Students from the University of North Dakota Accounting 494 Ethics class have recently collaborated with several American Indian students to talk about social, historical and cultural issues related to American Indian people. They have worked under the guidance of Michael Hendrickson, Executive in Residence ethics instructor, and Courtney Souvannsacd, formerly American Indian Student Services Administrative Assistant.
These meetings were initiated to create dialogue about racial assumptions, the regrettable treatment of American Indian people throughout United States history, and ultimately, to discuss equitable solutions in the context of a unified campus community.
American Indians are the largest minority group with five tribal reservations in North Dakota representing just over five percent of the population. Although they are the largest minority group, conversations with American Indian students reveal that they are treated as “less than”, they feel misunderstood and that their culture and heritage are seen as unimportant. That can change.
Students have committed to write a series of articles that will be organized in a timeline of past, present and future with various topics about the truth including the Doctrine of Discovery, broken treaties, boarding schools, and denigrating stereotypes and articles about healing through achieving campus and community inclusiveness.
The approach adopted by the students mimics the Truth and Reconciliation concepts adopted in South Africa following the end of apartheid in 1990. The South African approach, which was championed by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was an endeavor to heal through remorse on the part of the perpetrators and forgiveness on the part of those victimized. Their approach taught us that true healing occurs only when there is an admission of the wrong and a corresponding forgiveness by the victim.
Like the black people in South Africa, the pain of discrimination felt by American Indians is real and occurs on our campus and in the surrounding community. In exploring the American Indian students’ stories, there are parallels in the struggle to have a voice and credibility in the face of prejudice and racism. Although sharing their stories has been difficult, it is not a cry for sympathy, but a call for understanding.
An important part of healing is that the truth be told. We are often afraid to hear the truth because the truth makes us feel like we need to do something – and maybe we do, but sometimes we just need to acknowledge the truth and start there. That is where we seem to be at this point in history - of acknowledging the truth because it has not been set forth accurately in our history books. Not one of us writing these articles was taught the truth in our schools. The teachings we received gave only limited information in a very generalized and romanticized way and excluded the American Indian perspective.
There is a disquiet for whites in learning that the land they call their property was obtained by force and deception. The means by which property was obtained was aided by the simple fact that the natives had no concept of property ownership. The native people felt that they were part of the land and not the lords of it. They moved with the waters and the grasses and the idea that the land would be exploited for personal use was a strange and unknown concept.
This project is not about being politically correct but about being relentlessly honest. It is time to set us all free because the truth can only hurt us if we keep it hidden in the dark. As the Bible says – the truth shall set you free.