The semester is coming to a close and for our final assignment we were asked to reflect on what we have learned and gained throughout this class. Before entering this class, I had always been interested in Native American cultures. Maybe it was because I was exposed to a little bit of the culture while living in New Mexico, or maybe it was because their lifestyle seemed so vastly different from anything I had ever experienced. Either way, although I had not had much of an opportunity to explore their cultures, I wanted to. I remember one of my first experiences talking about Native Americans outside of childhood movies like Pocahontas was when I was on a high school trip to Fairbanks, Alaska. My professor, classmates, and I took a seven hour car ride up to the Arctic Circle, a trek that seemed daunting when we first began, but I was soon enthralled by the stories that our tour guide told during the journey there. He was extremely knowledgeable about everything: the climate, the animals, the history, and especially the Inuit population. He said he was close friends with several Inuits and described his encounters with them. I found his stories very entertaining and enjoyed hearing about him eating blubber because he had attended one of their dinners as a guest and therefore received what they considered to be the best part of the animal or about them riding on the Yukon River when it was frozen solid on snow mobiles. He said they would even bet each year on the day that the ice would finally crack and begin to melt. I think this trip was when my interest in Native Americans began to develop beyond what I had experienced as a kid.
Upon entering this class, I thought that I would be learning a lot about the cultures and lifestyles of Native Americans, which on some level was true. I did learn about several major tribes from different regions of North America, including their historical ways of life up until the modern day. We looked at gender roles, religion, warfare, and compared these cultural aspects between different tribes. However, I also learned about the many struggles that these groups of people faced that most other classes had merely touched on. I read about the numerous methods that Europeans and later Americans used to force Native Americans to change depending on how they were viewed. As bloodthirsty savages, they were a race of people who needed to be eliminated through violence; as ignorant natives, they were a group of people who needed to be shown the correct way of living; and as a supposed dying race, their culture needed to be preserved for future generations. As such, how Native Americans were treated depended largely on the moods and viewpoints of the era in which they were living. Different administration employed different policies and methods of “dealing” with the “Indian problem.” As a result, the United States government often went back on what they had previously promised, depending on what benefited them most at the time. Overall, this class was able to take the historical Native Americans that I often imagined and place them in a more modern context while also showing the hardships and injustices that they faced to get here.
In doing to, this class also explored another dimension of Native American life that I had not anticipated. By looking at the past, I was able to see many of the causes for problems that Native Americans face today. Most of these issues are ones that I had not previously considered, such as federal recognition, poverty, citizenship, and cultural identity. It showed the struggle for civil rights that Native Americans continue to face in this modern time. I think this aspect of the class is what shocked me the most. After learning about the African American struggle to gain civil rights, I suppose I had assumed that the fight had allowed all other groups to gain these same rights even though I know the result is still not perfect. I never would have expected that just a few decades ago children were being forced from their homes and shipped across the country to receive a “proper” education or that the government could force people off of their lands, make them walk hundreds of miles, and dump them in the desert with few provisions or ways of making a living. I had always assumed that these were issues that would have already been resolved given our “modern and civilized” country, but I guess I was just naive in believing that we had actually come that far in terms of civil and human rights. To add insult to injury, this history and modern issues are not even taught to the majority of the United States. For me, this class was really eye-opening regarding what our government has done in the past and continues to do as well as how culture impacts the ways in which people view the world. I also feel like I have a new appreciation for the strength and resilience that Native Americans have exhibited even against such horrible odds.
In terms of the future, I hope that I will use what I have learned in this class to educate others about these important issues. Additionally, I want to become more aware of the news regarding Native American tribes and the problems that they are facing. Finally, I think I will try harder to be more culturally sensitive in the future and to recognize the diversity of culture that exists between Native American tribes. I hope this is a topic that I can pursue further during my education and that will always hold an important place in my life.