Merlene Davis: Bust some myths by learning about Native American culture

Helen Danser, chair of the state's Native American Heritage Commission, showed an outfit she will wear at the Native American Educational Conference that is reflective of her heritage. Photo provided.
Helen Danser, chair of the state's Native American Heritage Commission, showed an outfit she will wear at the Native American Educational Conference that is reflective of her heritage. Photo provided.

My first assignment with an Ojibwe Indian photographer was quite a learning experience.

I was smart enough to know that everything I had learned about Indians via old-time Western movies was incorrect. However, that left a wide gap in my knowledge of that culture which I had no problem trying to close by asking her questions.

Thank goodness she was a patient woman.

One-on-one opportunities to learn about another culture is the best way to understand them. And when it comes to Native Americans, that one-on-one can help us better understand the slights we are inflicting with the naming of some sports teams.

Fortunately, on Aug. 22 and 23, we will have a chance to ask questions, observe and listen to American Indians.

The Native American Educational Conference will feature examples of Native American dance, storytelling, games, music, crafts, shelters and children's activities, all free of charge.

Some of the Indians will be dressed in the native attire of their tribal roots and others will dress just like you and me.

"There will be examples of the different types of regalia," said Helen Danser, chairwoman of the Kentucky Native American Heritage Commission. "Someone will explain how it was earned, when it came into being, and what it was for. The regalia are what people call an Indian costume."

Not all Indians wore feathers, however, and not all chiefs wore war bonnets. In fact, war bonnets were not worn east of the Mississippi River.

Indians also don't greet folks with "how." They aren't all alcoholic. They don't all live on reservations out west.

There will be morning discussions both days about the myths and stereotypes that we still have about Native Americans, and about the different tribes represented in Kentucky.

"Kentucky is still struggling with how to define Indian and whether Indians actually lived in Kentucky," Danser said. "They said Indians just passed through," using the state as a hunting ground.

In fact, Kentucky does not have any federally recognized Indian tribes, a designation that carries with it benefits of being a sovereign nation. And Kentucky also has not set up a process for tribes to be officially recognized by the state, although several attempts have been made to do that through the General Assembly.

The Ridgetop Shawnee tribe and the Southern Cherokee Nation of Kentucky have been acknowledged through resolutions, however.

But many Indians found it safer just to blend in with the general population instead of announcing their culture.

Anne Wood of Centenary United Methodist Church, where the conference will be held, said she was a middle-aged adult before she learned of her Native American heritage. Her family, like so many others, hid their culture to avoid discrimination and potential persecution. They chose to blend in.

That's changing. More and more Indians are standing proud of their culture and seeking state acknowledgment of it, she said.

During the afternoons of the conference there will be demonstrations of flintknapping, the art of fashioning spearheads and arrowheads and a teepee exhibit, with discussions about the difference between a teepee and wigwam.

Vendors will be on-site throughout the day, selling Indian crafts, including beadwork and silver jewelry. Food concessions will also be available.

From 6-8 p.m. on Friday and from 5-7 p.m. on Saturday, there will be exhibitions of drumming and intertribal dancing that requires audience participation.

There will be a special program for children on Saturday that features traditional games and discussions about tomahawks and blow guns.

"The children will learn how to use blow guns," Danser said. "By age 5 or 6, young Indian boys could use that as a weapon to bring down birds, rabbits, and squirrels for dinner."

The children's activities will be outside. All others will be indoors.

"We're hoping to get a good many people to come at 10 a.m. for the discussions on myths and legends," Danser said.

That will be your chance to learn and ask questions of people who are coming out of the shadows wanting to teach and to be heard.