Many of us who work in the field of international education are preoccupied with intercultural understanding. Our conferences and publications are constantly asking how we can help students who study abroad learn about the cultures of the countries they are visiting, or how we can help exchange students learn about the plurality of American cultures during a semester or two on a U.S. college campus.
But some groups of people face cultural questions on an entirely different level. Native Americans have had to confront the very stark question of cultural survival, of how to avoid the extinctions of their many diverse cultures. This weekend's 19th Annual Great American Indian Exposition and Pow-Wow showed how some Native groups are preserving their cultures for their own people, and how they are teaching the dominant North American cultures to appreciate and respect them.
This year's event, held at the Showplace Exhibition Center in Mechanicsville, Va., featured Native music and dance, Native foods, crafts and craft materials, and books on Native history and culture. Pow-Wows are some of the only opportunities that many non-Native Americans have to see celebrations of Native cultures.
The Pow-Wow had a celebrity this year. Irene Bedard, an Alaskan Native who has starred in many Native-themed films, was in attendance to talk about her work and to perform music. She got her first major film role in 1994 with "Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee," and has gone on to star in many other films, including "Smoke Signals," inspired by stories by prominent Native writer Sherman Alexie. She's currently working on six or seven movies, and the band that she has formed with her husband — Irene Bedard and Deni — has just released a fourth CD called "Ravenboy."
Bedard's acting has done a great deal to preserve the cultures of the first peoples of the Americas by telling Native stories from a Native point of view. She said it was only during the early 1990s, around the time she began acting, when it became common for Native actors to be cast in Native roles that were not stereotyped. The characters she plays are realistic Native women living in a variety of times and places, and although they are strong and beautiful, they are never perfect. They are resourceful and resilient in the face of very serious challenges to their survival as people and as groups of people, but they are also fully human.
When I asked her how she felt about playing Native characters from the southwest cultural region or the great plains, when she herself is from Alaska, she said she felt that the different nations had developed a shared kinship in response to adversity, and that a very powerful shared history united them despite the cultural variation that differentiated them. She said she had never been criticized for playing a Native person of a heritage different from her own. She said she felt the tendency of the U.S. government (the Bureau of Indian Affairs in particular) to ignorantly or indifferently bunch all the different groups together, had showed the people of all the Native nations that they shared common concerns.
She also said she thought the sense of kinship among Native Americans had been strengthened even more by the direct attempts that had been made to destroy Native ways of life, such as the residential school programs that took thousands of Native children to boarding schools hundreds of miles from their home communities and forbade them from speaking their own languages or practicing their own religions. Most of these schools closed in the 1980s and 1990s, but a few are still in operation.
Though her first language is Inupiaq, Bedard has a beautiful speaking voice in English, which has led to her being invited to narrate numerous documentaries on Native history and culture. For some of her roles, she has had to deliver her lines in the languages of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Navajo peoples, and so has worked with linguists and historians from many Native American nations.
Bedard said she thought the most important thing that could be done to preserve Native American cultures was the teaching of Native languages, and not just the words, but also the way the words fit into the worldview that had generated the words. She was pleased to see that many tribal governments and cultural organizations throughout North America were attaching more importance to the teaching of tribal languages, but she said she would like to see a greater emphasis on teaching Native languages to very young children through toys and animation. Why couldn't Dora or Elmo speak in the languages of the Cree or the Hopi?
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