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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 shines spotlight on Native American stereotype

By Rhiannon Saegert/reporter

Lisa Uhlir, NE government professor and Ojibwa Indian, shared stories Nov. 9 on NE Campus about her grandmother, her life in Michigan and the portrayals of Native Americans she’s observed in the media.

Native knowledge has been portrayed in the West, in movies and in books as if we’re these spiritual, mystical beings who think we talk to birds,” she said.

These stereotypes have some truth, but it has been misunderstood, Uhlir said. Generations of careful observation and moral responsibility to the environment, she said, have been mistaken for quaint mysticism.

One of the core concepts of most Indian knowledge is the concept of one’s “place,” which she said refers not to location, but to one’s unique perspective and the way it shapes reality.

“You have a role within that place, a responsibility within that place, within your experience and you within it,” she said. “Once you know how you fit in that community, you now have an ethical responsibility within that community. This is a profound metaphysical idea.”

This idea came in direct conflict with the Western tendency to analyze and manipulate an environment without fully understanding it.

“An Indian wouldn’t ask ‘Can I?’ but ‘Should I?’” Uhlir said. “We need to blend Western and native perceptions of knowledge in the future because Western science lacks an ethical system while native knowledge is based on moral interactions within a moral community.”

This philosophy of respect, observation, duty and understanding allowed native people to thrive in their environments, Uhlir said, through practical application of what ancestors had learned. Traditionally, she said, this information was passed along to new generations through stories.

“My grandmother always used stories to explain things to me, and I’m realizing now that that’s how I teach my classes,” she said. “When native peoples pass on their information, they pass on not just knowledge, but structure.”

She cited the story of The Three Sisters, a story still told to grade-school children around Thanksgiving, as an example.

The sisters in the story are actually squash, beans and corn, and the details in the story concisely explain the life cycles of each crop.

Native Americans’ strong sense of identity and responsibility to their community made their collective displacement and subjugation even more devastating, Uhlir said.

Years of knowledge were rendered useless to tribes forced across the country into completely foreign environments in which they did not know how to survive. This collective identity crisis still has side effects today, Uhlir said.

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