Courtesy Dana Sitzler/U-M
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Video: What Is An Indian? Immersion Course Challenges Students to Learn About Native Culture

University of Michigan News

What is an Indian? Students in the Archives and Oral Histories course at the University of Michigan thought this must be a loaded question when they were asked to write an essay on it the first time.

Surely Indian isn’t the right word, several wrote, as they had been taught growing up that the politically correct term is Native American. A couple of students said it was the name for people of India, and they blamed Christopher Columbus for the confusion because he used it to describe the native people he found when he thought he had landed in the east.

Others admitted they didn’t really know. A “foggy fairy tale,” one suggested. For others, the name evoked images from popular culture—cowboys and Indians, war paint and feathered headdresses, the Natives in the story “Peter Pan,” and the controversial Pocahontas, portrayed in an animated movie released around the time the students were born.

Nearly all were sure they never had encountered an Indian in their lives.

“Their first writings were academic. You could tell they were well researched,” said Cecil E. Pavlat Sr., Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Tribe community member and retired leader, who with others from the Upper Peninsula tribe helped U-M faculty create an immersive experience for the students.

The hope was that giving them somewhat unprecedented access to Anishinaabe rituals, customs and celebrations would help students answer the Indian question a little differently in two writings that would follow (Anishinaabe refers to the Ojibwe, Odawa, Chippewa and Potawatomi people of Canada and the United States).

Immersion and Engagement

“This course is very engaged learning,” said Anita Gonzalez, U-M professor of theatre and drama. “I think it’s one of the best ways to work with students in terms of helping them understand how their studies can interface with the rest of their lives.”

The idea for a course that would allow students to learn about the Anishinabek living in Michigan came to Gonzalez after she went on the annual U-M Road Scholars tour.

Organized by the Office of the Vice President for Government Relations, the trip takes faculty on a five-day tour throughout Michigan in spring to expose them to the state’s economy, government and politics, culture, educational systems, health and social issues, history and geography.

Gonzalez approached Road Scholars organizer Dana Sitzler, associate director of state outreach, about co-writing a Third Century Initiative grant to offer a course that would strengthen that connection. U-M has committed $25 million to teaching projects that transform the way students learn.

Sitzler knew the only way the project could work was if tribal leaders were on board, so she took the idea to Pavlat and Jacqueline Minton. Minton, cultural buildings coordinator for the tribe, manages the Mary Murray Cultural Camp on Sugar Island, across from Sault Ste. Marie. She regularly organizes events to help students in the tribe better understand their culture. Pavlat and Minton were happy to participate in a project that would increase understanding about Native people living in Michigan.

The team arranged meetings in Ann Arbor and on Sugar Island, culminating in a four-day immersive experience that allowed students to learn a number of traditions firsthand, including corn teachings, a sweat lodge, sunrise services and storytelling.

The first part of the course immersed students in the culture of Native Americans and the second part asked them to take what they learned and turn it into a performance piece.

Revisiting the question: What Is an Indian?

By the end of the weekend during moments of reflection and in essay No. 3, the answers came into focus.

During a final talking circle, Zach Kolodziej, a student of art and design, called the Sault tribe a “living, breathing culture” whose members have “strong teaching and traditions but are open to change.”

Samuel Hamashima, a musical theatre student, noted the attitude among the people that “every day is a gift.”

Indians are “resilient, graceful, loving,” one student wrote in the essay. Others remarked on the Native people’s sense of spirituality and belief in honoring the past.

One student essay described them as living lives “steeped in weighty traditions,” while claiming “the American struggle,” of having to make a living and deal with the same issues encountered by people outside of their tribes.

And that question about how PC the term Indian is finally was resolved. Several wrote that Pavlat told them it’s all about the intent of the user—as simple as that.

Read more about the experience.

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