Wearing a doeskin dress with elaborate beadwork, metal cones, and fringes, a young girl steps onto a buckskin mat and stands in silence before a ceremonial tipi. A moment later, she begins running, taking off to the east toward a large basket that holds a sacred cache of pieces of clay and galena, the pollen ends of cattail reeds, and a bundle of eagle feathers. As members of her family and community watch from the sidelines, the young girl runs around the basket and back to the buckskin four times, reenacting the story of the emergence of Isanaklesh, the deity of ideal womanhood.
Her ritual has special meaning to the people of the Mescalero Apache nation of New Mexico. It is a practice steeped in tradition, a sacred rite in the sequence of actions that make up an eight-day coming-of-age ceremony. But it is also something few other people in New Mexico—or elsewhere in the United States—know much about. That’s a shortcoming at least one professor at The University of Iowa hopes to fix.
|Michelene Pesantubbe, faculty member in the American Indian and Native Studies Program, is hopeful the University’s annual three-day Powwow can return to campus. The celebration has been held every spring for the past 14 years but did not have sufficient financial and staffing support this year.
“There is much that Native American culture can offer mainstream American culture,” says Michelene Pesantubbee, an assistant professor of religious studies with a joint appointment in the American Indian and Native Studies Program. “The more exposure we can find to different ways of looking at the world, the more ways we can find to live together in a compatible way.”
Pesantubbee teaches an undergraduate course called Introduction to Native American Religious Traditions. Offered for the first time last spring in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and open to all students, the course provides an in-depth look at the practices and beliefs of Native American communities.
Pesantubbee brings to the classroom her perspective as a Choctaw native. She grew up in an Oklahoma town at the crossroads of the Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw nations, where she saw firsthand how Native Americans struggled to practice and retain their religious traditions. It was in this part of the country where the Cherokee and Choctaw nations fled—along with three other nations collectively described as the Five “Civilized” Tribes—when the federal government in the 1830s forced these groups from their homelands in the Southeast. Thousands of Native Americans died during the dislocation known as the Trail of Tears.
Pesantubbe witnessed displacement of another sort in her college years. While counseling students at the University of Oklahoma’s American Indian Institute in the 1970s, she became aware of the conflicted feelings of many Native Americans toward their Christian upbringing. Her experiences formed a strong impetus for a career of research and teaching about Native American culture and identity.
Armed with real-world experience and academic study, including graduate and doctoral research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Pesantubbee guides her Iowa students through a dark period in American history. She and her students examine the stifling impact of European ideas and Christian missionary work on the roles of women in Native American tribes. They study how sacred rites like the Mescalero puberty ceremony survived government and missionary campaigns to quash Native American practices. They also trace the history of how Native Americans lost access to holy lands.
“Land access remains a serious issue,” says Pesantubbee, who taught religious studies at the University of Colorado for eight years before coming to The University of Iowa in 2003. “The federal government owns many lands considered in Native American cultures to be sacred sites or the source of sacred items, such as turquoise and sage. Native Americans may not be able to access these lands, or they may feel these sites have been violated, that people have not been respectful of the sites as holy places.”
Pesantubbee knows her class may be the first exposure to Native American culture for many of her students, who come from nearly every liberal arts and sciences major. She wants to make sure they leave her class equipped to think critically about Native American issues, but she also encourages her students to weigh in with their hearts and guts.
Nick Smith, a junior political science major from Urbandale, says the class rounds out his Native American minor and gives him a peek inside a culture a lot of students don’t get to see. He’s become fascinated by Native American holistic beliefs that view people and the world as a single system.
“The Navajo chant to renew the order of things in their lives and in the movement that surrounds them,” Smith says. “The Lakota go on vision quests not only to find out what they are supposed to do in life but also to find a way to improve their health.”
The American Indian and Native Studies Program at Iowa emerges from a nationwide effort over the past few decades for a more diverse curriculum, according to program academic director Philip Round. Since 1992, Iowa’s American Indian and Native Studies Program has focused on the histories, cultures, languages, arts, crafts, beliefs, literatures, and contemporary legal and political issues of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere. The program offers an undergraduate minor, an undergraduate certificate, and a graduate certificate. Headquartered in the Jefferson Building, the program has more than 40 undergraduate and graduate students pursuing one of these options. In addition to the program’s core teaching faculty of seven professors, faculty members across campus teach courses that meet the requirements for the certificate and minor. Associate Professor Linda Bolton, for instance, teaches Native American literature and autobiography courses that are cross-listed for credit in the program.
According to Round, work in the program prepares students for professional training in social work, law, education, public health, and other fields where they can work closely with Native American communities. But Round believes the program also offers less tangible rewards of even greater value.
“It’s impossible to know much about our country without knowing something about the Native American,” Round says. “Our country is woven of many cultural strands. I tell our students that close study of the Native American heritage can reward you with many discoveries, including one that will serve you well: figuring out what it means to be an American.”
by Shelbi Thomas and Gary Kuhlmann