May 23, 2013

Tornadoes have devastated American Indian families in Oklahoma. Here's one way people are helping.

“Our house is trashed. Time to rebuild. I’m just sad for those kids that died.”                             
—Charley Eisenberger (Kiowa), upon seeing
 his home after the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado

Perrin in front of her home after the tornado
Perrin Deal (Choctaw) sits in front of her house, which was badly damaged by the tornado. May 2013, Moore, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of Perrin Deal, used with permission.


My colleagues and I at the National Museum of the American Indian offer sincere condolences to the people affected by the recent, severe tornadoes in Oklahoma. More than 20 American Indian families lost their homes in this disaster. Their tribal affiliations include Arapaho, Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche, Delaware, Jicarilla Apache, Kickapoo, Kiowa, Pawnee, and Shawnee.

In addition to the Moore tornado, tornadoes displaced and affected American Indian families in the communities of Shawnee, Bethel, and Little Axe. Rain and flash floods are expected today in Oklahoma as families clean up their homes and begin to rebuild their lives. 

So many tribal and non-tribal individuals, government agencies, and nonprofit groups are working to provide assistance. I’d like to shine a light on one of them, to give people outside Oklahoma a sense of the grassroots efforts among people there. I hope this organization can serve as a stand-in for all the people we’d like to thank for their good work.

The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC) Disaster Relief Team—whose mission is to provide direct support, care, and assistance to American Indian victims of disasters—is serving as a focal point to coordinate Native relief efforts. Rev. David Wilson (Choctaw),, head of the OIMC Disaster Relief Team, has provided telephone numbers for people who need help or who want to provide assistance; the team can be reached at 918-724-1966 or 405-632-2006. Also, donations can be made online on their website at Checks can be mailed to The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, 3020 S. Harvey, OKC. OK 73109  Attn: Disaster Relief.

Other local organizations have come together behind OIMC, including the Jacobson House Foundation and the Oklahoma Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC). “I have full confidence in them,” says Cortney Yarholar (Creek/Pawnee/Otoe), senior tribal prevention specialist for SPRC in Oklahoma. “They have protocols in place that allow them to assist tribal families in a comprehensive way, addressing immediate needs, such as shelter, food, clothing, to longer-term life-changing help, such as rebuilding homes and offering grief support, which is vital for many months and sometimes years to come.” 

To the many people coming together behind the work of recovery and rebuilding, Cortney says, “Thank you for understanding and taking the time to join our efforts to provide direct support to Native families. Our Indian people are great people, and your generosity, love, and kind words have been very humbling.”

Tracey Satepauhoodle-Mikkanen, secretary of the Jacobson Foundation, echoes Cortney’s words. “Ah-ho [thank you] to everyone who wants to contribute to this cause.”

I'd like to join them both in saying thank you and to let people in Moore and other affected communities know that we're thinking of them as they work to support each other and move forward.

—Dennis Zotigh, NMAI

Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota) is a writer and cultural specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian. Before joining the Smithsonian, he lived in Moore and helped develop the American Indian Gallery of the new Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City.


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Thank you for sharing information and accessibilty for individuals and organizations to assist.

Rebecca Balog

I have always thought there should be a Native American rescue organization to help Natives reclaim any regalia, ceremonial items, etc. that may be in the debris.

Thank you Dennis for sharing this information on how we can help in the meantime.

March 15, 2013

"We Are Aware, Are You?" — Welcoming Students From the Suquamish Tribe

DSC_8055 Vincent, a high school student from the Suquamish Tribe of Washington state, performs a traditional song in the Rasmuson Theater at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., March 14, 2013 (Photo by Leonda Levchuk, NMAI)

Long before the first European stepped ashore in 1792, the Suquamish had called the Puget Sound home for nearly 10,000 years. Thanks to the region’s abundance of salmon, cod, clams, geoducks, oysters and waterfowl, the tribe had cultivated a meaningful relationship with and reliance upon the region’s waterways. In fact, the word Squamish means “People of the Clear Salt Water” in the Southern Lushootseed language. (Incidentally, the region's largest city is named after Suquamish leader Chief Sealth, or Seattle, who tried to protect his people and their land through early alliances and treaties with European settlers.)

Though Port Madison Indian Reservation—where roughly half of the tribe’s 1,050 enrolled members live today—represents a fraction of the territory their ancestors once called home, the Suquamish have managed to retain the fishing traditions that once defined their forebears’ way of life. But a new threat to the tribe’s culture has emerged, according to We Are Aware/ Are You?, a short documentary that was screened yesterday at the D.C. museum.

As the film explains, industrial pollution from nearby Seattle—home to corporate giants like Starbucks, Amazon and, until recently, Boeing—has led to ocean acidification, which occurs when carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is absorbed into the ocean, raising pH levels and damaging young marine life.

The film’s message was underscored by the presence and passion of its creators: Vincent Chargualaf, Tyleeander Purser, Shaylene Sky Jefferson and Crystal Boure, four high school students from the Suquamish tribe who had traveled from Washington state to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness about ocean acidification and its devastating impact on the fishing culture and economy that has sustained their families for hundreds of generations.


“My father taught me how to fish, his father taught him. It’s a rite of passage. And it makes me sad to think that my children or my children’s children may not get to experience that," said Tyleeander, whose European and Native American roots includes fishermen on both sides of his family. “With lack of salmon comes unhappy Northwest Indians,” he joked.

But the students were quick to point out that ocean acidification isn't confined to the Northwest. “It doesn’t affect only our tribe,” Shaylene said to the audience. “It affects the global economy.”

  DSC_8061From left: Shaylene, Crystal, Vincent, Tyleeander, a group of four high school students from the Suquamish Tribe of Washington state, ponder questions about their community at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., March 14, 2013 (Photo by Leonda Levchuk, NMAI)

Before screening their film at the museum, the tribe’s young delegates presented their documentary at the 4th National Student Summit on the Ocean and Coasts, a conference sponsored by the Coastal America Partnership that brings together dozens of students and educators from across the U.S., Canada and Mexico to promote stewardship of the world’s water resources.

Following a performance of traditional Suquamish song and a screening of their film in the museum's Rasmuson Theater, the students took questions from the public. When asked what prompted their interest in environmental advocacy, Vincent piped up on behalf of his classmates: “I got this one,” he said with a smile, before explaining that a group of older students at their high school had paved the way, having attended the summit several years ago. And though he and his fellow classmates were “volun-told” to attend this year’s conference, they’ve since become passionate about the cause.

“About four or five months ago, we didn’t have any idea about ocean acidification," Vincent admitted. "But the more I learn, the more scared I get. I think I speak for all of us when I say this issue has invigorated my spirit.” Crystal agreed. “The more I learn, the more interested I become.”

“There are no words to explain how frightening it is to hear that we might lose a huge part of our culture within our own generation,” Vincent said.

“It’s almost like losing our treaty rights,” Shaylene added. “What our ancestors fought so hard for.”

“I think we will have sea life to harvest in the next generation,” said Paul Williams, the tribe’s shellfish biologist, who had traveled across the country with his community’s young ambassadors. “The question is what will it be, and will we like to eat it. Will we have to figure out a way to eat jellyfish?”

Comments (3)

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I am impressed, I must say
this article is very interesting...

Interesting share. It is indeed a good idea to introduce youths from a minority tribe to the world so as to speak out their insights on the current situation they live in and perhaps introduce an aspect or two of their traditions so those who are in the dark will understand their plight and why they are what they are. It's a win-win for both.

Interesting article..nice to learn situations of tribe peoples..

December 06, 2012

President Obama Hosts 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference

Native American military veterans, including a member of the Native American Women Warriors, Marine Justin Fisher and a Navajo Code Talker from WWII (bottom right), take their seats at the closing session of the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

On Wednesday, Dec. 5, President Barack Obama hosted the 4th annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, a day-long event that brings together leaders and representatives from the country's 566 federally recognized tribes and members of the Obama administration. Calling it "the cornerstone of the Administration’s outreach and engagement with tribal governments," President Obama has held the conference each year since he took office as part of his original campaign pledge to improve nation-to-nation relations between Indian Country and the U.S. government. He is the first American President to hold annual meetings with Native American leaders.

This year's conference, held at the Department of the Interior's headquarters, began with opening remarks by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, (full remarks here), who highlighted several of the Interior Department's accomplishments during the past year, including payouts in the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement, a landmark case over mismanagement of federal lands held in trust for Native Americans.

First brought to court in 1996, the class-action lawsuit was led by plaintiff Elouise Cobell of Montana's Blackfeet Tribe, a trustee of the museum who passed away last year. When President Obama signed the settlement into law on Dec. 9, 2010, he called it a "small measure of justice" for the wrongdoings. (Read more about the Cobell settlement here.)

Remarks were also delivered by:

  • Secretary Arne Duncan, Department of Education (Full transcript here)
  • Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin, Department of the Treasury (Read the press release here)
  • Acting Secretary Rebecca Blank, Department of Commerce (Full transcript here)
  • Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Department of Health and Human Services (Full transcript here)
  • Secretary Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture (Read the press release here)
Members of the administration during the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference. L-R: Tony West, Acting Associate Attorny General, Dept. of Justice; Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, Director, Indian Health Service; Marie Johns, Deputy Administrator, Small Business Administration; Secretary Ray LaHood, Dept. of Transportation; and Secretary Hilda Solis, Dept. of Labor. (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

Following opening remarks, administration officials invited tribal leaders to attend breakout sessions that were closed to the public. The roundtables, led by various Obama administration officials, addressed various topics:

  • Strengthening Tribal Communities: Economic Development, Housing, Energy and Infrastructure, led by Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary, Department of Agriculture; and Marie Johns, Deputy Administrator, FEMA.
  • Protecting our Communities: Law Enforcement and Disaster Relief, led by James Cole, Deputy Attorney General, Department of Justice; and Craig Fugate, Administrator, FEMA.
  • Securing Our Future: Cultural Prottection, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, led by Hilary Tompkins, Solicitor, Department of the Interior; and Ignacia Moreno, Assistant Attorney General, Department of Justice.
  • Building Healthy Communities, Excellence in Education and Native American Youth, led by Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, Director, Indian Health Service; and Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education, White House Domestic Policy Council.
  • Strengthening and Advancing the Government-to-Government Relationship, led by Deputy Secretary David J. Hayes, Department of the Interior; and Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West, Department of Justice.

The closing session featured remarks by the leaders of each roundtable, as well as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

The Department of Justice's Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West noted that, for him, one of the main takeaways of the conference is that no two tribes are alike, and that these distinctions should be taken into consideration when shaping federal policy. The challenges facing landless tribes are vastly different than those confronting tribes whose federal recognition was terminated and later restored, he said.

Other concerns raised during the breakout sessions included:

  • The disproportionate effect of climate change on indigenous communities.
  • The rise of violence and drug trafficking on tribal land.
  • The effect of the fiscal cliff on Native American communities. 
  • Enforcing NAGRPA and protecting sacred tribal land and resources from mineral development.
  • Expanded education and suicide prevention for Native youth.
  • Internet and transportation infrastructure on reservations.

Read Indian Country Today's recap.   

Read MSNBC's What You Didn’t See at the White House Tribal Nations Summit.

President Barack Obama addresses tribal leaders at the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference, Dec. 5. 2012 (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

After being welcomed onstage by Brian Cladoosby of the Swinomish Nation, President Obama delivered the conference's closing remarks. He began by paying tribute to tribal elder Sonny Black Eagle, who had adopted him into the Crow Nation during his 2008 campaign after he became the first Presidential candidate in history to visit the Crow reservation. Black Eagle passed away last week, just eight days shy of his 79th birthday.

“While we can’t celebrate that milestone with him today, we can celebrate his remarkable life and all that happened along the way," President Obama said. "Because Sonny’s story is not just one man’s journey to keep his culture alive, but one country’s journey to keep perfecting itself.”

Watch President Obama's full remarks on the White House website.

President Barack Obama greets members of the audience following his remarks at the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

In its executive summary for the Tribal Nations conference, the White House detailed its achievements for Indian Country during the President's first term, which included:

  • The HEARTH Act, which restores tribal authority to govern the leasing and management of their own lands.
  • The Tribal Law and Order Act, which improves coordination between federal law enforcement and tribal justice systems.
  • Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which was permanently reauthorized as part of the Affordable Care Act
  • In addition to Cobell case, the settlement of the Keepseagle class-action lawsuit, which awarded $680 million to 4,200 Native American farmers and ranchers who were systematically denied loans by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981 to 1999.

What do you think of the issues addressed at this year’s Tribal Nations Conference? What are some of the issues facing your communities? Share your thoughts with us!

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June 05, 2012

Inspiration from Alaska

IMG092                    NMAI Cultural Interpreter Rachael Cassidy (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) poses with a group of visitors from Alaska outside the museum. (Photo courtesy of Rachael Cassidy)

On Sunday I had the opportunity to give a tour to nine amazing students from Alaska, with a teacher and cameraman in tow. The Yupik kids are from a small island with a total population of 50 people. This was their third time off the island. After fundraising for three years, they finally had enough money to take their trip to Washington, D.C. The National Museum of the American Indian was at the top of their list of sites to see.

As a Cultural Interpreter, I have given tours to people from all walks of life. This includes kindergarteners and diplomats. I have given thousands of tours, but I will never forget my time with these amazing young people. Their bright, inquisitive eyes darted over exhibits and back to me, soaking up the experience like thirsty, happy sponges. Most young people are not interested in museums, so I have developed a bag of tricks to get their attention. These kids didn’t need any magic tricks; they brought the magic in the door with them.

We played a little game about identity: I showed the students a picture of a Cherokee woman from Oklahoma in her traditional clothing. “Who is more Cherokee,” I asked, “me or the woman in the picture?” The Yupik kids responded the same way most visitors do and pointed to the woman in the picture. “Really?” I asked and looked at the picture. “Do you recognize the woman in the picture?” They looked carefully and a wide-eyed few piped up, “That’s you!” I asked again, “Who is more Cherokee?” They were confused, and again, most of them said the woman in the picture. “If I change my clothes, does that change who I am?” We had a fun discussion about cultural identity. They decided that even if they aren’t wearing traditional clothing, they are still Yupik.

The teacher asked me to talk about leaving home, addressing language loss and lack of traditions. These are concerns for many Native people when we leave home. I shared my experiences as an urban Native in the D.C. area. I miss a lot of cultural events at home. However, it is an honor to teach people about my culture and my history. I have grown as an individual because of the time I have spent in Washington. I have a better understanding of my culture because I have left home. I compare my culture to others around the world. Now I understand why we tell our stories and cook our foods in certain ways. I share these stories and cultures with my family and friends when I return. My nieces and nephews love Alaskan string games! “You can do both. You can leave your community to teach others about Yupik peoples. When you return home, you will have new stories to share with your community.”

The students loved the idea that tradition changes and always has, as expressed through contemporary objects at the museum like the Yupik mask made from kitchen utensils and beaded tennis shoes. We talked about Native artists, Senators, and astronauts. We discussed the importance of elders and traditions. After I had shared objects and stories with them for nearly two hours, they were ready to share with me.

We went to the Yupik exhibit. The Yupik are known for telling stories through dance. Two teenage girls shared a beautiful dance that tells the story of the traditional sweat baths. We shared words in our languages. Then I showed them a dance a Yupik grandmother gave the museum about the drum. It was brilliant to see to see all nine of them making the motions for the large flat Yupik drum.

These students wanted to learn. They wanted to be at my museum. They wanted to hear my stories. This is why I came to work at NMAI—so I could share these stories with the next generation. Most aren’t interested, but these students didn’t waste a single moment of their time. Even the four-year-old asked questions! Their teacher was amazing. She has poured her heart into these young people, and it shows. The cameraman is making a film about their experiences leaving the island. I can’t wait to see it!

I believe these students can do anything. I believe they can be Senators, astronauts, artists, traditionalists, and filmmakers. Wado, (thank you) for helping me remember why I came to NMAI. I am truly blessed to have had you all as my teachers. You are the next generation. You are my inspiration.

~  Rachael Cassidy (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma), Cultural Interpreter, NMAI

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March 12, 2012

How Social Media Revealed a Navajo Family Heirloom


Jared King, who works in the Navajo Nation's D.C. headquarters, shares this story about his quest to track down a print copy of the beautiful photograph above, which features his grandmother on the Navajo Nation during the Depression.

In 1933 American photographer Laura Gilpin (1891-1979) took a photo of a young Navajo girl, age 12 or 13, near the Four Corners in the Navajo Nation. That photo was later published in Gilpin’s book, The Enduring Navaho (1968, University of Texas Press), among other photos taken on and near the Navajo Nation. The subject in the photo is Susan Tsosie, my grandmother. Susan is seated on the ground, holding a kid goat and wearing traditional Navajo clothing: a hand-woven shawl draped around her shoulders, silver coins and buttons adorning her blouse and a stunning piece of turquoise jewelry around her neck.

About a month ago, my cousin Susanna Rose posted the Gilpin photo of Susan on her Facebook page. A number of my cousins responded with their own cherished memories of our grandmother, who later married George King, my grandfather. They have both passed on, but their legacy remains.

It was through Facebook that I was reminded of the photographer Laura Gilpin. I Googled her name. The search led me to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, where most of her photos are now housed. I contacted the museum and submitted a request for a copy of this photo.

I thought it was a long shot, but the museum responded immediately. They sent over a digital image of the photo I described. It was a match. Two days ago, a print copy of the original photo taken in 1933 arrived at my apartment in Adams Morgan in Washington, D.C. Laura Gilpin captured an incredible image of Susan Tsosie.

In a week, it will hang nicely framed in the Navajo Nation Washington Office for everyone to enjoy.

Jared King, Communications Director, Navajo Nation Washington Office

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This is a great story, social media has been useful in other spectacular discoveries. Like finding missing children or reuniting family. Thanks for the post, I liked it on facebook!

I can not believe that you are a grandchild of the woman captioned on the picture, that is so amazing!The picture of your grandma, holding the kid goat in her native attires is so lovely! Thanks for sharing with us that story!

Really informative article post.Really looking forward to read more. Really Great.

Grandmother looks so young and beautiful. Also see the Navajo clothing! Beautifully traditional. This is a very great memory.

That is a really lovely story, and the photograph is beautiful - someone must have taken great care of the original print to preserve it so well.
Isn't it amazing how modern technology can join together such a historic tradition to the current day..

Wow really cool. Just great to see young artist sharing there works with the community.

I can not believe that you are a grandchild of the lady captioned on the image, that is so amazing!The image of your grandmother, having the kid goat in her local outfits is so lovely! Thanks for discussing with us that story!

Hello grandson. My name is Kathleen Tsosie. Your grand mother was my aunt. My late father's name was Allen Tsosie. I am so proud of what you've done with your grandmother's picture. It great to know that you have her picture up at Washington D.C. at the Navajo Nation office. Love you and continue to do your best with Navajo Nation School board. Currently, a school board member at Cove, Arizona.

Look what social media do! It does not just inspire, promote or advertise but it also connects not just places but also time. This is an inspiring story.