Voices of Our Region

A new series from Mid-America Arts Alliance

For nearly fifty years, Mid-America Arts Alliance has been sharing and advancing the work of artists and scholars in communities large and small. This work has included efforts to nurture the next generation of leading artists whose creative expression is grounded in authentic historic narrative.

Voices of Our Region tells their stories.

This online resource further acknowledges the contributions of M-AAA’s region by sharing the voices and stories of the artists, tradition bearers, scholars, and historians of our six-state service area (Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas). These essential voices reflect the cultural, racial, ethnic, and lived experience of the artists and storytellers of our richly diverse region.

November: Native American Heritage Month

Jimmy Lee Beason II (M.S.W.) aka Pahuska, is a member of the Osage Nation (Eagle Clan), from Oklahoma and currently lives in Lawrence, KS with his family. His writings, lectures, presentations and research focus on Decolonization, Native empowerment, traditional values, radical social work and social justice advocacy for Native communities.

He is also a professor in the Indigenous & American Indian Studies department at Haskell Indian Nations University, where he acquired his B.A. in American Indian Studies and is also a graduate of the University of Kansas, receiving his masters degree in Social Work Administration & Policy Advocacy. He is the author of Native Americans in History: A History Book for Kids.

The Meaning of Civilization

by Jimmy Lee Beason II

The colonization of North America was and continues to be a legacy steeped in European and Christian supremacist ideology. Indigenous people in North as well as South America were viewed as nothing more than naked savages in desperate need of clothing, an appreciation for materialistic greed, individualism, and Jesus. To rectify the problem, colonial empires wielded the perfect policy to bring these “red devils” to heel.

After Americans rebelled and won their civil war with Great Britain (typically called the Revolutionary War), they reaped the rewards of doctrine principles and simply inherited Great Britain’s “title” to the land regardless of what the Indigenous population had to say about it. Once Americans inherited the “right” to hold title over North America, they continued the colonization process of plundering loot that was sanctified by Pope Alexander VI nearly 300 years earlier.

Thus began the colonial invasion we have come to recognize today in the creation of the United States. Undoubtedly, these circumstances have been extremely debilitating for Indigenous people all over the Western Hemisphere historically and presently as demonstrated through the loss of a land base, the fragmentation of language, culture, and spirituality as codified in federal Indian laws and policies concocted for the purpose of diminishing Native self-determination.

There have been many responses through acts of resiliency and resistance initiated by Indigenous people all over the Western Hemisphere. Some went to war. Others pursued diplomacy. Some even collaborated with colonizers to reap the rewards of being on the side of the “winning team,” acting as lateral oppressors toward fellow tribal communities. War, land loss, famine, disease, and religious persecution were all brought to us under the banner of “civilization.”

Civilization is an interesting concept. It denotes a group of people as having attained some kind of superior standard of living compared to the uncivilized. But civilization as a concept is faulty and really a falsehood by those who promote civilization (in the case of North America, European-Americans) in order to justify domination over the land, resources, plant, and animal life as well as the people who live according to traditional values and philosophies as human beings.

If we look at what Euro-Christian Americans consider “civilization,” it simply means separating oneself from the natural world. If you sleep in a willow lodge, on an animal skin, next to a fire, hunt for your food, then one is considered uncivil or savage. If you sleep in a house with 90-degree angled rooms, a roof, carpet on the floor, and sleep on a bed placed atop a bed frame, then you are considered civilized or superior to the person living in a lodge. Therefore, this lifestyle is considered “better” and more “advanced.”

But to accuse the human beings who live in accordance with their natural environment of being improper, while those who live in a house with all the amenities they could desire are considered civilized, is to be inherently mistaken. The rhetoric of American civilization is closely tied into the rhetoric of freedom. In the search for individual “freedoms,” they have essentially imprisoned themselves. They have become consumerist slaves beholden to their sense of comfort and convenience, having removed themselves from the natural world and even the items they are using to support their livelihood.

In today’s American society, most people have not made their own furnishings. They are solely reliant on outside manufacturers to provide these items to them. Reliance is not freedom. Those who were called savage and uncivilized maintained a higher sense of freedom and self-determination, at least to an extent. Our ancestors recognized they were one part of a broader universe where they needed to adapt. The philosophy of “all my relations” and being connected is at the core of many of our worldviews. In Euro-Christian American worldviews, the world is meant to be subjugated, measured, weighed, and calculated in order to control it. Naming something gives you a sense of control over it. If we name this plant, we can assume ownership over it, dominate it, and then throw it in the box with all the other species collected to pull out and use whenever the need or prospect of making a profit determines it necessary.

These outlooks are the very reason “Western” society is so incompatible with Indigenous teachings and understandings. Where one set of values seeks to control and dominate what surrounds them, the other’s cultural values try to live in balance and promote a relationship of reciprocity. Native teachings focus on the need to acknowledge that humans are not superior. Indeed, as Phillip Deere, Muscogee Creek medicine man, stated, the first teachers were the animals. We had to learn from the animals, plants, weather, sky, and all that was around us, and our actions, via ceremony and ways of giving thanks and acknowledgment, were based on mirroring the universe around us. The concept was, if we lived in that manner, we would have balance in our lives.

More First Peoples in Our Region

Artists 360 Fellow Jay Benham is working on Ledger Art, which comes from a time when Plains Indians used accounting ledger books as a source of paper. Learn more about Benham and his project.

Artists 360 Fellow Alex Verlage is collaborating with Jay Benham on a film about his ancestral story. Learn more in an interview with Alex.

ExhibitsUSA is touring Savages and Princess: The Persistence of Native American Stereotypes across the country. The exhibition features twelve Native artists from Oklahoma and was organized by 108 Contemporary in Tulsa.

Interchange Fellow Elisa Harkins was awarded a grant for her project Teach Me A Song. Teach Me a Song is a series of exchanges wherein Harkins invites Indigenous collaborators to teach a song, and includes the 6 Moons Indigenous Concert Series, which showcases six artists from all over the world.

Interchange Fellow Chelsea Hicks was awarded a grant for her project Words of Our Ancestors: An Indigenous Language Creative Writing Conference. Learn more about Words of Our Ancestors.