Recent letters to the editor regarding the OMSA (Office of Minority Student Affairs) issue and the UA cultural resource centers have revealed some disturbing issues for me as a member of the American Indian community and the director of the American Indian Graduate Center.

The reference to the cultural centers as segregationist and therefore inherently racist is particularly dismaying and tiresome. This view shows a gross lack of understanding of American Indians, but that is not surprising considering that the mainstream teaching of American history has consistently ignored the American Indian perspective and for that reason has contributed to a general ignorance of Indian issues.

For nearly 10,000 years our tribal societies have nurtured and sustained our people as distinct, complex and successful cultural groups. We did not come here as the Europeans came here, leaving their cultures and societies behind. We were not dissatisfied with our societies and our culture. Our homelands were invaded by the Europeans. For over 500 years, a practice of physical and cultural genocide has been perpetuated against our people on a scale that rivals the Holocaust in Europe. Our ancestors fought long and bloody wars to protect our people, our lands, our way of life.

Many treaties were signed by the U.S. government with Indian nations. After long and costly wars, when the U.S. Army failed to defeat Indian nations, treaties were signed that recognized the sovereign rights of those tribes and established the conditions for peace. Other treaties were signed to prevent wars, to prevent loss of life on both sides. And yes, treaties were signed following the military defeat of Indian nations.

Education has historically been used by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA originally under the War Department) to invalidate and destroy Indian culture, Indian identity. Indian children were forcibly taken from their families, from their communities, and imprisoned in BIA boarding schools, and then only allowed to return home when BIA officials saw fit. Punishing Indian children from speaking their Indian language or practicing their religious customs was a common educational practice at boarding schools. As we breathe today, many Indian grandparents who speak only their Indian language cannot communicate with their grandchildren because those children have not learned their language; and many Indian parents whose primary parental role models were non-Indian BIA staff have little knowledge of their own culture to pass on to their children.

Segregation is a phenomenon created by racism, bigotry and discrimination. Segregation in part has been practiced to prevent people of color from living in certain areas of a community. Usually those areas have contained the newer and safer housing reserved for whites. However, segregation does not equal self-selected ethnic communities. It has been implied that people of color, given the opportunity, would not be gathered together in communities, that we long to be part of the mainstream. On the contrary, Indian people have prospered together in our own communities for thousands of years and will do so for thousands more. I can think of no more insidious way besides BIA education to attempt to destroy a culture than to disperse it through a larger society and deny it the opportunity to commune in its native language, traditions and customs (the U.S. government used that method also it was called Indian Relocation). Our UA cultural centers are not for the purpose of segregation; they are for the purpose of cultural survival in the face of overwhelming prejudice and ignorance.

Considering that the university stands on stolen Indian land, considering all that has been attempted to annihilate Indian people and our culture, considering that after centuries of warfare Indian nations still hold 27 percent of the land in Arizona, and considering the moral right of all people to determine their own cultural identity all of this considered the need should be obvious for an American Indian cultural center on campus to support, in the Indian way, our young Indian leaders while they study and gain the skills needed to preserve their tribal cultures and provide economically for their people whom they will lead into the 21st century.

Glenn Johnson, M.Ed. (Cherokee)

Director, American Indian Graduate Center Read Next Article