the author of "indian voices." [applause] >> thank you very much, i'm gary johnson, president of the chicago history museum and with us today is our guest author, allison owenings. her latest book is "indian voices: listening to native americans." in her book, we meet a wide array of native people and we hear them discussing their own
lives. so, allison, please begin the conversation. >> thank you very much, gary. and thank you also for the chicago litfest. i'm really happy to be here. i think that i wrote this book initially because i was so appalled by the ignorance of nonnative people about native people including myself. and i, therefore, set out what i could to destereotype what i find is really a bad bob. it's been a bad problem for centuries and it continues today. and initially my idea was, well, i will just talk to a few native people and find out what they had about their own lives and the book became stronger, stronger, far-reaching and i ended up interviewing the indians of maybe mccain to the last chapters of a hawaiian
chanter. and my object at the time was to destereotype thinking it would be helpful because native americans, in my opinion, are still harmed by the stereotypes about them. and -- but on the other hand, the book also became a sort of -- an extended family reunion for native people who sometimes might live in one part of the country, like here in chicago and maybe not know about native people in another part of the country. so that was kind of a trick actually in the writing to write for people who knew nothing about native people and then to write for native people who already knew a lot, certainly, about themselves. >> well, you talk about different individuals. we want to hear from those individuals. why don't we start with someone who lives hero in chicago who works at chicago's american
indian center. >> okay. the reason i interviewed ansel is that in my early research -- and i say research loosely. i knew so little that i was just reading anything i could. i learned about three-quarters of native people live off-reservation. and -- including a group of people generally termed urban indians. and so that quest to talk to an urban indian led me to the chicago american indian center. and to this really wonderful guy, ansel, who is a cultural coordinator there. he's a volunteer there at this point. and i'm going to read you a little bit about what he said to some second graders that he was introducing to native culture because they didn't know anything about native people either. he says, once your teachers told you you were going to come to
the american indian center, how many of you expected to see an old man with long hair, probably braided, with a big head dress and saying how, kids? how many expected to see that? be truth until a few hands rose slowly. for those who raised their hands and the ones who haven't, are you disappointed in seeing me the way i am now? no child moved. the reason i ask is, twhoeshsz okay? we're ordinary people. we wear ordinary clothing. we are not the people you see in cartoons, you see on movies -- in movies, you see on tv or what you might read about or what people might say about us. we are not these people. indians, we go to school. we go to work. you might have met an indian teacher in your school. you might have an indian brine. you might know an indian cop, indian judge, indian lawyer. this is who we are. and that's who we want to be, okay? receiving enough nods to satisfy
him, he picked up a beat drum and stopped. and did the beat remind him of and a child raised his hand, a heartbeat. one place you hear drums is at a powwow. he asked those who is a powwow. he told everyone they had really good guesses and answered the question himself. it's a celebration where some of us indians, we sing and we dance. we also make new friends and renew old friendships. a powwow is made up of four circles. the very first circle you'll see at a powwow is a drum. it represents a heartbeat. the heartbeat of the powwow, the heartbeat of mother earth. also the heartbeat of other children which is all of us inside this room and outside of this room. without this heartbeat, there will be no powwow. >> so there, we are, right away. there's an individual who lives in this very city, who if you saw on the street, it may not occur to you that you're seeing a native american, but when you scratch the surface and talk to that individual, you learn about
his -- his own culture. so we're not in the world of either/or. this book is not about either/or. but with regard to ansel, dionne, let me ask you, about something else. my understanding is, one of the reasons why he wore ordinary clothing in the museum center setting was because certainly of individuals who came, who might have a secret. well, that's part of it. he never said -- and some of you might be a native child or an indian child, too. he never said that because he was the only native child in his high school. and he was discriminated against a lot. kids made fun of him. this is a story of many native people who live in a nonnative setting. so he tried very hard to not put any children on the spot in case they were indian and maybe wanted to come up to him
privately afterwards. and tell them, and that happened often, but he said also the reason he wore ordinary clothing was just to show that -- that this is how people dress. this is how native people dress, generally. they dress like everybody else. i made a joke in the book. i said they don't usually wear feathers, especially, not on casual frizz. [laughter] >> well, we're laughing now. and i have to say that one of the most striking points in the book is made beginning with the cover. when you look at the cover of "indian voices," you see a whole group of people with some of the biggest smiles you'll ever see. and it may not be a stereotype to think of native americans as laughing and smiling, but the fact is that humor is something that is shot right through almost every chapter of the
book. >> uh-huh. >> can i realize when i started this book how funny native people are. and how many jokes they make on themselves, on other people, and the whole string of jokes. including, for instance, what are the ten things you say when you meet a white person? [laughter] >> and the last one one is, may i touch your hair? [laughter] >> so they're very, very funny. ansel himself is pretty funny. i met him in november, which is native american awareness month and ansel refers to it as, rent an indian month. [laughter] >> and he calls himself a rented indian. >> who was it who referred to the definition of a native american family? >> oh, it's an old joke -- it's an old native joke, how many people are there in a typical
native american family. the answer is, five, a father, a mother, two children and an anthropologist. [laughter] >> so there's a lot of humor, a lot of it is unexpected but when you stand back and you ask, why am i surprised there's so much humor, the reason why someone who's not part of that culture might ask is, you don't think of it on the outside as a culture that has much to laugh about. we focus on the difficulties that native americans have. so is this humor in spite of those difficulties or is it woven into the culture itself? >> i think it's both. i think native americans are not the only people to have gallows humor about the situation. part of it is gallows humor. a part of it -- i could be way off here, but native americans are americans-americans, too. america in general, i think, is a humorous country often.
i mean, that's what people say -- that's the reputation of americans in other countries. that we're funny. so why wouldn't native americans be funny, too? but some are just hysterical. this one woman in yakima, she's so funny. i tell her a joke she's heard it. and i said have you lived on the reservation your whole life and she will say, not yet. [laughter] >> just a take off on other jokes but in generally, i found that native people laugh at each other, certainly at nonnative people and at some of these assumptions and sometimes they just get absolutely outraged at the rudeness of nonnative people towards them and they make that into a joke. for instance, i interviewed an osage woman, a lawyer, who's very sophisticated. she works in washington, d.c.. she has her own law firm there.
she goes home and she calls it oklahoma to the reservation. but she says sometimes people come up to her and they say, you don't look like a real indian. and her mother's nonnative. and she said, well, you don't look rude, but you are. [laughter] >> so there's lots and lots of comebacks. there was wonderful surprises in the 10 years to write this book that -- that i laughed so much. >> wait a minute, pause there. 10 years to write the book. >> yeah >> when you read the book, chapter to chapter, it has a freshness and a very contemporary feeling. it doesn't seem like the product of 10 years, but what were those 10 years like for you? >> well, i'm really slow. [laughter] >> that's part of the reason. and also i'm a freelance editor so i was also doing some work on the side to help fund this.
i'm a terrible fundraiser. i refer to myself as de facto nonprofit. [laughter] >> and -- but i also started from zero. i mean, i really knew very, very little. when i began this book i knew all the indian cliches. but i also knew these are human beings, individual human beings and i wanted to help destereotype them. but i knew so little, i really had to read and read and read. so i just read nonstop. i read a lot of tony hillerman. i read everything i could. and then i started doing the interviews and then finding the people to be interviewed was a whole process itself. virtually everybody was very willing, more willing than i
expected although it was a hard nut to crack to get under the -- some of the nations, the seneca in upstate new york, because one woman told me, we don't trust white journalists and they get everything wrong and my background is journalism. so it took me, i guess, four years that i'm an okay person and i made a lot of compromises along the way. but by then i knew a lot more, too. and i always tried to say more or less, i'm just an empathetic ear, you know, just say what you want. and i'll listen. and virtually everyone talked and talked and talked. and i have to say it was i ronn -- ironic is that they have a great oral history and to be in a way to the oral historian to some people was kind of strange. it was also -- i felt very honored that they would talk to
me. >> well, you mentioned the shawnee in new york. that struck me as a very interesting story of a tribe because this is a transcribe that's very -- you know, it's big east coast population centers, but they work very hard sort of staying off the grid when it comes to official involvement with the united states government and administration. maybe you'd like to tell us a little about that. >> sure. >> well, and i think it was 1934. there was an act essentially -- the federal government took over tribes to say this is how you can run your government and the idea was meant to be helpful but it wasn't in all cases. and it was including -- it included tribal chairmen and -- or chairwoman and to vote and to have a council so that literally when someone from washington said, take me to your leader, they said, okay, this is the leader.
and this is not necessarily how native people worked at all. they had different leaders for different functions and different tribal nations had different systems in place and they worked for them. but this is another overlay of the federal government saying, no, we want you to do technology way. this will be much better for you. and so many, many tribal nations did this. and some in fact tribe, which are called the ir -- irqois and they took up the tribal system and some didn't and the ones who didn't was the seneca of buffalo. they have nothing, whatever, to do with the united states government. they don't even use u.s. passports if possible. they use their own passports. they don't vote. they don't let census workers on their land.
this is where i did my interviews. they consider themselves a separate country. and one that predated this upstart in the united states of america and canada. so -- >> which is correct, of course. >> of course, yeah. >> and they are the same way and i think two or three others that are the same way. they are simply in their way self-supporting. and they don't take social security. now, if somebody needed food stamps, individually, some people do that. and some people on the reservation -- i think about half of them do go to churches and the others go to traditional longhouses. so this is their decision. and it's fascinating to me. they absolutely won't vote. they don't take any federal money for anything. they're just -- and they don't have a lot of money. these are the controversial people who sell cigarettes to get some money.
and i did notice that everyone in the -- all the leaders of the -- of the tribal reservation of them -- none of them smokes. but they do get their money from cigarettes. and they will fight for truth and nail to keep it because it's their only source of income. >> another surprising group, one i had never heard of in a way wants recognition. this is the lumbis of north carolina and they are reaching out in a different direction? >> uh-huh. they're so unknown to most people who are not in north carolina. there are an estimated 56,000 lumbi indians. and they have state recognition but they don't have federal recognition. and the reason they don't have federal recognition, they say, is 'cause the eastern band of cherokees in north carolina don't want them to because then they'll have to sort of split
the federal pie for funding. but they are -- they are thought to be the descendents of the lost colony of roanoke. and they're interesting because they're part -- part native, part anglo and part african-american. and you see sort of the strands in this group when you meet them. and they're very -- they're very christian. they don't have any native religion left 'cause that was lost along with their language so they're very enthusiastic southern baptists and methodists and they are trying to get recognition and they don't have it yet. and i live in california and almost no one i met have met lumbis. >> now, when we talk about tribes, there's a word that --
sort of the operative word for legal and other purposes, which is enrollment in tribes. >> uh-huh. >> that becomes sort of a choice. i don't enroll as a norwegian american who lives in chicago who also is this and also is that. i think st. patrick's day, the whole city enrolls as irish, but there's nothing formal about it, but here's this operative word that i think has some sort of legal significance. >> it does. and it varies tribe to tribe to tribe. i think it's almost impossible to say anything in general about native americans 'cause there's so many differences and so many tribal nations. there are 565 tribal nations, federally recognized tribal nations in this country now. and this excludes, of course, the lumbis. and every tribe basically gets
to say whether or not -- how they want to manage their own affairs and who can be enrolled in the tribe and who not. and the advantages of being enrolled often have to do with just basic rights like being able to collect firewood on reservation land. or sometimes it gets to be more financially important, especially, if a tribe has a casino and then people might get casino per capitas, income from the casinos. and then they can vote in tribal elections. but every tribe has its own -- every tribal nation, i should say, has its own dicontinuingtions. and it's also very controversial when people disenroll members. if there are questions about whether they should be or should not be in the tribe. and it's controversial across-the-board. it's controversial within the
tribes themselves. some native people are very upset that other tribes are disenrolling people. and this also oftentimes has to do with money. >> now, in terms of another stereotype, i think, americans as a whole understand that there are many native americans who live outside the reservation and i understand the word that's used in the community is usually the res, not the reservation, but if you do look at the people who live on the res, they are not 100% enrolled members of a particular tribe. there's more diversity there than people would expect? >> yeah, this is true. and i should -- i should say, gary, i never say res 'cause i'm nonnative. and i sort of think that's a native word to say, even though i say reservation because it has morselbles. it seems appropriate too me as an outsider.
>> i'll follow your lead. [laughter] >> but what happens sometimes, too, is that i didn't realize that so many nonnative people lived on reservations. and mostly non -- nonnative white people because they bought their property from the homestead act and other federal properties that basically decimated native lands or there could be today situations where a nonwhite person, a non -- i'm sorry, a nonnative person of any ethnic background matters a native person, and they live together and they have children and so you'll have a nonnative person on the land. there's lots -- things are a lot more complex, i think i could say, in roughly every aspect of native american life, but that's one of them. that's one of many things i didn't know either. >> well, let's get back to
particular individuals. let me start with darrell newell, who is from the a tribe. in passing, i could say he's someone who manages the blueberry harvest but lo and behold it isn't necessarily an organic harvest. >> i know. i was so disappointed. i had the stereotype there would be all these ceremonies. and the tribal chairman would pick the first blueberry. and there would be prayers and a drum circle and he said no, we basically go pick them when they're ripe. [laughter] >> and that was it. and then he said -- and then i thought, of course, they are organic because these are native people so it has to be organic. well, that's completely wrong. he said no, they're commercial. they probably go into pillsbury blueberry cake mix. that was an early interview and
this was is he interesting. this is a man much like many people i interviewed who were sort of bemused by these questions of the naive outsider who had this view that things have to be organic and close to nature. that's just ridiculous. >> and he also, as i understand, had difficulties he needed to overcome in his life with abandonment in his family. and again, this is a theme that runs through many american families, but it especially runs through the native american families that you portray? >> he had a horrible time -- well, his -- his mother essentially -- not exactly abandoned him but gave him to her parents to raise up quest - up. he was trying to find who his father was because his mother was an alcoholic and she didn't
know who the father was. and so he did dna testing and he went to one man, and he said you know, you could be my dad. you were with my mom about when i was born. before i was born. and the guy said, well, yeah, sure i'll do the dna testing. i'll tell you what, if it's positive, i'll take you fishing. [laughter] >> and it wasn't positive. so he never did find out who his father was. but the abandonment issue is part of a larger story and part of that story is the efforts by the federal government to send native children off to boarding schools when they were young. and sometimes thousands of miles away, sometimes for years. and with the idea to civilize them, you know, and make them -- make them nonnative people. and this is where the expression came from. the infamous expression kill the indian to save the man.
and they -- these children would come back home, and they could no longer speak the languages their families spoke. and there was huge disruption. it was just an awful, awful program. and it's again one of those things that i think the federal government didn't necessarily mean to do something awful. it wasn't -- it is called -- today, it is called cultural genocide. but it wasn't -- it wasn't concentration camps per se and gas chambers but a lot of people did die. and the whole culture really became a part of the seams in many instances. >> and again, when you hear that history, as a generality, it's one thing. but when you read the stories of individuals and how it plays out in their lives, it's shocking,
and you see how overtime it continues to play out in individual lives. >> uh-huh. >> but then, you know, a surprise. you find that another trait that is shot through the native american community is a super patriotism and a dedication, for example, to military service. and you ask yourself, with all the things that have been done to those communities by the official government of the united states, how does this happen? >> it's often talked about. it puzzles me to some extent, although i've heard many, many, many explanations. what gary is referring to in part is that there is a larger percentage of native enrollment in the military than in any other ethnic group in this country. i think this is true. i'm not sure. but this is what i've been told.
and so then the question is, why do you want to support this country that has messed up your own country so much? and there are many given explanations. and the main one is that native people are very patriotic about their own country. this is now their country. and they are fighting to defend it. i mean, all kinds of ironies come in to play. native men fought in world war i and were not even allowed to vote until they came back from world war i. native people were not allowed to vote in federal elections until 1924. >> and certain states even longer. >> certain states longer. in maine, native people couldn't vote in state elections until, i think, in the 1960s. i mean, it's staggering. now, sometimes people say, native people join the -- join the military because this is the
last chance to be a warrior. i don't know if that's true or not. that's said a lot. i talked to one woman who runs a women's shelter on pine ridge reds vacation and i think she said something that will be very controversial in the book, and that is that she thinks native people joining the military in such numbers is an aspect of the stockholm syndrome. in other words, you identify with your oppressor. that's pretty psychologically demanding but that's what she thinks it is. >> now, another story that comes up in different places and maybe you'd like to talk about one of them is struggling against the abuse that women suffer in certain settings. >> uh-huh. there's a bandied-about statistic that i think is true that 1 in 3 native women will be abused in her lifetime. sexually abused, physically
abused. and the women i interviewed thinks it's low. thinks it's higher, maybe 2 in 3 and some alaskan native villages it's thought to be 100% and i did an interview in alaska with a woman and much later after, by the way, after i'd been hearing about this 100%, did your husband ever abuse you and she said yes. so that -- that could be true. often it's linked to alcohol, and often it's linked to meth, there's more meth than alcohol now, i'm told. i think it's linked to what makes men abuse women in other societies too, it's rage, despair, whatever the reasons are, it just seems to be insome communities. in pine ridge, unemployment is
about -- at least 75% now. and alcoholism is 85%. and alcohol is not allowed on the reservation. but there's some crummy places in nebraska that sell it and there's all kinds of attempts to monitor it and to get it unsold -- i mean, to ban it again, but nobody seems to be able to do that. and another problem besides alcohol and meth is gangs. so there's a lot of gang activity in a number of -- on reservations, but i should say, gary, i sometimes think of native america as being in a fulcrum. all these awful things have been happening are happening, deplacement, despair, all kinds of problems. poverty is awful. there are many places that don't have running water and
electricity, too. and on the other hand, some people feel like this is a renaissance, what's going on in native america today. that because of casinos, for instance, that people now are able to -- that reservations, tribal governments are able to buy new fire earnings, and buy new health services and help people. and have language immersion problems, trying to bring back the languages that were basically stripped from people decades and decades and decades ago. so some people think it's an extremely exciting time. if you go on the web, powwows.com, they list hundreds and hundreds -- there really is a cultural renaissance on the one hand. but i never know quite which side is winning 'cause the problems are so intractable. one woman i met in northern
minnesota she thinks 2.5 generations of people have been lost through federal policies such as the boarding school. >> well, there are a number of very successful roll models assertive women. there's the woman in washington that you mentioned and i would like to bring up another one who goes under the name, the former president in one of your chapter titles. this is someone who actually suffered an impeachment in her job. why don't you tell us about her. >> her name is claudia. she had been president of the hickory apache, and that's in northern new mexico. and she was very troubled, very intense and very difficult to interview because i could never find out what she was impeached
for, and i had met her at a women's gathering called we women. this woman was very upset. you just can't say all women great because women helped me kick me out of my job and she was very, very upset. and i went to see her years later, and i said what happened? and what she said was that -- well, there were -- she just spoke in generalities. she wouldn't really say what was the matter. and finally, i had to go to the albuquerque journal website to find the whole story. i guess she thought i knew maybe. but the story is that the tribal police on the reservation were raping inmates, and they were raping them frequently. and this was a big, big problem.
and it was reported to her. and she tried to get help for it. she wrote to then vice president cheney to say, we need help. she tried to get the fbi in. and the recognition was pretty much what happens in other communities, i think, when your own is attacked. they attack back. and she got a public service officer to testify this was going on. but instead of solving the problem, they got rid of her. so that's why she was impeached. so she's very bitter. and oddly enough, maybe not so oddly but when this is your whole home and you live on the reservation and this is entire place of identity, there's no place to go unless you're going to make a clean break and she has to live with these people who impeached her. it's very difficult. she's an unhappy person.
and this is one of those tribal governments that the federal government put in place itself in the 20th century. and had it been another century, they wouldn't have had the same kind of government that they have now that allowed all this. so she -- yeah, it's an unhappy story, that's for sure. >> well, why don't i -- before we begin to take questions, why don't we ask about one other individual, a medicine man. >> uh-huh. >> in two senses of the word. a traditional medicine man as well as someone who, i believe, is involved in the health care industry in a wider sense. >> uh-huh. this is a man named -- he lives in phoenix.
of and he's a systems operator for indian health service. and one of the sad parts of his job is that he has to widen doorways in this hospital so that more and more obese people can get through with bigger and bigger wider wheelchairs. this is another big problem in indian country in poverty with diabetes. and people who are really horribly obese. but he is typical of other people i met in that he -- he was in different religions for a while. sometimes he was trying -- he was a mormon for a little while, or he was sent to a mormon school for some training and then he was back and forth. many people sort of back and forth with different -- different religions until they find -- they come back to their own, to their native religion.
and he learned to be a medicine man through a woman, which was pretty unusual. and he is very sought-after. he never advertises. medicine people do not ties what they do. i mean, they're not supposed to, he said. and people come to him, and he invited me to a three-day blessing ceremony, which was really one of the high points of this last decade of work. and i was the only person there who did not speak navajo. and i found that what was so wonderful about it in part was that it was so casual. everyone speaking navajo. there are very specific steps he took to help a man who was very emotionally troubled and at the same time, people were saying, hey, at the same time, can you hand me a coke over there. and it was just part of life. and it was -- it was terrific.
and i asked the young man who was being cured whether or not he felt any different, and he did. and he said he felt more grounded. he really enjoyed the ceremony. and one other thing about that ceremony, i found that -- i didn't know this about him until i read the patient's myspace page or facebook page and found out that he's homosexual. he said he likes hanging out with friends and dating men. and this was such a nonconcern to navajo people. and mostly in my experience, virtually every tribe, homosexuality is not a big deal. and what does happen is that sometimes the people are honored. i know a woman who said she has a lesbian friend and when the lesbian friend goes back to her home, new mothers wants her to
hold the baby for good luck. that's pretty unusual in mainstream society. >> well, are there any questions? i think we have time for one or two. if you'd go to the microphone right there, so that we can pick it up for the television audience. >> you said that you didn't have any problems, per se, interviewing people, but i'm wondering you're being non-indian if that was a problem at all getting published. now you obviously in the business, maybe you didn't have any problems but i guess if i was asking you, if you were native american do you think you would have an easier time both in the interviewing process or getting the book accepted? >> well, that's a very good question. i always have trouble getting published so i don't know -- i think -- i think maybe had i been native, maybe i'd have a slightly easier time because people would have thought that i
had more of an inside track. i hadn't really thought of that because not being native, i haven't thought, what if, what if? but i think i had an advantage in a way of not being native because i would ask stupid questions. i mean, i was always very respectful and i think people picked up on that. i wasn't trying to be dumb or talk about myself but i found that sometimes the -- just the very fact that i was nonnative made me ask questions, like about the blueberry festival, the blueberry harvest. and also, there seemed to be quite a propensity, a wonderful propensity among native people to explain things to a nonnative person. and in some groups this is called indians 101 because they
are so sick of talking to federal officials and other officials and so forth and explaining. this one woman, this osage lawyer said we have to start at 1492 and we bring them up to speed. and they're used to doing that but i think in my case, they may have just told me more because they were assuming correctly that there was so much i didn't know. >> another question, if you could go to the microphone. yes. thanks. >> hi, i was just wondering with there being so many different indian tribes, how you went about the process of deciding which tribes you wanted to interview people at? >> i decided to try to find the greatest variety i could in terms of many criteria. for instance, i wanted to go to maine because these are called people of the dawn and the tribe was there.
it took me a while to find this event that i wanted to go to. i didn't always go to an event. i went mostly just to see the person. but i wanted to represent the country as much as i could. so i really went to areas of the country because they had an interesting tribe there. i mean, there's no tribe that is not interesting, but i wanted to be in new england and i wanted to be in upstate new york. and i had to go to oklahoma, of course. and i wanted to be in the northwest and i wanted to interview a native alaskan and i decided to end with a hawaiian and i interviewed a few people in california write live, but they're all actually from other places. not from -- not from my immediate neighborhood and i wanted to go to the southwest, navajo and hobe because they're pretty well known but i wanted to have a combination of tribes that were well-known and
unknown. and men and women and different ages so it went from 24, 26 to 84 years of age. and i just wanted as much variety as i could, people who lived on reservations, people who did not. people who were very sophisticated and people who were very rural so i put those all in the mix. >> well, i would like to thank allison owings and i want to assure everyone that when you have an opportunity to read this book, it's true oral history. it's the native american voices that you will be hearing. and we thank you for being our guest today. >> thank