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Always been here: Native Americans at Wheaton

September 21, 2017
by Elisabeth Stringer

Native American identity on campus

“Native Americans are still around,” senior Kateri Felix told me with a laugh, “and it’s not like a unicorn sighting when you see one of us.”

I met with Felix, one of the few Native Americans on campus, in a quiet corner of Stupe. When I asked her to tell me a little bit about herself, Felix jumped right into tracing the contours of her Native American heritage.

The government recognizes her father — a full-blooded Native American — as Muscogee Creek (although Felix explained that he actually belongs to the Yuchi tribe), while her mother is over a quarter Cherokee. Thus, Felix herself is a little over five-eighths (around 65 percent) Native American.

Though Felix’s family moved away from Native American communities when she was young, Native American culture played an important and positive part in shaping the way she sees the world. As an anthropology major and archaeology minor, Felix attributes her love of cultures to her Native American heritage.

When I talked with junior Ben Love, I heard a different story.

Love, who is one-eighth Native American, is a member of the Muscogee Nation. He experienced less Native American culture than Felix growing up. Instead, as we sat in Lower Beamer, he told me his grandfather’s story.   

His grandfather, who was half Muscogee Creek, signed on to the military in the 1930s in order to escape the poverty of his reservation in Oklahoma. Later, while working at a phone company, he taught himself stockbroking from books in his public library. He eventually built a phone company that owned eight offices throughout California. In order to assimilate into American culture and establish himself as a successful businessman, Love’s grandfather repressed some of his Native American identity. But Love told me with pride, “He is the epitome of the American dream.”

While Felix can “check the Native American box” and Love is a federally recognized citizen of the Muscogee Nation, the question of Native American identity is trickier for history professor Melissa Harkrider.

As I sat in her office, Harkrider explained that even though her husband and son are citizens of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, she has Cherokee ancestry and Native American history and stories shape her research, she does not call herself a Native, but rather identifies as a Cherokee descendant. She draws this careful distinction in part because the western world sees identity differently than Native American communities. While westerners tend to dictate their own identity, Native Americans view identity in more communal terms. “Put simply,” Harkrider explained, “Being Native is not who you claim to be, but who claims you.”

As I listened to Felix, Love and Harkrider, I realized how differently they connect to Native American culture. The diversity of their heritages mirrors some of the diversity of the wider Native American story. Captain David Iglesias, who grew up among Native Americans and is himself a member of the Kuna Nation of Panama and Columbia, explained that there are over 560 Native American tribes in the United States — and that’s only counting the federally recognized tribes.

Yet Wheaton students don’t seem aware of the richness and variety of Native American history and culture. “There’s a lack of student awareness of Native American culture on campus,” Love explained. “That’s something that’s very hard to change.”

Ben Love
Kateri Felix

An overlooked history

In the summer of 2009, New Testament professor Gene Green realized just how little he was aware of the Native American story. That year, Green’s wife began researching Native American culture as she wrote a children’s novel. As Green taught classes on majority world theology and the impacts of western colonization, his wife told him stories about the genocide, ethnocide and ethnic cleansing prevalent in Native American history. “And one day,” Green told me, “These two stories collided — what I was doing in Colonial, Post-colonial studies, and her stories . . . I realized ‘I’m the colonist’. . . and I went outside and wept.”

That realization started Green and his wife on what he called their “summer of outrage.” Throughout that summer, they humbly approached local Native American communities and — to Green’s surprise — were welcomed. As they strove to listen and learn from those communities, Green and his wife discovered the story of Native Americans in the Wheaton area.

Earnestly, Green told me how Wheaton and its neighboring suburbs were built on land that was originally home to the Potawatomi tribes — some of the main roads even follow ancient Native American trails. But when President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the Potawatomi — along with thousands of other Native Americans — were forced off their land. Among the white settlers who flowed into the area after the Potawatomi’s removal was Warren Wheaton. He would eventually donate some of his land to Charles Blanchard, who would found Wheaton College on that land.

Green’s research into Wheaton’s Native American history led him to discover that Blanchard himself strongly opposed the massacres that left thousands of Native Americans dead, though he was in favor of removing Native American children from their homes to boarding schools that attempted to westernize Native American children.  

Native American culture and Christianity  

Throughout my interviews, there was one common thread. “One of the greatest challenges for Native American Christians,” Harkrider said, “Is to be respected and affirmed as believers who are also culturally authentic.” Harkrider explained that though Native American spirituality has often been historically categorized as opposed to Christianity, Natives should be able to fully express both their culture and their faith. “The gospel doesn’t have to wear the guise of white western Christianity to be meaningful,” Harkrider added.

For Felix, her Native American culture allows her to worship and see God in a different way than western culture. Because of the Native American cultural emphasis on nature, she finds spending time in nature a way for her to see God’s glory. She, like Love, has worshiped through powwows and stomp dances and finds meaning in Native American spiritual symbols.

The call to listen well

For Felix, it’s important to realize “that Native American history is not something that’s in the past, it’s not something that’s really bad and it’s over, it’s still happening.” She explained that in Native American culture the past is intimately connected with both the present and the future.

However, she has discovered that many of her fellow students aren’t aware of either the history of Native Americans or the present issues surrounding Native rights. Thus, in her last year on campus, Felix hopes to educate her fellow students about Native American culture. She planned to establish a Native American club dedicated to promoting awareness about Native American history and celebrating Native American culture, but though she has an “amazing” amount of staff support she hasn’t found enough students interested in the club to get it rolling.

In the past few years, Wheaton’s awareness of Native American culture has grown. Green has hosted two semester-long faculty seminars on Native American culture. There are now courses that focus on Native American stories — Green and Harkrider co-taught a course on colonialism across the Atlantic, and Tiffany Kriner and Matthew Milliner co-taught a course on Native American literature and art — and several professors integrate Native stories into their courses. Harkrider has searched for ways to reveal Native American voices even in the “bread-and-butter” history courses that she teaches.

Beyond those courses, Wheaton has begun to reach out and listen to the Native American community in other ways throughout the last few years. Last semester, Wheaton hosted a powwow. Native American speakers and theologians such as Terry LeBlanc have spoken in chapel and given lectures. And in 2015, Wheaton hosted the annual meeting of NAIITS, the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies.

Felix and Love plan to continue to work with Green to invite Native American voices to campus. This semester, Low will return to lecture on Native American history and Cheryl Bear, a Native speaker, dancer, singer and author will perform a concert and give a talk. They also urge students to attend events, lectures and other opportunities to learn available through the American Indian Center of Chicago.  

As I ended my interview with Harkrider, I asked her if she had any final words for Wheaton students. She paused for a moment, and then gave me the same answer I had heard from Love, Felix, Green and Iglesias. “Just [be] willing to listen, and listen well,” she said.

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