The University of Colorado renamed two dorms last week as a tribute to a pair of Arapaho chiefs. The dorms were named “Little Raven” and “Niwot,” instead of the traditional Arapaho spellings “Houusoo” and “Nowoo.”
“I think that the university should have consulted the Arapaho’s tribal council,” said digital art major Emerald Skye Byrd and a member of the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana.
Byrd said her own tribe’s spelling is an anglicized name as well. It’s spelled Coushatta, but when speaking in her tribe’s language, the name is “Koasati.”
The nameplates on the dorms were changed because they are easier to pronounce and recognize.
Byrd believes because the Alabama-Coushatta tribe of Texas was already recognized as “Coushatta,” the government used the name again for the Louisiana tribe. Once the tribe received federal recognition, Coushatta became the official name — one the tribe did not choose.
Byrd explained the people never voted on what the name should be for the tribe, but when speaking their language, they still say “Koasati.” This is altering history. By merging two distinct peoples’ cultures, ideas and history, a little bit of each is lost forever.
If someone were to say, “I have a dream,” most college students could identify this short phrase’s speaker and its place in history.
But few students can do the same with the surrender speech of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce: “Hear me, my chiefs: My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Both of these are landmark speeches that marked turning points for minorities in American history. However, time in classrooms is not equally divided to teach students the history of each minority.
Students certainly know about Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass, but their knowledge of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Geronimo is limited to nonexistent. Few know the tribes of these key historical figures, much less what they did how it defined their tribes.
The lack of proper history teaching in our schools is a major factor contributing to Native American marginalization. When do you recall studying the influential Native American leaders or the adversity they faced at the voting booth or in the education system?
“We now try to share the information with teachers so that they can be well informed,” Coushatta tribe elder Bertney Langley said. “We’re not sure if they simply don’t have the resources or if they just didn’t bother looking for them.”
Without adequate knowledge of Native American history, students are susceptible to perceiving stereotypes, misconceptions and false notions as truth. The vague comprehension of Native Americans that supposedly educated people have is bothersome.
Disney has always been there to teach proper morals. However, the animated children’s film Peter Pan includes a song titled, “What Made the Red Man Red.” Just as in every cowboy flick, the natives are hostile, wearing feathers and war paint. They even smoke a peace pipe.
From an early start, Americans are fed these ideas, and the topic is never properly taught to correct them.
“Many times, I am asked if I live in a teepee while my tribe is not a plains tribe,” Byrd said. “We lived in palmetto huts along southern North America.”
If you’re teaching American history, put the time and effort into respectfully educating others on the extraordinary people that were here first. There is a wide range of diversity among tribes today and in history that individualized each one.
By not acknowledging the distinctive culture of different tribes, Native American history is tainted. They are Navajo, Sioux and Cherokee people that have been robbed of their uniqueness in classrooms and conversations by being broadly categorized despite the vast differences.
“We are all different tribes but in the end, we are always called Indians,” Coushatta elder Langley explained.
Justin Stafford is a 21-year-old mass communication senior from Walker, Louisiana. You can reach him on Twitter @j_w_stafford.