Waubonsee Voices is a monthly column written by a Waubonsee staff or faculty member, an administrator or a student. It presents information about the college from the perspective of the people who work and learn here. 

Learn more about Waubonsee from Voices.

A Thriving People

November 20, 2023 | Dr. Aaron Lawler, Associate Professor of Humanities

Portrait of Aaron Lawler

When speaking with enrolled members of different tribal groups during Native American Heritage Month or otherwise, a prevalent theme often emerges: First Nation peoples are not merely or only historical societies. That is – within the American zeitgeist, we often conjure black and white images of native peoples, standing stern-faced, clad in eagle-feathered headdresses and wearing long-bone beads across bare chests. Such stereotypes not only over-generalize the incredibly rich and diverse 570+ tribes recognized in the U.S., but also paint a picture that First Nation peoples have more in common with the Ancient Sumerians or Romans, rather than the contemporary world.

Many indigenous artists, musicians, and authors continually remind us, that despite the efforts of European conquerors or previous U.S. policies, First Nations people are a thriving, progressing, and influential demographic, contributing not only to their own culture but to all of ours as well. First Nations peoples’ traditions are a part – an integral part – of what it means to be an American. This was true for past generations and remains true today.

Recent work completed at Chicago’s Field Museum showcases this very real struggle. The museum’s “Native North American Hall” had undergone little change since its inception in the 1950s. However, in 2018 and 2019, the Native American exhibit underwent a complete overhaul, and included the voice of living indigenous peoples. Too long have such exhibits been designed by stuffy, old, white men through a very narrow point of view!

In the exhibit’s 2019 incarnation, “Drawing on Tradition,” artist Chris Pappan (an enrolled member of the Kaw Nation and of Osage and Lakota descent) used large overlays of his artwork to obscure the outdated cases filled with faceless mannequins dressed in Native regalia. Pappan’s goal was to recontextualize what it means to be a Native person in the 21st century. A co-founder of The Center for Native Futures, Pappan leads the organization’s mission of serving as a hub where Native artists can transcend the negative effects of colonialism, and overcome Eurocentric limitations placed on indigenous peoples. Recently, Pappan was part of a traveling exhibit, “Action/Abstraction Redefined,” which was hosted at Aurora University. He and Debra Yepa-Pappan spoke about the importance of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ (IAIA) programs in supporting indigenous artists.

The current Field Museum exhibit, under the direction of Debra Yepa-Pappan, features Frank Waln, a Sicangu Lakota hip-hop artist and activist. Here, visitors can experience Waln’s unique fusion of traditional sounds and songs with contemporary hip-hop styles. Some of Waln’s biggest hits include: “AbOriginal,” “Star Dust,” and “Wild Fire.” In a second room of the exhibit, visitors are invited to “participate” with Waln, by taking various elements of his recordings and mixing their own creations. In this way, visitors can “interact” with indigenous cultures, bringing to life new and integrated forms, bridging their own experiences with those lived-experiences of Native American peoples.

Waln attended Columbia College, here in Chicago, after being chosen as a One Tribe Scholar, and was awarded the Mayor’s Award for Civic Engagement. His combination of rap and traditional Native American music, as well as his civic involvement, have provided him a platform to speak truth to power, and be a voice for underrepresented populations.

The portrayal of First Nation peoples solely through a historical lens is a disservice to the vibrant culture of living indigenous peoples, today. The efforts of local, Native American artists, such as Chris Pappan and Frank Waln, not only challenge outdated narratives but also emphasize the active role of First Nations peoples in shaping contemporary American culture.