Sacred Teachings: A professor’s journey in Native American spirituality

Kathy Heskin brings students to reservations
Sacred Teachings: A professor’s journey in Native American spirituality

I had never met a Native American or been to a reservation when I was asked to teach Native American spirituality more than 20 years ago at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. The class included a two-week camping trip to Montana, and although I had never camped without my husband and three sons, I said yes. One of my sons participated in a previous class trip to Montana and it had such a positive impact on him that I wanted other students to have that experience, too.

I made that 4,300-mile journey 15 times with Dominican students and each trip was not only unique, but also a laboratory for learning. These experiences convinced me that getting students out of the classroom, at least for part of a course, gives them the opportunity to grasp what they are reading and studying in a profound way. The Oglala Lakota people in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, the Blackfoot people in Browning, Montana, and the Cree-Chippewa people on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in Montana welcomed us, shared with us and deepened our understanding of history, spirituality and the challenges that face them. And I have been able to connect with my Native American heritage that–as an adopted person raised in the New York suburbs–I hadn’t known about until 12 years ago, when I wrote to the adoption agency from which I was placed and discovered that my lineage includes Lumbee and Navajo.

I have carried on the practice of community-based learning at Edgewood College, where I teach a course in Native American spirituality. I invite elders and teachers from some of Wisconsin’s 11 federally recognized tribes to come to my class to share their traditions, and I get the students out into nature. Our trips to tribal communities in Wisconsin allow my students to meet and interact with people, in particular the grandmothers of the tribes, to learn about the differences in the worldviews of the dominant culture and native people. One critical difference is the way we look at the earth. For many tribes, the earth is our mother. You don’t own her and she provides all that we need. We are to treat the land with respect, and so another essential piece of the course is for the students to research and develop a project on protecting the environment, and, in particular, how native people are working for change in government policies.

Since moving to the Madison area three years ago, my husband, Neil, and I have become involved with Madison 350, a group working against the proposed Enbridge pipeline through Wisconsin. Enbridge is the Canadian company responsible for the oil spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010, and its existing pipeline travels through 14 waterways in Wisconsin and traverses reservation lands. I work with people in Madison and on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe reservation in northern Wisconsin to try to prevent the parallel pipeline that is now under construction. I use this effort as an example of an environmental issue that intersects with native values.

Such issues rarely get widespread media attention. However, the ongoing protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota has drawn national media coverage in recent months. In light of the gathering of people at Standing Rock, we are renewing our efforts here, and some of my students have become involved in this work, and some have also gone to North Dakota to support the people there. I see great commitment from the students to engage in this struggle, both in the projects they develop and in their actions. In November, we traveled to the Lac du Flambeau and Lac Courte Oreilles reservations. One of the women whose home we visited was Tinker Schuman at Lac du Flambeau. Schuman is a teacher, a pipe carrier and leader of ceremonies for her people. She shared a ceremony with my students that included prayer and song. The experience was profound–something the students will long remember. The next day we drove to Lac Courte Oreilles and visited tribal elder Maryellen Baker, who gathered us around her kitchen table and told us stories. She talked about why Native American tobacco is sacred to the Anishinaabe people, and she gave each student some tobacco to offer their own prayer to the Creator.

Baker has been my teacher for many years. She is one of the “water walkers”–grandmothers, women and men who have walked the circumference of the Great Lakes, offering prayers for the waters so they will remain pure for future generations. Last summer, I was on a committee that worked with Baker to plan a symposium at Lac Courte Oreilles called “Women and Water Coming Together.” It was five days filled with prayer, teachings from the water walkers and ceremonies, as well as incredible music and tribal songs. Many of the women who attended have since traveled to North Dakota to stand with the “water protectors” there. The response to the women and water symposium was so great that we will be hosting another gathering at the reservation next summer, Aug. 5-10, called “Women and Men Together for Water.” It will be open to the public.

I consider it an incredible gift to teach and learn from my students. As they present their discoveries, my own knowledge deepens. My Anishinaabe name is Baswewekwe, which means Resounding Echo Woman. I asked about the meaning and was told that as a teacher, my words would live long after my spirit walked on. I want those words to be good and true.

Kathy Heskin is a theologian and adjunct professor at Edgewood College.