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A Look Into the Life, Music and Art of American Indians

Mahli Jaynae Bell, left, and Shaye Mackinzie, of the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians, and Mary Anne Guoladdie, of the Wichita affiliated tribes, attend a heritage month program at the Justice Department in Washington
Mahli Jaynae Bell, left, and Shaye Mackinzie, of the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians, and Mary Anne Guoladdie, of the Wichita affiliated tribes, attend a heritage month program at the Justice Department in Washington

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SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Shirley Griffith.

STEVE EMBER: And I'm Steve Ember. November is Native American Heritage Month in the United States. This week on our program, we explore the modern life, music and art of American Indians.

(MUSIC: “The Dance”/Joseph FireCrow)

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Native Americans have had a busy year in Washington.

Earlier this year, Congress passed the Tribal Law and Order Act. This new law aims to give tribes more power to fight crime on the lands they govern. The goal is to increase communication and cooperation between tribal and federal law enforcement agencies and the court system.

President Obama also signed another bill into law, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. It provides more resources for tribal communities. It was included as part of the big health-care law passed by Congress.

STEVE EMBER: In October, the Department of Agriculture agreed to settle a discrimination case brought by Indian farmers. The farmers said the department had unfairly denied them farm loans.

They brought their lawsuit in nineteen ninety-nine. The government agreed to pay six hundred eighty million dollars and forgive millions more in debts to settle the case.

The payment does not require approval by Congress. But a proposed settlement of racial discrimination claims by black farmers does. The government has agreed to settle that case for more than one billion dollars.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: The Census Bureau estimates that the United States has about five million American Indians and Alaska Natives, including people of more than one race. The number represents less than two percent of the country's population.

But those numbers are growing. American Indians and Alaska Natives are younger than the national population as a whole. About thirty percent of them are younger than eighteen.

The Census Bureau says about two and a half million people identify themselves just as American Indian or Alaska Native.

American Indians and Alaska Natives were the largest racial or ethnic minority group in five states last year. Those states were Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Other states with large native populations include California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, New York and Florida.

(MUSIC: “San Antonio”/Victoria Blackie)

STEVE EMBER: Author and photojournalist Vincent Schilling is a member of the Saint Regis Mohawk tribe. His books for young people include "Native Athletes in Action" and "Native Men of Courage." But he says young Indians are not the only ones who need to understand more about modern Native Americans.

Vincent Schilling
Vincent Schilling

VINCENT SCHILLING: "We are predefined by what we were in our history. I've had multiple times myself, people tell me, 'Well, you don’t look Indian.'"

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Vincent Schilling speaks at schools and companies about cultural diversity. He often begins by asking people to think about what they believe a Native American looks like.

VINCENT SCHILLING: "And the standard answers I'll get are, you know, a gentleman sitting on the hill on horseback. He's got a full-feathered headdress. Or he's sitting cross-legged with his moccasins and a bow and arrow and a tepee in the background type of thing."

He says educating people is important to breaking down cultural stereotypes.

VINCENT SCHILLING: "Even if it's one person at a time, talking to these kids or talking to these folks who are working at different places and saying: 'Look, here is Jordin Tootoo, he's a professional hockey player. Here is Alwyn Morris, Olympic gold medalist in kayaking. Cory Witherill, Indy race car driver."

STEVE EMBER: Mr. Schilling lives in Virginia, hundreds of kilometers from his tribe's reservation in the state of New York. But nationally about five hundred thousand people live on tribal reservations and federal lands.

VINCENT SCHILLING: "Native American reservations are probably one of our nation’s best kept secrets. What you will see a lot of times on a native reservation is there are some folks who are living well, but there are a lot places on reservations that are living in complete and abject poverty."

STEVE EMBER: The official poverty rate for all Americans last year was a little more than fourteen percent. The growth of gambling operations on Indian lands has brought new sources of money to some tribal communities. But almost twenty-four percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives were living in poverty last year.

High school and college completion rates for American Indians are lower than the national average. And rates of violence against women are higher than average. Those new federal measures include provisions that seek to reduce violence against Native American women.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Conditions like these can make it difficult to succeed on the reservation. But leaving, says Vincent Schilling, is not an easy choice either.

VINCENT SCHILLING: "If you leave the reservation, you're leaving, period. And people sometimes feel like you're leaving and not looking back. But that's not the case. Sometimes we need to leave for opportunity."

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: But he also points to efforts to make the Internet and educational technology more available on the reservation.

VINCENT SCHILLING: "If we can get these college degree programs to really embrace online degrees and things like that, then we really can be bringing education to native kids and native folks in general."

STEVE EMBER: Vincent Schilling says that like many Native Americans who live off the reservation, he still has strong ties to his culture.

VINCENT SCHILLING: "I may be out here in Virginia Beach, and you know I'm running around -- I've got my radio show, I’m online answering emails. I’ve got my cell phone ringing and sending text messages and doing all these things.

"And every once in while I get crazed and I will stop, put everything down, go out to my porch, light some sage, which is a way of clearing away energy, and embrace my native heritage through my own personal ceremony. And [I] look up to my ancestors and creator and say, 'OK, I’m getting a little crazy here, bring me back down and center me.'"

(“Face the Music”/Joseph FireCrow)

A Look Into the Life, Music and Art of American Indians
A Look Into the Life, Music and Art of American Indians

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Joseph FireCrow was named artist of the year at the Native American Music Awards earlier this month. Mr. FireCrow is a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation of Montana.

The ceremony took place at Niagara Falls in New York. It brought together native artists from throughout the Americas.

(MUSIC: “Don’t Forget About Me”/Michael Bucher)

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Michael Bucher, an Eastern Band Cherokee, began playing professionally four years ago. He won the award for best folk recording for his album "Believe."

Mr. Bucher says the launch of the Native American Music Awards twelve years ago has had a huge effect in the community, especially on the young.

MICHAEL BUCHER: "The impact that we have now that the Native American Music Awards has given our youth something to look up to and aspire to I think also."

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: He says it is important for musicians to set a good example.

Michael Bucher
Michael Bucher

MICHAEL BUCHER: "You can stay away from the drugs, and you can stay away from the alcohol and the gangs.


STEVE EMBER: The Smithsonian Institution in Washington opened the National Museum of the American Indian in two thousand four. The museum presents the history and culture of native groups from North, Central and South America.

The latest exhibit is called "Vantage Point." All thirty-one works in the exhibit explore identity, history, culture or landscape from a Native American point of view.

For example, artist Marie Watt, a Seneca Indian, sews together recycled fabric. In some ways the work is like piecing together a quilt.

Ms. Watt creates most of her pieces in a circle. She spent a day at the museum inviting visitors to help her create a new work.

MARIE WATT: "You can come and go when you please. No sewing experience in necessary. Any age person can participate. You can be two years old or one hundred."

If there are weak parts within the project, she simply adds more stitches for strength.

MARIE WATT: "Everybody’s stitches are really important."

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Performance artist James Luna is a Puyoukichum or Luiseno Indian from Southern California. He almost always creates works that are recognizably Native American. But he says they do not have to be.

JAMES LUNA: "I do believe it doesn't have to look Indian to be Indian. It's the very fact that I am an Indian making art that it becomes Indian art."

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Many of the exhibits at the National Museum of the American Indian present modern history. "Vantage Point" is a good example. The exhibit includes not only paintings and sculpture but also digital video. Rebecca Trautmann is the exhibit curator.

REBECCA TRAUTMANN: "I think that people are often surprised when they come to this museum and see an exhibition of modern or contemporary native art. And that is something I hope this exhibition will do, is surprise and challenge people's notions of what Native American art is, what Native American artists do."

(MUSIC: “Medicine Power”/Joseph FireCrow)

STEVE EMBER: Our program was written and produced by Brianna Blake, with additional reporting by Susan Logue Koster. I'm Steve Ember.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: And I’m Shirley Griffith. You can find transcripts and MP3s of our programs at You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.