Guest Commentary

Our mothers helped define American Indian identity

John Learned is executive director of the Great Plains Indian Center in Kansas City.
John Learned is executive director of the Great Plains Indian Center in Kansas City. File photo

This is American Indian Heritage month. For tens of thousands of American Indians, it’s a time to reflect on our culture, our past and our future.

Today, approximately 70 percent of all tribally-enrolled Native American Indians reside off the reservations. There are several reasons why, but the outcome is the same. It forces us to walk in two worlds.

The dominant American society, which is homogenous and sometimes isolated, does little to allow our Indian hearts to be respected for the collective consciousness we carry, along with our family and tribal experiences.

I often think of the impact my mother — Juanita Learned, Chairwoman of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes — and her friends had in creating the Indian world of today.

While drafting the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the government needed a concrete definition of what constituted an American Indian.

I was proud when Mom came home and told the family that a presidential committee had asked her to come up with that definition, in conjunction with her good friend Viola Peterson, a Miami Indian from Michigan.

It was hard work, but it was worth it.

The simple beauty of the foundational work of these women helped Indians come together, where they struggled and prayed over the true definition of an American Indian — something that would represent all tribes and have a lasting effect.

This gave all tribes a starting point to work from. It aided the publication of Cohn’s Handbook on Federal Indian Law, now regarded as a key reference work. Later the 2017 American Indian Empowerment Act and the subsequent Indian Determination Act built upon it. Most people do not realize the thought, consideration and deep research that was done in finding an answer to the simple question.

The 1975 self determination act left the decision of who is or isn’t an American Indian to the individual tribes themselves and their membership. Over the years, tribes have adjusted identification requirements, such as looking at blood quantum and official documentation, such as certified birth and death records. This has kept us from going extinct, and it gives tribes an accurate census of their own members.

A few years ago I had the great fortune to meet Teresa Bradskey, Viola’s daughter and the founder of the Harvest Moon American Indian Festival. Teresa reminded me about how Mom and people of that time worked to solidify Indian culture.

Speaking to the president of the Kansas City Indian Center and me, Teresa educated us about our mothers’ lives. She reminisced about their connection, and how my mom became Viola’s mentor at her suggestion. She shared memories about being in Washington, D.C., on “Indian business” for the first time, and seeking out my mother’s counsel.

Teresa shared her delight in knowing that this many years later, in a city where neither of us expected to find ourselves, we have been united to carry forth what had been started a generation ago.

Since those beginnings back in the ‘70s, the face of Indian country has evolved to reflect many changes. We now know Indians come in all colors, shapes and sizes. Yet we all have red hearts. We are Indians.

We never did “all look alike,” and that is still true. But we share one important part of our “Indianness”: a pride in our history, who we are.

This month we honor all of the 567 federally-recognized tribes that exist in the continental United States. Today, we are many sovereign nations. And we are still here and relevant to the continued building of the United States of America.

As the original people of this land, we particularly reflect on our deep spiritual respect for nature, one another, and honor within oneself. We all share love of this land, respect for our mother, the Earth, and all races. Aho.

John Learned is executive director of the Great Plains Indian Center in Kansas City.