophical view.
"The National Museum of the American Indian is a museum built by the American Indian," said Finch. Finch described how the windswept, pueblo-inspired museum is built of four kinds of stone, reflecting the natural environment of Native Americans. He said the museum offers "the cream of the crop of a 1-million item exhibit. It's very immediate. It's very real."
Finch said there may be a reason that some Native Americans believe the museum takes an exploitive, opportunistic approach. "We Indians folks are victims of our own public relations," Finch said.
He said many Indians view the presence of European culture in America as temporary.
"There are Indian people out there that are absolutely 100 percent convinced that we're going to get our land back," Finch said. Patience and adapting to their environment is how Native Americans will not only survive but thrive, Finch said. "The secret to survival is adaptation. That's at the core of the native experience. We're adaptable and thankfully so. We try to keep the things that help us, our respect for the world around us."
Finch challenged Western colonial stereotypes of Indians as uncivilized savages. "My nation has had organized religion, art, and social strategies for 2,000 years," Finch said.
Finch debunked a number of myths about Native Americans. One was the very term Native American which he said was invented by the U.S. Department of the Interior in the 1970s. Indian will do, he said.
Another myth Finch addressed was that Indians prefer to live in primitive ways.
"When Grandma discovered matches, she quit rubbing sticks together," Finch said. Similarly, even though many Native Americans have sweat lodges in their back yards, that does not mean they don't often have air conditioners.
One thing about Native Americans that is not a myth is their devout nature and care for each other.
"We cry with humility for guidance," Finch said. We are all related. We are related to the stones. We are related to the wood. We have a place in all that."
As for the native way of life, Finch said a major difference between Western and Native American thinking is that humans rule over other species. He noted the symbolism of the circle and its significance to Indian culture.
"There's no way to be on top in a circle," Finch said. "There's only a way to be a part... You've got to be yourself, because if you're not part of yourself, you're lost."
Finch offered a poignant yet fascinating tale of the relocation of the Potawotami, first from their native northern Maine where seven elders had the same vision of demons with hairy faces coming across the great water in huge canoes. "They can kill you without touching you," Finch related the legend.
His people followed the St. Lawrence river to the lower peninsula of Michigan where they encountered the French. Continually taking the losing side in wars between the French and British and later the British and Americans, the Potawotami were relocated by President Jackson on "the trail of death" to Kansas.
The tribe made a treaty to get lands allotted to them which they later sold in order to purchase 578,000 acres in central Oklahoma. The federal government took away the land they had bought, piece by piece, until the entire tribe was down to 2.5 acres.
However, Finch said the Potawotami are bounding back. They have used casino proceeds as seed money in a number of shrewd investments.
"We buy lawyers by the dozen," Finch said. "We still hunt but we hunt in the carpeted corridors of courtrooms now. It's still very real. We have a nation to defend."