As the debate on race and affirmative action continues on college campuses, government statistics indicate that the percentage of youth enrolled in college is consistently the lowest for Native Americans in comparison to all other racial groups. Though the number of Native Americans enrolled has doubled in the last 30 years, the disparities in education prompted Dr. Lee Eagleboy Walters, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, to foster a Native American community in Central Texas that can increase greater access to education while preserving indigenous traditions. As a board member of Greater Promise for American Indians, Lee has helped provide educational grants to needy, Native American families and co-directed the Annual Austin Powwow and the American Indian Heritage Festival, one of the largest celebrations of Native American culture in the country. I sat down with Lee on Saturday at the Annual Austin Powwow to discuss tradition, education, and prevailing myths about Native Americans.
Christina: Can you talk about what a powwow is?
Lee Walters: So when the winter would come, tribes would break up in bands and meet in the spring. That’s when we would share stories about people who had passed on and the newborns. That was a gathering of necessity because the food source wasn’t there. But in the spring, all the tribe would get together as one and celebrate everything that had happened through that winter and know that a new beginning had started. The contemporary style of powwow is a gathering. We have all types of powwows now: competition powwows, reservation powwows. Here in Austin we have a competition powwow, which is the largest, single-day powwow in the nation with over 50,000 people in attendance.
C: What is the powwow’s importance in Austin?
LW: Austin is a little different because we’re not on a reservation and people don’t think there are a lot of Indians in Austin. In Central Texas alone by census, there are about 12,000 American Indians and probably over 100,000 American Indians in Texas. What is unusual about this community is that when I started here about 20 years ago, there wasn’t a big, Indian community and now there are all kinds of things that are coming up. I was at the [Texas] House Committee this past summer with a group of Indians and we got legislation passed for the first American Indian Heritage Day, which is the last Friday of September.
C: What is the importance of creating this communal space for indigenous people in Austin?
LW: What we’re trying to do is get Native youth [from reservations] that are going to college like at the University of Texas. Most Native youths get homesick very quickly, so it’s not that they’re not intelligent enough to come to a university like UT or any other major university. The problem is they get homesick, so we have to build a community where they feel welcome. They would probably come, do school, get their degree, and use that degree back on the reservation and help people. They feel that if they go away from the reservation, they’re losing their tradition. A lot of Indian kids never leave the reservation. We want our children to be educated.
C: What do you recommend to young Native Americans who want to maintain their culture in college while facing pressures to adapt to the world of academia or to assimilate?
LW: Y’know that’s interesting because that’s one of the big questions. A graduate student said to me,”I’m traditional. I’m a powwow dancer. That’s what I do. But when I’m in college, I got to go to labs. I got my internships.” I tell them go to school, get your degree, but don’t forget about your traditions. If all you can do is school and you can’t do the things of your traditional cultures, there’ll still be something instilled in you. Don’t worry about that because the next time you’ll be dancing with three diplomas. School doesn’t last forever, but how many more important things can you do with an education. You don’t have to do all those traditional things. They will just come naturally. When I was young, I would wear my long ponytail. I’m not going to change my look. When people say “What’s with the long hair?” I say that’s my culture. There’s thing you can do traditionally that doesn’t change you getting your degree. And like I say our life never ends, so you’ll always be traditional.
C: Could you elaborate on the educational aspect of Greater Promise?
LW: Education is based on the next generation and we’re really keen on continuing tradition. Also teaching Indians- and non-Indians- about the tradition and the culture. We want to help our Indian kids in independent school districts. We give them educational grants, so that they can use them to buy computers or just survive through college or anything they need it for. We didn’t want to focus on just a scholarship for tuition because we know a lot of parents don’t have basic funding.
C: Part of Great Promise’s mission is to dispel myths about Native Americans. What types of myths exist out there and how do you counteract them?
LW: There are so many myths. One of the biggest myths is, about 20 years ago, people didn’t think there were any Indians at all in Texas. Another misconception is Columbus. [Greater Promise] tries to teach about land rights, dancing, drumming. The [Austin Annual Powwow] is intertribal so all nations come. There are a lot of similarities, but there are 565 federally recognized nations. Each one has its own language, so those are misconceptions when they say, “you’re an Indian and you do this”. No, my tribe lived in a teepee not a wigwam. Not all Indians are the same. We all have our separate nation.
C: What are the consequences of these myths in the U.S.?
LW: A lot of myths have been treaties. You’ll hear a lot of history about treaties that say we paid you for land. The Cobell [v. Salazar] case is the biggest case now that’s being paid out to most American Indians, who have IIM [Individual Indian Money] accounts which means they own land on the reservations. The government finally had to pay them. The sum started at billions of dollars and many presidents [since 1996] didn’t sign it. Obama was the first president who says the U.S. owes the Native Indians money for their land and now the payout has come. Unfortunately the lawyers got most of the money, but just this last year in 2012 the first checks started coming out. They were $1000 checks for each person who has IIM accounts, which is not fair because there are a lot of Indians off the reservation. They don’t own land, so they get nothing.
C: It’s Halloween time and there are some people who like to dress as Native Americans. What is your reaction to this?
LW: This is part of our education. Here at this powwow, all our vendors have to go through a strict regiment of making sure it’s authentic. We don’t want all the fake feathers. When [performers] get on the floor and dance in this competition, we’ll take a person off the floor because they’re not wearing true regalia. It’s almost like mimicking a culture. We take it very seriously. A lot of powwows and a lot of functions take it very seriously. When you think of Halloween, you think that’s a costume. This isn’t a costume. This is an outfit. You’re representing your tribe, you’re representing your people or your immediate family. There is always that joke that Halloween is our national day because we go trick-or-treaty. Halloween you take for what it’s worth. It’s time when people go in costume. And if they go as an Indian, it’s because they’re not educated in the true culture.