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Podcast: An American Indian Perspective on History Today

Podcast: An American Indian Perspective on History Today

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Podcast with Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University, and Ms. Nicole Nesberg, Faculty Member, School of Arts and Humanities

Throughout history, Native Americans have made valuable contributions to American society, including the WWII military service of the Navajo Code Talkers and of other tribes. Unfortunately, Native Americans have also undergone systemic mistreatment, including various acts of racial injustice.

In this podcast, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU professor Nicole Nesberg about her indigenous upbringing as an American Indian woman. Learn about how her tribal lineage connects her to other people of color in protesting racial oppression in the United States and her perspective on what can be done to rectify racial injustices in order to bring positive change to the nation.

Read the Transcript

Bjorn Mercer: Welcome to the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University System. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today at The Everyday Scholar, we are talking to Professor Nicole Nesberg, adjunct professor of history at American Public University System and she also teaches at SUNY Empire State and Santa Fe College in Gainesville. Today, we are talking about an American Indian perspective on history today. Welcome, Nicole.

Nicole Nesberg: Ah, miigwetch. Thank you. A pleasure to be here.

Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. I’m going to just jump into the first question. Academically, your interests are on Indian women and urbanization.

As an American Indian woman, what about your upbringing can be described as unique to American Anishinaabe people? How does your indigenous upbringing fit in living in modern America? And what should most Americans know about Anishinaabe culture, food, geography and spirituality?

Nicole Nesberg: Well Bjorn, thank you for asking. Let me start off by introducing myself to everyone listening to this podcast as an American Indian woman of the Ojibwe people. We have a certain protocol in how we introduce ourselves to everyone, and it comes from a sense of pride, a sense of who we are.

So my name is Migizi Miigwan Mukwa dodem Chimissing Bahwating Objibwe miinwaa Crooked Tree Odawa. That means my name is Migizi Miigwan, which translates to Eagle Feather. I’m of the Mukwa dodem. Dodem would be like a totem, I suppose, in most English languages. That is the Bear Clan.

I’m from Munising, Michigan, also known as Chimissing and I’m of the Bahwating Objibwe, which is the Sault tribe of Chippewa Indians. And I’m also part Crooked Tree Odawa/Ottawa. Being that our current policy is you can only be one member of one tribe, although I know my lineage is from two different tribes.

Technically, I can only be a tribal member of one. So my family picked the one that was closest to us, which was in Sault Saint Marie, Michigan. And the Chippewa tribe is the largest tribe in North America, not the largest tribe in the United States, but our lands run from Ottawa to Minnesota. So it’s quite a large region that my people come from.

What’s unique about being an American Indian woman, which I feel very fortunate and very proud of, is that the lands I grew up on are the lands of my ancestors. So when I go to see pictographs or I go to see rock carvings, I know those are the ancestors that I came from. Those are my people.

Whereas most immigrants or most people that were forced to move to this nation from Africa, if you want to go see something from your ancestors, you have to travel to Europe, to Asia, to Africa, to some other nation to go connect. Whereas I am fortunate enough when I return to Munising, there’s great petroglyphs in Sanilac, Michigan; there’s pictographs in the Upper Peninsula and in Canada across the border. So I can connect much more easily than someone who would have to travel to an entirely different location on this globe.

Bjorn Mercer: Thank you for introducing, I think for explaining that. What you explained is something that I would say most Americans of non-indigenous origin don’t have — is it to say correctly that tribal designation?

Nicole Nesberg: Yes, that’s correct.

Bjorn Mercer: Okay. Yeah. It makes me think maybe my own past, if I wanted to go and experience my past I’d have to go to Finland.

And even then, I’d have to do a lot of research to figure out what tribe I came from or tribal entity that used to exist in those European countries and which for the most part, as did most of European countries, that tribal structure is gone. That tribal structure, does it help you feel more connected, say to your tribe or to this land where I would say for other Americans they don’t have a tribal connection?

Nicole Nesberg: Yeah. And once again, this is what I feel absolutely fortunate about is when I meet people of my tribe and I say boozhoo Anishinaabe, they know exactly who I am already, that we are connected somehow. And also we’re fortunate to have sort of a pan-Indianism in this nation where even if we’re not of the same tribe, we feel like we’re cousins.

We feel like definitely there’s a uniqueness to that. And we’re somehow related and supportive of each other.

That being said, we’re also people of color. And we also feel very supportive of other issues that have to do with race in this nation. Notably right now the Black Lives Matter movement. You will see a lot of crossover when Standing Rock occurred, there were African Americans and other people of color that supported us.

And it’s the same for us with the Black Lives Matter. You’ll see many Native Americans supporting their African American brethren, because we understand it’s people of color, the oppression that has happened in this nation.

Bjorn Mercer: No, excellent point. Do you feel like the media is able to help portray what is going on with indigenous populations, especially in relation to Black Lives Matter? Or do you think that they’re only able to focus on one thing at a time?

Nicole Nesberg: Yeah, I think they are more focused on one thing at a time. The one thing about us being people of color, Native Americans in this nation, is we make up around two percent of this nation.

So even though people understand there are race issues to deal with Native Americans, they don’t fully understand us as a people because a lot of it’s not taught in public education. There’s still huge gaps in terms of what is being taught as a history professor and an American Indian. I even see with my children who are in elementary school, the big gaps that are there.

Fortunately, we’re doing a lot better with African American history, but we’re still struggling when it comes to Native American history. Because once again, we make up such a small percent of the population. We’re known by a few — a very, very small segment of history.

For example, Pocahontas, which I saw our president just tweeted again today, calling Elizabeth Warren Pocahontas. Every time I see something like that, it takes away a bit of the nation’s understanding of who she was, why she’s important. I’m talking about Pocahontas, not Elizabeth Warren here.

But you know it’s a very, very small amount of information that is given. And then when it is given and misused, it takes away from our nation understanding the beauty of American Indian tribes, the struggles of Native American Indian tribes and what we can take away and continue to learn when it comes to the indigenous history of our nation.

Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And what you said is perfect. And that transitions into the next question.

Generally, the only two Indian women taught in public schools are Pocahontas and Sacagawea. How well do they represent Indian women? And who else should we know about? Similar for Indian encounters and battles — Columbus, the Trail of Tears, Custer’s Last Stand — are major lessons we learn about American Indians. The two results in genocide of Indian people by the American government. The other is the single biggest victory by the American Indian Alliance. What big events are being overlooked in higher education?

Nicole Nesberg: Yeah, I had talked about elementary school education. But when it comes to higher education and at the college level — what you just listed the Trail of Tears, Custer’s Last Stand, after that The Battle of Wounded Knee — these are all very, very important events.

But some of what is overlooked is, especially to me, and it’s very personal, is the boarding school system where for almost a century, the American government decided to take away Indian children from their families and forced them into public education, generally away from where they lived, away from their reservation, away from their people. And this lasted from nearly the 1870s to the 1970s.

And it’s a century that, like I said, we don’t talk about and still impacts people today. These systems denied people their culture, their language, their family. These children were taken as early as four/five years old; anyone listening that’s a parent, that’s absolutely appalling to think.

And the options that were given by the Indian agents to certain tribes were you give us your children and we’ll give you your rations. So if you don’t give us your children, we’ll just starve you all out.

And then when it comes to any sort of governmental system, what happened in these Indian schools is physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse. The food was subpar; it was commodities. There was very little fresh food. Children were beaten for speaking their indigenous language in the name of progress, in the name of killing the Indian and saving the man.

So that is a huge part of history that I especially concentrate on because my grandmother was sent to participate in an Indian school in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. And she didn’t discuss it a lot because you could see it was emotional.

And when I was a child, I only heard her use a couple of Indian words anymore because there was clearly some issues stemming back from her childhood. But once again, there are still people alive today that this experience will never go away, especially the abuse that was involved.

And then after that, some of the other issues we mentioned, there was an AIM movement in the 1970s. An American Indian Movement that is not often discussed as well. And that AIM movement was based upon the platform of the Black Panthers. The Black Panther party came out with this great platform of arming oneself and of racial pride. And American Indians saw and latched onto that.

And we had our own wonderful movement in the 1970s that I would say is still going on today with issues such as Standing Rock and with the mascots of the NFL. Speaking of which once again, what’s happening today with people apologizing or looking at Colin Kaepernick and his taking a knee and the NFL recognizing that maybe they were wrong on this issue. As American Indians were really hoping, they’ll see how they were wrong on the Washington team name as well and make some changes.

Bjorn Mercer: Those are all excellent points and heartbreaking. There’s no other way to say it. Gosh, I have a few follow-ups.

How can Americans reconcile? I don’t know if that’s the right word, but reconcile with the very difficult aspects of history? Such as, like you were saying with taking Indian children from their families? We need to learn about that. So why do you think we don’t when it’s important to learn that?

Nicole Nesberg: Once again, I believe we’re just such a small percentage of the population that there are still people out there that view Indians as a dead race. If somebody doesn’t know me, I mention I’m Native American. The first thing people do is they’re skeptical. Or they ask me how much Indian I am, as if there’s any other race of people that you ask them how much they are.

The fact that we had anything like blood quantum ever, or pedigree, like you would with an animal is something that many tribes are reconciling now. And once again for American people, education is where you start. Educating yourself on what we did to American Indian people and continuing to do. For example, still putting children in cages is something that I think we should, as a people, be appalled about. We need to learn from our mistakes.

We need to remember our history and do better simply. For me, when people ask what’s the one thing we can do, I always tell them remember whose land we’re on.

I’m working on an initiative locally in Gainesville, Florida, to get a plaque that reminds people of the land that we’re living on. If we can continue to remind Americans of the local land they’re living on, this gives us the best chance of people wanting to continue the education of knowing who we are, where we are, and that while some tribes no longer exist, there’s millions of us that are still here.

Bjorn Mercer: No, that’s very well spoken. It makes me think of we need to learn about this stuff because when you learn it, then you can change.

But then if you continue with even passively with certain policies that essentially are racist. Then passively, you’re supporting essentially the sins of our fathers or the sins of our mothers. And so as people today it’s like, “It’s not our fault, alive today. That stuff happened in the past.” But, if we don’t change, it is going to be our fault for continuing to let things happen.

Nicole Nesberg: It’s the continuing discussion on white privilege, where I just had this discussion on social media. And it’s not about white guilt; it’s not about blaming and shaming people for what ancestors did. It’s just reminding people that there is such thing as white privilege, which I hope that people understand. And it’s not about being ashamed of it or being ashamed of one’s history. It’s just knowing and doing better.

Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. None of us have a choice to where we’re born, what family we’re connected to or anything. But, as we grow up and because of the family and the culture that we were raised him, we all have certain privileges. And so certain people with more privileges need to recognize that.

And I think people are very much understand that there’s a difference between men and women and how we’re treated as we grow up and as children and adulthood. And for some reason it seems that some people have a harder time understanding that if you’re White, or if you’re Black, or if you’re Indian, there is a different experience. And I say people have a hard time, mainly white folk that have a hard time understanding that because, “Well, this is the way it is for me.” But as with anything, perspective is unique to you.

Nicole Nesberg: Yes. And as I was saying, I take great pride in my ancestry and my history. And if you want to take pride in your Finnish history, or if there’s someone Irish or Scottish or German, or white, that wants to take pride, that’s great.

You know, or just American. I have people that are fifth, sixth generation Floridians and take great pride in that. And that’s wonderful. You know, we can all take pride in our ancestry. And also we can identify where we did wrong in our history and they can be combined. They don’t have to be exclusive.

Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And again, with [the] media being able to only really focus on one thing at a time and the media portraying things as binary, all one way, all the other way, all good, all bad, nothing that is not true.

Everything is more complicated. Everything is challenging. And one of the things you said earlier with sports teams and their logos, to me, it’s an easy change. Again, we don’t have to continue the sins of our fathers or our mothers. And if we can change something that hurts a people, just change it.

Nicole Nesberg: Yeah. It’s very simple. And what’s happening with NASCAR right now is blowing my mind. They’ve eliminated the use of the Confederate flag, and some of their fan base is leaving.

Once again, that’s fine. If Washington loses some fans because they changed their name, I’m totally okay with that.

Bjorn Mercer: And I’m not from the East, I’m not from the South. I’ve always been a Westerner. So I get a different perspective. And so when I look at the Confederate flag, I see the battle flag that was part of the Confederacy that was in support of slavery. If you’re proud of your Southern heritage, which of course people can, can’t you choose something else that isn’t directly related to slavery?

Nicole Nesberg: And really with the Confederate flag, it became popular during the second wave of the KKK. And it became a symbol of white supremacy. It wasn’t being used post-Civil War as a source of pride.

So once again, it goes back to history. I’m interested in race, and gender, and urbanization because when you know the history then you can identify and say, “Actually, this flag wasn’t representative of Southern heritage; it was representative of a time period where Southern Civil War leaders were being made into heroes.” So the Lost Cause myth that we’ve had for so long with states’ rights, and as I just mentioned, remembering/forming a memory that wasn’t valid is where it’s based.

Bjorn Mercer: And I’m glad that you brought states’ rights because the states’ rights in relation to the Civil War is that states’ rights to create a new country. Because that’s not states’ rights, that’s secession to create a new country. And this leads me to the third question: As an educator, community activist, [and] mom of tri-racial children, what can we do better to engage in the current events?

Nicole Nesberg: I’m very happy, it’s really an extraordinary time where we are no longer accepting racial injustice. More people than I have seen in my time on this earth are coming together to protest for racial justice.

The understanding that what has been allowed or how America has functioned in many centuries is being questioned. I live in Gainesville, Florida, and there’s a little town just north of us that is having a Black Lives Matter protest. The little town I came from in the Upper Peninsula is having a Black Lives Matter protest.

So it might not necessarily be American Indian-related, but when it comes to people of color and we start questioning our policies on a massive scale, it gives me a great sense of hope of what we can look forward to in the future because Native Americans are supportive of this movement and a lot of times vice versa.

Locally, I’m on a historic preservation board and I’m on our local county history board. And it gives me an opportunity to just educate people locally, who are interested in the lynchings in our area and reconciliation. Something that my husband’s family was part of, in terms of being one of the lynched.

I can talk to them about Native American issues and tell them about the people that lived here beforehand. Something that is less known, something as much less known, but once you engage people and you start learning a little bit more about the issues and about the people that are still here. You can see that there is interest in supporting more than just one cause.

As you mentioned before, oftentimes we look at the world as binary or [how] the media looks at the world is binary. We have an opportunity now to see the nuance that there’s much more going on out there when it comes to people of color than just one people. But once we start seeing change with one people, we can see change with many people.

Bjorn Mercer: No, that’s good. And hopefully what the last month or so, unfortunately which was facilitated by the death of George Floyd, has facilitated is people talking, people protesting. Number one, it is 100 percent what people should do is protest.

And all you have to do is look at other countries where if governments suppress protest or if they put protests down, that never goes well. And so the ability to flex your civic protest about injustices, you have to do that. You have to give people a voice.

And it seems like it’s really facilitated conversations on a micro level. Everybody’s talking about what can we do for those who might not have understood Black Lives Matter or even potentially not agreed with it? I think they’re understanding it more, which is good.

Nicole Nesberg: And in addition to the Black Lives Matter moment, in addition to what’s happening globally, we see different countries actually participating in the Black Lives Matter protest. So this has become a global phenomenon, not just a local phenomenon.

Also, with the pandemic that we’re undergoing as well. There’s so many things happening right now. There is an ongoing hearing as we are doing this podcast by the Potawatomi tribe, trying to sue the current government for not providing them with the billions that were promised under the CARES Act.

So we have on the one hand what we see visibly with the media, with the Black Lives Matter. On the other hand, we also have our people demanding, “Give us what is due. Give us what is owed that you said you would give us.”

So there’s so many things happening at the moment. As I said, I really have hope for what’s going on.

Bjorn Mercer: No, that’s wonderful. And I think for some people who, when they hear protesters and they talk and they hear like, oh, the systematic and the institutional racism of this country, some people might be like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. We’re not a racist country.”

But it’s something to think about, what has happened in the past. Like you said, with Native Indian children, with Jim Crow. That is institutionalized racism.

Nicole Nesberg: Absolutely.

Bjorn Mercer: And that is the unfortunate reality of the history of our country. Now that doesn’t mean that our country’s a hundred percent bad. Again, nothing’s ever binary.

But if we don’t change, if we don’t facilitate, if we don’t talk about change, then passively we are supporting those racist policies. And so as a people, we need to talk about it; we need to really take this opportunity. And again, this is an opportunity that I haven’t seen in my short lifetime, I guess you could say.

Nicole Nesberg: Yeah, I would agree. We are really at a place where we have opportunity to make real change that will impact my life, my children’s life, my grandchildren’s life. And so I am excited about where we’re at as a nation.

And I just want to reiterate, because I had a student once message [me] when I was teaching an American Indian class, saying I couldn’t get over his white guilt and I wanted to reiterate that’s not what this is about. That I am not speaking out that we need to make change because you need to feel guilty. I don’t believe that whatsoever. Once you become educated and recognize what you can do as an individual to facilitate change, to educate other people, that’s all that I’m asking. That’s I think all that many people of color are asking.

Bjorn Mercer: No, and I agree because guilt doesn’t help anything. This is the example I always use, unless you’re on heroin and you’re guilty because you’re taking heroin. That’s good to be guilty about because you need to change.

But white guilt doesn’t help. You need to talk. You need to listen. You need to learn about what’s going on. And so that leads me to the fourth question about how do you apply all of this in your classes here at APUS?

Nicole Nesberg: Oh, I absolutely love the online platform. I love the classes that I teach because when people are taking and engaging in higher education, they clearly have a desire to learn more when it comes to APUS.

A lot of active duty and veterans of the armed forces they don’t recognize that American Indians, by percentage, serve more than any other race. We’re a people that view ourselves as coming from a warrior past and warrior culture.

My grandfather, my father, were all in the U.S. military. And there’s once again a sense of pride that comes with that.

And I get to share that experience. And anyone that is taking classes here at APUS can understand and relate to me. We can relate to each other, and they can see that when I’m talking about American Indian history, that it is my history.

So when you can get that personal connection and connect with other people, that’s what makes the experience real. When it comes to online education, we have been so fortunate in the last decade to see it explode, because people on their free time can continue to learn and advance.

It doesn’t have to be the brick-and-mortar school where you have to be there at nine o’clock sharp or you’re dinged late. You get to come, and you get to have a chance to engage.

And as I said, fortunately for me engage in something that is part of a real part of who I am. So, I’m happy as an educator that I can do anything to get out there, that we’re still here, that we are a proud people.

And once again, that we do our service to the nation as well. A lot of people look at that and can’t wrap their minds around why so many American Indians would want to serve a nation that maybe hasn’t been fair to them.

But that is once again, part of our nation’s history. Military service is something that is an advancement, is a privilege, is something the patriotism that comes with being part of this nation. We are once again, very proud of not only being Native American, but being American.

Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Thank you. And it’s wonderful that you teach history because if there’s one thing I think people can do is on your free time, pick up some books, pick up some books about history. And I know as a historian, my favorite thing to read are history books.

And so pick up history books about Native American history, about indigenous history in North America, about black history, pick up anything you can to learn more about your country. And again, by learning that everybody will be able to learn more about each other. Is there any one or two books that you love or that you are reading that you’d recommend people to explore?

Nicole Nesberg: Yeah, absolutely. One of the members of my tribe, Anton Treuer, he’s a professor of American Indian history in Bemidji, Minnesota. He wrote a book and I apologize to Dr. Treuer if I’m mispronouncing it, it was something like, “Everything You Wanted to Know About American Indians, But Were Afraid to Ask.”

It’s not a huge in-depth history book, it’s really generalized, but it talks about all the big topics. It talks about casinos. It talks about racism, generalized racism. It talks about how we address each other. It’s a great starter book is what I would say to get you interested in the general lives of American Indians.

Another is a fiction book. It’s by a man named Tommy Orange, and it’s called “There There.” It’s a fiction book. But once again, he is an amazing writer that addresses all the urban issues. I believe his story is based in Oakland and it talks about urban Indians, a group, once again, of people that we never, I think, don’t even think about as a group of people that you might see around you.

Oftentimes, if you see American Indians in an urban setting, you might guess that there’s something other than American Indian, Spanish descent, of Mexican descent, of Asian descent. Where the experiences that happen for American Indians in the urban setting are unique.

And a lot of Indians, 80 percent of American Indians, don’t live on the reservation. Eighty percent of us live either suburbs, cities, rural, but not on the reservation. So that is less and less of us live there. So, those are a couple of books where you could definitely get started if you’re interested.

Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Thank you. And again, the best way to free your mind is to read, is to talk to people, and to listen. And so any final words, Nicole?

Nicole Nesberg: I just want to thank you for having me on; thank you for this podcast. And, once again, as you said, happy to share all of my experience, happy to anyone listening. If you have follow-up questions, feel free to contact me through APUS and I will happily share my time and share my knowledge with you.

Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Thank you. And today we’re speaking with Professor Nicole Nesberg here at The Everyday Scholar. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thank you for listening.

Nicole Nesberg: Miigwetch.

About the Speakers

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

Nicole Nesberg, Migizi Miigwan (Eagle Feather), has been an adjunct faculty member at American Public University since 2011. She received a BA in History from the University of Michigan in 1995; a MS in International Affairs from Florida State University in 1997; and a MA in History from Eastern Michigan University in 2005. Her interests include race, especially regarding American Indians and African Americans, as well as issues related to gender and urbanization. She is a proud member of Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians. 

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