“They all get checks you know,” Bertie said during an interview near the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. “All people who are a ¼ Indian or more receive checks from the government,” she told me as she nodded sagely.
Dang, I missed out again! I explained that although I am half Ojibwe I have never received any check from the federal government for being Indian. “Oh, well you Ojibwe are so much more industrious,” she flustered.
This exchange, one of many throughout my life, was with a very nice, well-educated older white lady who grew up less than 10 miles from Rosebud. How could she be so willfully ignorant, I marveled, of her close neighbors?
Rural myths, as I like to call them, about American Indians are stubbornly entrenched among even the more enlightened non-Indians in this country. Many non-Indians will relate with authority that Indians get free education and free health care, don’t pay taxes and aren’t subject to the same laws as other U. S. citizens. When questioned further, they can’t remember exactly where or when they heard this information, but they know it is true.
The Salish Kootenai tribe on the Flathead Reservation in Montana is taking a unique head-on approach to tackling this entrenched disinformation in their community.
Through a multi-media website The Rez We Live On, campaign weaves together interactive images, Q&A’s and videos to engage and educate. When I first viewed The Rez We Live On videos, with their happy, spare graphics, I sensed a familiarly I couldn’t quite put my finger on. “Why do I know this?” Suddenly it came to me: School House Rocks, the old educational films from my 1970s childhood! Every Saturday morning, these short films with their catchy tunes and easy to understand graphics helped me understand grammar, math and civics.
Rob McDonald, Communications Director for the tribe and a former journalist, laughed when I asked him if The Rez We Live On were influenced by School House Rock. McDonald says that, like many adults today, he was raised on Saturday morning cartoons. With the typically irreverent humor of a newspaper journalist, he wondered if a similar light-hearted approach might work to educate people about Indians and their role in the United States.
McDonald’s job is to get the tribe’s story out to the public, a story that’s at once extremely complicated and very simple. He realized that even many informed people who work regularly with Indians don’t know the most basic facts. After weeks of winnowing complex information about sovereignty, justice, education, and other topics. he and ad directors at Salt Studio in Missoula came up with The Rez We Live On.
Christina “Spider” McKnight, director of Salt Studio, admits that initially the effort looked daunting . “We were really trying to eat the elephant at first, “ she recalls. “We needed to explain sovereignty in a way that is digestible and understandable.”
They decided to take a “myth busting” approach. McDonald came up with a list of questions about being Indian that he never wanted to be asked again. Thus The Rez We Live On was born.
The Flathead Reservation in Northwest Montana is a typical “checkerboard reservation,” where much of the land is owned by non-Indians. In fact, McDonald says, white people outnumber Indians here. Property that was left over after enactment of the Dawes or Allotment Act of 1910, deeding reservation land to heads of Indian families, was sold to non-Indians. After 1910, much of the allotted land was sold or lost by Indians who often had little understanding of the concept of land ownership.
Amazingly, non-Indian Flathead residents receive very little education about tribal government in school. “You could live here your whole life and know virtually nothing about the tribe or its government, “ says McDonald.
Relations between Indians and non-Indians have not always been good on the Flathead rez, he admits. “There is a lot of mistrust and suspicion about the motives of tribal government, “ he notes. Several years ago, the town of Polson even tried to secede from the reservation.
“We are a community and we need to work together to get things done,” says McDonald.
In this spirit, the tribe kicked off its The Rez We Live On campaign last week with four billboards sporting a simple list of words including, “pick-up trucks,” “fry bread,” “hardware stores,” “golf,” “powwows,” “horses,” “rodeo,” … followed by the web address, www.therezweliveon.com.
So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, Rob McDonald says.
McDonald says that many tribes are struggling with the same problem: how to de-mystify public understanding. “If non-Indians knew a bit about us before dealing with us, our relationships would go much better, “he says.
Online media and the website already seem to be effective tools for getting the Salish Kootenai story out to the public. McDonald notes, ”The community as a whole has never before had this information so readily available to them.”