APU Everyday Scholar Legal Studies Podcast

The Value of Representation for Native American Peoples

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, DMA, Department Chair, Communication and World Languages and
Nicole Nesberg, Faculty Member, School of Arts, Humanities, and Education

Recent controversy has highlighted the importance of proper representation for Native American and indigenous peoples. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to Nicole Nesberg, APU history faculty and a member of the Sault tribe. Learn about name changes of two major sporting teams and the need for open conversation about representation as well as the appointment of Native Americans like Deb Haaland and Chuck Sams. Also learn about ongoing challenges for Native American and indigenous peoples to gain equally and adequate representation.

Listen to the Episode:

Subscribe to The Everyday Scholar
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts

Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Nicole Nesberg, Migizi Miigwan  history faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. And today, our conversation is about American Indians and the importance of representation. Welcome, Nicole.

Nicole Nesberg: Thank you, Bjorn. Pleasure to be here.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And so, this really jumps into our first question, always an important topic, and so what are your thoughts on Deb Haaland? The first American Indian to hold a cabinet position? And, in addition to that, why is representation important?

Nicole Nesberg: I’m very excited with current administration, the inclusion of Deb Haaland. She’s just an incredibly active individual in the Department of Interior. She has thus far helped get into place the first Native American head of the National Park Service. Also, working on name changes, one of which we can talk about today. And I think it showcases for many people that we are, once again, still here. I think it gets forgotten on occasion, and I’m fortunate enough to work in a history department, where I get to talk a lot about my people and our history, and include that personal experience that I have.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Now, do you have any examples of different name changes? I mean, just in the last year, I believe, Washington is now just Washington, which is a wonderful name change. I remember the “controversy” of the name change, where people are like, “Well, it’s this, it’s that, it’s like,” but we’re not 70 years ago anymore. So, to change the name is the right thing to do. Can you comment on that or other name changes?

[Podcast: An American Indian Perspective on History Today]

Nicole Nesberg: Yeah. In Colorado Squaw Mountain became Mestaa’ehehe, a woman mountain in honor of a woman, a Cheyenne woman who kind of was in that border territory between her native people and white settlers. So, that was a beautiful name change. And I know that she’s going to be working further across the United States with those geographic name changes.

As you mentioned, the Washington football team. I really didn’t think in my lifetime that would take place. It’s been a long decades-long fight. And then, a year after, right on the anniversary, the Cleveland Guardians changed their name, the baseball team. This is an ongoing process.

I was fortunate, I have a really good friend, another advocate in Mason, Iowa, her name’s Leanne Clausen de Montes and her and her son Salvador spoke publicly to get their name changed from the Mohawk mascot, which they took that name away.

But it continues to be a really divisive issue. In Connecticut, just a couple days ago, a fist fight broke out because they changed their name from the Tomahawk to the Guardian. And even in a couple hours tonight, they’re going to re-vote on bringing that name back.

It makes it important to have these discussions on why people would get to the point of physical violence over mascot names, geographic names. It’s kind of an ongoing process, what I consider progress in this nation.

What we first mentioned, representation, and then that respect of other peoples. Recognizing that for not all people mascots are viewed as honorary, or something that honors people. Also, viewing these name changes it doesn’t have to be seen as something negative. For example, when Mount McKinley was renamed Denali, which was its original name, I think a lot of people are used to that now, and it recognizes the Inuit people and then First Nations people up in Alaska.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And those are excellent examples. Especially with name changes, oftentimes original names, especially if the names were of Native Americans or indigenous, back in the day, they were oftentimes not really probably well thought out. Usually guided by misconceptions or stereotypes honestly. If you look at the movies from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, they are artifacts of a different time in which, obviously, no movies would ever be made like that again, for good reason.

So, here’s a question, for those people that are like, “Well, what’s wrong with a name?” Or to use the example of like the Vikings, where somebody might say, “Well, isn’t the Vikings offensive? And so why would we have to change other names?” How would you respond to that?

Nicole Nesberg: First, having just the conversation is important. To even just bring up, to have an open dialogue about different cultures, and how they feel about different names. And this goes right to the heart of these mascots, and the name changes and why it’s important. While some people do say, “I do know American Indians that don’t have a problem with these names whatsoever.” And that’s totally justified and legitimate for their opinions. But, hopefully, they can also see the bigger picture that it’s not always just the names. It’s also how the fan base uses that. The stereotyping one sees.

Just last month, I went to the University of Florida, Florida State football game, and there were representations there I was not pleased with nor did I feel honored. And so, maybe having that bigger wide open experience of seeing other people that one hasn’t seen before, respecting other people that one forgets about it just creates a more inclusive of nation and a better community.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that you said just having the conversation is important because you always encounter people who basically don’t think anything is important. But then oftentimes, those people will not have had good conversations with people who, say, are part of tribes or anything like that. As someone, myself of like Scandinavian descent with the Vikings and stuff like that, it’s not like the U.S. went over to Sweden and colonialized Sweden and Norway. They’re literally just taking a figure from essentially a foreign country and just saying, “Hey, Vikings are warriors,” and whatever.

But the status of American Indians and indigenous is alive in today. And it’s something that many, many, many, many people are very concerned. And I like that you brought up Florida State where I know Florida State as a university has been in talks and stuff like that, I think with the local tribe in Florida, but that still doesn’t mean that it’s 100% okay.

Nicole Nesberg: Yeah. And I do respect that they do work with the Seminole tribe. I appreciate that they have that relationship, but, yes, still it doesn’t mean it’s okay for everybody. And as we continue, the years continue, I think more and more people will recognize that these mascots, we can have something else be representative of a place rather than the names of tribes, or people.

Atlanta is having this conversation because, once again, I’m happy, congratulations on winning The World Series. However, I don’t need millions of people to see some faux tomahawk chop being done by massive crowds of different people, and just being not representative of a large group of Native Americans.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And I could easily see how, if you flip the conversation on people, and you ask them, “What’s culturally really important to you?” And you say, “Okay, imagine that, whatever you think is important. And then, it’s at a sports arena and then everybody, no matter what, is just using it crassly, potentially. And that it’s really just making money.” I think, then they’d start being like, “Oh.” But it’s tough because, like you said, having that conversation is really step one, and it takes a while to get to that. So, really, really good.

Nicole Nesberg: And you have to have the people be open to that conversation, and willing to rethink some things that have been their tradition. And I hear that a lot with losing tradition, or changing tradition, that seems to be one of the commonalities of wanting to retain names. Well, just because it’s your tradition doesn’t mean that it’s still needs to be representative for everyone.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And sports traditions are separate than cultural traditions. We should be defined by who we are, who say, our ancestors were, who we make ourselves to be. And sports, they’re great, but it’s what we do today. And they don’t last. And that’s nothing in sports and it’s nothing against teams, and et cetera, et cetera. But what should be important are the people around us, our family, our community. And not just the local team who has whatever name. And so, this brings me on to the next thing of representation, and on FX there’s “Reservation Dogs,” correct?

Nicole Nesberg: Yes.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Can you say a few words about that?

Nicole Nesberg: Yeah. A really lovely program. Anyone that’s listening, please take the time to go to Hulu or FX and watch this. It follows the story of four young high schoolers on the res in Oklahoma, and their desire to get out of that reservation life, and move to California as kind of the ideal, the Eden.

And it really tackles, in a lot of ways, issues facing young Native Americans that live on the reservation: Suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, poverty, retaining one’s culture, retaining one’s language, one’s medicine. And it does it in a lovely way where there is humor there.

And I really appreciate that because, as you mentioned, those ’30s, ’40s, ’50s movies, oftentimes, American Indians were represented as very stoic, as humorless. And that’s, of course, not case, we just oftentimes, didn’t share the same kind of humor. So, now, we are seeing things, modern takes on the modern problems and issues facing people. And it’s just a lovely start.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I think we talked about this last time, where criticism of U.S. media culture. It seems like U.S. media has the attention span to really focus on one thing at a time. And so, getting more and more representation so, of course, the historic tragedy of slavery, and there’s been a very long fight for Black rights throughout the country, and history, which is great. There’s a growing Hispanic culture, which is gaining more and more representation. But the one thing that has always seemed to have marginalized, honestly, is American Indian and indigenous representation. Why do you think that is? I mean, that’s a big question.

Nicole Nesberg: Yeah. A lot of it has to do with sheer numbers. I know groups of people who have grown up and never met anyone who’s Native American. We have huge pockets in certain parts of America, but there’s other places that representation’s lacking, which is why, once again, it’s so important at the top level that we have Deb Haaland and that we have Chuck Sams. That we have for the third term, U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo who is doing this fantastic project. She’s spearheading the project that is Living Nations, Living Words. And it’s an online project where you can look up 47 different Native American poets. You can see where they live, and you can have a sampling of their work delivered to you.

It’s just beautiful that we can have that ability with technology to help maintain cultures, and to spread information that it was more difficult to spread in the past.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Here in Arizona, there are reservations throughout Arizona. And so, just by driving around the state, you will often drive through tribal land. Having that there, and that people understand, and realize that your number one, driving through tribal land. And number two, originally it was all tribal land, is something to always think about.

It also makes me think about representation where, again, some people discount a lot of things, and having conversations with them. But, you know, in the most recent Congress that just came into being this year, 77% of Congress, this is from Pew Research is white. And the U.S. population, as far as white percentage, is 60%. And so, white culture, or white people are still overrepresented in Congress.

Now, it’s better than it used to be where virtually in the 90s and high 90s was white. Why is it important that in our elected officials, it starts to reflect the actual demographics of the country?

Nicole Nesberg: Yeah, there’s two reasons. First of all, living in a democratic republic, we do want to see the faces of people that look like us, that we were raised around. And, secondly, diversity has been proven to be better at problem-solving. If you have people from different backgrounds, walks of life, living different experiences, when it comes to the problems of our nation, they can do a better job of solving those problems by working together.

So, we were really fortunate that before Deb Haaland became appointed to the Department of Interior, she was one of the two women, Native women in Congress, which was an extraordinary feat for us. Still something that I’m very pleased about in my day and age. Once again, I’d never seen a Native woman in Congress, so that I get to be part of this, I get to see this, very, very encouraging.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And so, you have some other examples of how indigenous and American Indians are contributing to the larger American culture.

Nicole Nesberg: Yeah, last month, native hip hop artists, fancy dancer, Supaman performed at the NBA halftime show for the Oklahoma Thunder. The cast of the “Reservation Dogs” was there in the audience. And, once again, in my lifetime, I get to see fancy dancers, people dancing to Native music in the middle of a sporting event. So, this kind of links all the things we’ve been talking about at the highest level representation, in the media and on TV representation, sports once again, being a major place where people of diverse backgrounds can come together, root for their home team, support each other and then visually see something maybe they’d never seen before.

Probably in the state of Oklahoma, no doubt, there is a large representation as that used to be Indian territory until it became the state of Oklahoma. There’s a vast amount of Indians that were moved to that land from their native homelands, making it now their homeland. My homeland is, in fact, I’m part of the Sault tribe of Chippewa Indians, Sault Ste. Marie Michigan on the border of Sault Ste. Marie Canada.

And I have to give a huge shout out when it comes to representation to one of our members, Angeline Boulley, she drafted her debut novel “Fire Keeper’s Daughter.” And it is this wonderful coming of age story of this 18 year old, half white, half Native, young woman raised by a white mother. And how she learns about her indigenous culture. And she becomes a strong Anishinaabe, an Ojibwa woman, where she understands the relevance of that Native traditional medicine to her life. If you get a chance when you’re done watching “Reservation Dogs,” order her book. Rave reviews from NPR, Rolling Stone.

These representations, when I was young, I didn’t have access to this, this access that’s available now. And it’s just extraordinary to me. And very, as I said again and again, encouraging that I get to see this representation developing more and more.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And having that representation is so important. And I think for a lot of people whom, say, are white and I’ve always been white. That sounds funny saying that. But they’ve always had representation. They’ve always watched media. And they’ve always seen themselves stare back at themselves, if that makes sense. And so, having that representation is so extraordinarily important. And, luckily, it’s becoming more common to see greater diversity of representation.

And that brings me to my next question about tribal schools. In Canada and the U.S. there has been recent articles. And, I guess, I can say public discovery of the horrific conditions that were in those schools.

Nicole Nesberg: Yeah, starting in the 1870s in the United States and in Canada, they started a program of Indian boarding schools where they were trying to, as the man Pratt said, “Kill the Indian and save the man.” So, the idea was to assimilate them. Take children to these boarding schools, cut off their hair, give them what I would call white names or Christian names, and teach them a skill that could factor into the U.S. culture.

Well, the problem being there’s still discrimination. And even with that training or that turn, what it did is created just generations of lost children, who no longer fit into their tribe, who had lost their language, and their culture. And they no longer fit into American society either because they were deprived of that as well because of the color of their skin.

What we’ve since found out, especially in the last five and 10 years, the number of deaths at these schools was just extraordinary, of these poor children taken away from their parents. Oftentimes, with the threat of starvation, if they didn’t allow their children to be taken away. Taken away hundreds of miles to never return to the homelands. And these small children graveyards that are being discovered all around these schools.

Fortunately, for example, Carlisle Indian School, one of the most famous ones, now different tribes have made the effort to bring their children back to their homeland. And to exhume those children and bring them home. And so, that’s an ongoing process. And there’s going to be greater investigations. Once again, Haaland has mentioned further investigations, especially in the United States. Canada has been doing their work. And thousands of these graves have been discovered, sadly.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It is. It’s hard to even verbalize how sad and how tragic that is. If you were going to write a story, if that makes sense, the schools would be the bad guy because these kids, I mean, they’re literally kids taken away from their families and put in the school. And, again, if you flip the narrative of, if somebody questions or doesn’t feel like things are as important, or people should just get over it, just imagine your kid, your kid being taken from you, put in a school, hundreds of miles away, and being forced to align to a different culture.

Today, it’s just gut wrenching and it’s tragic. We need to know the true history. And people need to confront that history. We need to accept that history, so we can all somehow move forward together because if people continue to deny it, they’re denying reality, and they’re denying the true evils that existed.

Nicole Nesberg: And it is important to remember that history, once again, not to repeat it. This is something that happened and we don’t want it to happen again. Once again, as a mother—you can probably hear my kids in the background—as a mother, definitely it just strikes a chord every time I have to talk about four or five year olds being taken from their parents, going to an unfamiliar place, eating unfamiliar food, being given a name, language taken away, the whole process of it.

And, once again, it’s not dead history. There are people that in the ’60s and the ’70s that endured these boarding schools. There was physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse. And it is part of the healing process to have these discussions, once again, not a pretty part of American history, but definitely a part of our history that has to be discussed.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And even if people might say, “Well, it’s not going to happen again.” I mean, even if you just look at the border crisis in which some kids were being taken away from their families, that right there, just again, imagine your kid being taken away from you. Any government policy should, of course there has to be laws, et cetera, et cetera, but it has to be presented in a compassionate way, especially when it comes to children. Because if you don’t, that’s going to scar those children. And they are going to have a very negative view of the organization that did it to them and that is the U.S. government.

Nicole Nesberg: As one should. Once again, those separating of children and parents, I find appalling. Absolutely, I understand there’s laws in place. That law does not have to include the separation of families.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: What are some things that can help people have better conversations about American Indian and indigenous topics?

Nicole Nesberg: Fortunately, one of those things over COVID that was a silver lining is the ability on social media to connect to groups. And to connect to people that one hadn’t had available before. There’s a fantastic Facebook group called Social Distancing Powwow. They just held an online powwow, which one could watch no matter what their background is, you could join this group. People are welcome to join this group. I think for people, an openness, an ability to learn more, to learn more about others.

I’m very fortunate. I live in a community, a county, and a city that has been open in the last many years to knowing more about the indigenous people here. And so, part of it is, one, the community wanting to know more. And there also has to also be people like me though, that do the work to make sure that that information is also available. So, it’s kind of a two-pronged thing where you need both the interest there, and then somebody to make it accessible for people.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is great. It reminds me of a podcast I did with Jonathan Hill, where he talked about the online powwows, and how that has really brought people together. Jonathan Hill is a musician, who really incorporates his indigenous culture into his music. Really great conversation. Any final words, Nicole?

Nicole Nesberg: Once again, thank you for having me. Anyone out there that’s interested in learning more, please get ahold of me. And if you have any questions, any knowledge I can share, I’m happy to share it.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Thank you so much. And today, we’re speaking with Nicole Nesberg, Migizi Miigwan about American Indians and representation. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

Comments are closed.