Carl Albert State College celebrated Native American Heritage Month in November 2018 on both its Poteau and Sallisaw campuses. The month was filled with student and community activities that celebrated Native American culture and was organized by the CASC NASNTI department with the assistance of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Events ranged from Native musicians and entertainers to guest speakers, traditional games and storytelling.
One of the most informative and inspiring events was the lecture of Edward Hummingbird, Director of Institutional Research, Effectiveness, and Planning at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, NM, and a member of the Cherokee Nation.
Micky Solomon, Director of the CASC NASNTI Program, said it was an honor to host Mr. Edward Hummingbird on campus.
“Mr. Hummingbird is a renowned speaker who brings so much wisdom and experience to each individual he presents to. He is a phenomenal educator and artist — our community, students, faculty and staff have benefited tremendously from his visit with us.”
Hummingbird focused his presentation on a few key areas: Native American success in higher education, the benefits of contextualizing learning, and the transformative way art can be used as a learning tool for Native American students.
“A key area of success in college for Native American students focuses on a sense of belonging,” Hummingbird said. “If students do not believe they belong in college, they’ll struggle to succeed. To establish a strong sense of belonging, the college must create a culture of inclusion - not just a culture of diversity.”
Recent research by Dr. Terrell Strayhorn (in the Journal of Indian Education) shows that Native students have a stronger sense of belonging when they actively engage other students with diverse backgrounds, and when they have satisfactory academic performance.
“Engaging other students with diverse backgrounds, beliefs and worldviews is important to creating a strong sense of belonging on campus,” Hummingbird continued. “Engaging diverse faculty outside of class also contributes to a sense of belonging. It’s not just about grouping Native students with other Native students. It’s about actively expanding the worldview of Native students.”
One intervention known to promote student success in higher education is to contextualize learning.
“For Native American students, many of whom are highly culturally literate,” he said, “using Native American art provides a very rich and relatable context to learn subjects like composition, communications or math. My own institution is in the process of developing a Center for Cultural Arts and Visual Learning, to provide access to a museum-quality art collection around which classical concepts throughout the curriculum can be learned.”
Art is a phenomenal learning tool for Native American students.
“To the Indian artist,” he continued, “art is more than a hobby or a profession but is a way of making sense of who we are, in a world that oftentimes doesn’t make sense. It allows us to define and reaffirm a sense of cultural identity, from which we ultimately gain a sense of individual identity.”
Native art offers the outside world brief glimpses into the very soul of a culture. Native artists often use the art to draw lines of delineation. For instance, paintings of Apache fire dances draw lines of delineation between native dance and any other kind of dance, through context, costume, etc., he said.
Alternatively, some Native artists use the art to blur lines of delineation, focusing on universal constants, like the bond between mothers and children. This kind of art shows that deep down, all cultures share many of the concepts that define cultural conditioning.
“The best Indian artists,” he explained, “are able to both draw and blur lines of delineation at the same time, and in doing so, so that while Native cultures vary from others, there are many common values, beliefs and convictions that define us all.”
Ultimately, Native art, as is the case with all ethnographic art, is about the human condition, Hummingbird said.
“For instance,” he continued, “paintings of Cheyenne burial scenes depict both the symbols and iconography surrounding the passage from this world to the next (e.g., the deceased wrapped and laid atop a funeral pyre, with the deceased horse beneath, and the specter of the Cheyenne on his horse hunting buffalo in the next world), but the mourning family at the base of the funeral pyre reflects the universal pain that we all feel when having lost a loved one.”
Unique symbolism and iconography surrounding the passage of a loved one into the next world is paired with the universal constant of suffering by those remaining in this world. In this way, the Native artist gives us a new prism through which to view a common concept.
“Native American art is a powerful tool for not only contextualizing learning for Native American students but is also helpful for non-Native students to think about universal constants.”
I strongly encourage educators to consider the use of Native art as a tool for teaching. Doing so provides a deeper understanding of Native students’ cultural worldview, while expanding the worldview of non-Native students, he concluded.
Hummingbird graciously offered his assistance in establishing a collection of Native American art for visual learning and is currently preparing a donation of art to the college.