Bridging the disconnect between tribes and the public

Communications professional builds understanding
Bridging the disconnect between tribes and the public
Photo by Thomas Yonash

My mother’s educational pursuits took us to many college towns across the country when I was growing up, but Madison was my favorite.

I consider myself fortunate to have attended Shorewood Hills Elementary School as a child. We were surrounded by families from across the globe. I distinctly remember them talking about faraway lands like Egypt, Israel, Ethiopia and Indonesia. I had absolutely no knowledge of these countries, let alone the ability to identify them on the world map in our second-grade classroom.

If my three brothers and I were not attending a school rich with cultural diversity, we were attending small, rural schools where we, as Ho-Chunk children, were in the minority. It was in these smaller towns as a young girl that I began to understand the challenges of educating non-Natives on Native American issues.

Classmates would speak of great-aunts or cousins. Having grown up in a Ho-Chunk household with teachings from four Ho-Chunk grandparents, I could not quite grasp the concept of a great-aunt or great-uncle. I come from a world where there are no cousins, only brothers and sisters. So I asked questions to better understand their kinship system.

“Now what exactly is a third cousin twice removed?” I recall asking my classmates. The concept was so foreign to me, I could never quite comprehend it and still cannot to this day, but not for lack of trying.

I would share details about my Ho-Chunk family kinship, which is not much easier to understand. My friends would say, “That’s weird!” To which I would respond, “No, yours is weird.”

I have encountered this disconnect on a daily basis, and I have attempted to bridge it – so much that I have made it my life’s work.

After attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I was hired by the Ho-Chunk Nation, which is headquartered in central Wisconsin and serves its tribal communities throughout the state. In working for my tribal government, I repeatedly saw misunderstandings caused by cultural barriers between the tribe and other government entities as they attempted to work out agreements. It was sometimes difficult for civic leaders to not only grasp our issues, but also to understand our values and who we are as a people.

Part of my job was to deal with the news media. It was eye-opening to see the mainstream media’s lack of journalistic responsibility to seek out Native viewpoints in stories that involved Native communities. Without that perspective, one can say that our stories were being told for us.

This problem extends beyond my tribe. The Native American Journalists Association in 2007 released a study called “Reading Red” which found that of the sources quoted in stories about Native issues by 10 newspapers (in areas with large Native American populations), nearly 74 percent were non-Native and 26 percent were Native. But that’s not the only obstacle to being portrayed fairly in news coverage. Native Americans can count on seeing an insensitive headline or a cliche in a story, usually along the lines of the Natives being restless or on a warpath. The “Reading Red” report found two instances of the term warpath used in news stories, one by the Anchorage Daily News and the other by The New York Times.

While working in public relations on behalf of my tribe, I understood why many tribal officials were leery of speaking to the news media. I discovered quickly that some journalists had already written a story and needed a quote from my nation so the article would appear to be balanced. But by developing more meaningful relationships with the media, we started seeing news coverage that included our voices. When our authentic voices are part of the public conversation, we are able to lay to rest the negative stereotypes.

Another challenge we face is the misunderstanding of some of our basic cultural teachings. We are judged by mainstream societal norms, so something as simple as eye contact has potential for misinterpretation. Society tells us we must have direct eye contact, but this is contrary to our teaching as Native children. So if we look away when someone is talking to us, we are acting within our cultural norms. Yet from another perspective, we may be seen as untrustworthy, dishonest or lacking self-esteem.

It’s also important to note that teachings vary from tribe to tribe. We are not all the same, which makes it imperative to avoid making assumptions.

There were many cases when my staff and I took time to explain various aspects of our culture to people who visited our tribal headquarters. We offered tours to visitors and educational groups from around the world. Like the conversations with my second-grade classmates, it was another opportunity to bridge the gap. Often, international visitors would comment on similarities or stark differences between our cultures. It was a learning experience for us all.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if my mother hadn’t attended the best universities for her fields of study, and hadn’t taken us to places that gave me the pleasure and honor of sharing my culture and learning from others. Cultural understanding is so complex, yet so simple. It starts with a willingness to listen and learn.

Anne Thundercloud, a Ho-Chunk tribal member who lives in central Wisconsin, is the owner of Thundercloud Communications LLC, which specializes in helping tribes improve communications.

Read a piece about powwows written by Thundercloud, click here.