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The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

NE professor speaks of struggle, journey to self-acceptance as Native American

By Matt Koper/ reporter

Simple gestures are often taken for granted. 

In the case of NE government professor Lisa Uhlir, who is one-quarter Ojibwa, a simple gesture was a defining moment in which she became proud of her heritage and accepted who she was.

This moment came when she was in a Home Depot in New Mexico with her mom and was seen by a worker who was also Native American, Uhlir said.

“He looked up and saw me from a distance, and it was like this moment of recognition where he looked at me and was like, ‘Oh, you’re one of us,’” she said. “And he accepted me as one of them without having communicated with me. It was really like this unusual thing.”

As unexplainable as the moment was, Uhlir said the experience had been “liberating.”

“At that moment, I felt like I found myself,” she said. “It was literally like a moment in time where I was accepted, ‘This is who you are.’ It was a great moment.”

Uhlir was born and reared in Alpena, located in northern Michigan. Before she had this defining moment, she said she often had a hard time accepting her heritage as a child, especially growing up in an area that lacked diversity.

“We [she and her parents] marked the box thinking eventually it would pay off when I went to college or whatever. It would be more helpful to me to be Native American,” she said. “But my teacher at school perceived me as being sort of … I needed help, I was a certain way, I couldn’t sit still. So they perceived me a certain way.”

Uhlir said when her family moved to Clearwater, Michigan, they marked a different box.

“My parents chose to mark the little box saying that I was white,” she said. “And at that point, my teachers never saw me as being difficult. They saw me as being creative, inspiring, wanting to help others. So it was just their perception of me because I hadn’t really changed.”

Uhlir said her mom told her she would give people a false story about who her dad was.

“During that same time when I was feeling this, I used to tell people I had two dads because I separated out the Native American dad from the other one,” she said. “I assigned all of the bad qualities to the one and the good qualities to the other.”

She said her parents at that point decided to keep her family away from the mistreatment that occurred because of their Native heritage.

“I think my parents made a conscious choice at that age, at 5 or 6, to distance themselves from that,” she said. “I think that’s what my grandmother also did, why she left the reservation just because of the discrimination, and she wanted a better life.”

Boarding schools, which were designed to indoctrinate Native Americans on Christian values and against their tribal histories, had an impact on her family growing up. But she didn’t understand this until she had researched the schools herself, giving her insight into her people’s struggle, Uhlir said.

“I didn’t recognize it as a child, and I didn’t understand why they were the way they were,” she said. “So, I think I was more affected directly by the alcoholism, abuse, those things and the depression. I think as an adult looking back, once I understood what happened to the Indian community, I understood them better, and I think I had more empathy for their experiences.”

That empathy and compassion is extended beyond Native Americans.

This is prevalent in the people she comes across, such as NE student Jack Burgess, a Circle of Nations member, who said Uhlir has a great presence about her.

“I literally don’t think there was a time where I have left her presence not feeling edified, uplifted or taught something new or valuable, whether it be intentional or unintentional,” he said.

NE academic advisor Marjeanna Burge said she really enjoys working with Uhlir.

“She’s very creative, thinks outside the box, very passionate about Native American culture, but also with her students,” she said. “She has a great relationship with her students.”

Uhlir said her heritage has taught her a lot about herself and will continue to do so as her knowledge of her culture expands.

“I think the thing about my Native American heritage is the more I learn about it, the more I understand myself,” she said. “The things that I do, why I am the way I am, the things that I perceive and believe and value, I think comes from that part of my family.”

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