Food for Thought: Stories from Sky’s Stomach

“You are what you eat” is a food saying I have already used on my blog, but for this particular post I felt I should use it again to jump into the thought. November is Native American Heritage Month and I felt I should do the term some justice in this blog to show my pride. I am Tohono O’odham and I have a rich heritage.

Food is tied into my heritage, including the future, the past, and present. I can still taste the same variety of squash the ancestors planted centuries ago. The taste connects me, but there is something more to it than the taste that makes me feels nostalgic.

My first major writing work that got published was about traditional foods. I was attending Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC) and I had a space to plant a small garden. I had never planted before and wanted to try to grow traditional crops. Since I was attending TOCC, I had the resources to help me expand an idea that became the article I wrote and published in the college’s newsletter.

Traditionally the Tohono O’odham were farmers, although agriculture is not as prevalent as it was back in the day. The history of food is still vital to discussing culture. It’s what feeds us.  There are specific seeds that grow well in the region, but there are stories behind those seeds that influence the culture. There are seeds that are indigenous to the land, but there are also seeds that were introduced to the Tohono O’odham through the contact of outside cultures. These particular seeds grow extremely well in the climate. Seeds like the tepary bean actually thrive on lack of irrigation. Planting was more than source of food for the Tohono O’odham. It was an obligation. It was survival.

Many Native American tribes have a creation or emergence story explaining how things came to be, some which include guidelines to maintain a balance. The state of well-being all entangled in responsibilities with the earth is the objective of these stories.

There are wild foods growing everywhere on the planet that can be harvested by anyone willing. What if it was the only food available? Humans need food and there is a nostalgic feeling to feeding yourself straight from the earth without paying a grocery attendant or a waiter at Chili’s. The concept of eating has changed in the past century. We’re not starving, but we’re not hungry, either. There is an experience lost when we pay money to feed ourselves. Maybe there is a difference between being fed and trying to survive. Knowing the history of our food might just be enough to fulfill that experience. In our stories there is usually a reference to the people needing to live off of the land and survive. Food is a part of who we are. All of us.

The seasons on earth change the plants and the availability of certain fruits and other food items that can be found outside the grocery store and force people to stay connected to “mother nature.” I remember as a kid taking the sap from the mesquite tree bark. It has a sweetness resembling a molasses flavor but with an earthy twist. In Tohono O’odham it’s call u:sp, but in popular terms it is the sap that trees produce to protect themselves. But as kids we would collect u:sp and I saw it as a treat, like it was candy from the desert. Our parents wouldn’t let us eat sweets, but they forgot about the candy that grew on the mesquite trees. It wasn’t an everyday activity and that’s the important thing to know about harvesting wild vegetation: location of the plant and knowing when is the best time to harvest.

Harvesting is a rite of passage because the person harvesting is connecting to the plant, but also with the past while sustaining the future. The knowledge is being passed down, not through any written forms, but by practicing the traditions of the ancestors while we maintain a close relationship to the earth.

The times are changing so fast I believe that some of these practices, such as planting a small garden or harvesting ciolim (cholla buds), is important to stay grounded in our ongoing relationship with the earth. “You are what you eat” applies to the situation perfectly because the food that is being harvested is the same food that kept the people from going hungry centuries ago. If this food didn’t exist would I exist? If I no longer harvest and eat it, do I exist?

Food is also the element that has been a way for people to connect and relate. The sharing of flavors and stories all poured out on the dinner table, creating closeness for the people. This Native American Heritage Month it is important to remember that we must share knowledge with the people. It helps us bond while simply eating a meal while enjoying the taste of home.

Agriculture in America has been commercialized over the centuries. The self-sufficient farms run by the community or a large family declined when men joined the military and left their fields to wither, or left their own fields because they got paid in dollars, or grew a commercial crop  like cotton. As America grew, business fell into lock-step with agriculture. Today the source of our produce is really unknown after it gets to a grocery store.

The commodities program implemented into the United States really shifted Native communities because there were new ingredients and unfamiliar commodities. The influence of American culture produced the famous Popover or Fry-bread. Lard, grease, flour, and salt are the ingredients. Fry-bread is the taste of making do with government commodities, but doing it deliciously.

Sky is a senior creative writing major at the University of Arizona. He has lived in Arizona his entire life, on and off the Tohono O’odham Rez. His started his academic career at the Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells, AZ.

“I feel it’s important to learn where you come from and to know your culture. However I also am just a poor college kid trying to be successful. My perspectives are all over the grid.” To read more of his thoughts on food and culture, visit his “Stories From My Stomach” WordPress Blog at

Leaving Home to Fulfill a Destiny

Iva, presenting the results from the Blackfeet Community College during the convening of tribal colleges participating in the Woksape Oyate, Wisdom of the People grant last year in Denver, Colo.

I went to work for the Blackfeet Tribe fresh out of high school.  I planned to work for just a year, and then go to college. That year turned into 22 years.  I went to college for the first time in my life just short of my 44th birthday. Had it not been for the Blackfeet Community College, I might not have ever gone to college. True, I had to start commuting 50 miles round trip again, but the upside was that my husband agreed to join me. He hadn’t ever gone to college either.

I learned a great deal by attending my tribal college, and it wasn’t just about the history and the language – both incredibly important to me. I started to learn more about myself. I graduated in 2011 with two associate’s degrees: one in Blackfeet studies, and one in Blackfeet language. Much to my surprise, I was the class salutatorian. I passed my exam for the Montana Class Seven Special License, which gave me the opportunity to assistant-teach the Blackfeet language in public schools if I choose to do so. I really want to do that, and at first that was my ultimate goal. However, the wonderful people at the college’s Academic Enrichment Services Department did their job perfectly and encouraged me to continue with my higher education.

I got geared up to transfer to the University of Montana after graduation, but my youngest daughter was expecting her first baby that August, so I delayed my transfer for a year. But, my educational experience didn’t stop during that year off. I was recruited by the co-coordinators of the LEAP Grant, Wisdom of the People Initiative at Blackfeet Community College as an intern for one year. My main job duties were mostly clerical, but the mentorship furthered my learning experiences. I learned more about Blackfeet history and discovered more and more about the truth of Native American history. On top of that, I was selected by a faculty member to be his research assistant under the Mellon Fellowship Grant. I enjoyed more learning, more mentorship, more guidance, and more self-discovery.

In retrospect, I feel like I was really destined to go to college later in life. I truly believe that had I gone immediately after high school I might not have had the rewarding experience that I did at BCC. I might not have even gone to my tribal college. By attending Blackfeet Community College, I received a great education that was very much in contrast to the non-Native public school I graduated from. I felt an incredible sense of community and kinship in my time at the tribal college, and I became familiar with the tribal college movement.  It so inspiring to learn about how much those who made the “movement” happen had sacrificed for Indian people to have a chance at a college education.

I am now a student at the University of Montana in Missoula. My major is Native American studies, with a minor in sociology. It was difficult to leave my home where I have lived most of my life and move to the city. It was also difficult to leave my family and extended family, but I couldn’t fight destiny. I am enjoying my new beginnings here as I bump into many Blackfeet and other Native students doing the same as I am – empowering ourselves, our children, and our people, and continuing to break down the stereotypes about Indian people. And living away from home for the first time, I have noticed the solidarity and friendliness amongst the people of color and Native communities as we attempt to do so.

Like I said earlier, at this point in my life the stars have really aligned for me, and I am truly happy. Aside from when I became a mother, I’m probably happier than I’ve ever been in my life. That might not have ever happened had it not been for the tribal college movement, Blackfeet Community College, and of course, the American Indian College Fund and their donors.

Oral Tradition: A Tool for Knowing Who We Are

I spent summers with family in Kaibab. When my aunt would speak Paiute to me, I did not understand at the time that she was trying to teach me the language. I did not know what she was saying to me and I would ask my cousin to translate. Her reply was that I needed to ask my aunt what she was saying to me.

Although I did not know what was being said, I did not perceive her intent as mean or negative. She spoke slowly and enunciated each word. I loved listening to her talk. I always felt very close to my aunt and closer to her daughter because she spoke English and could speak to me at my level.

I think that my mother did not teach me the language because of her experience with the language. You see, each Native is truly an individual, as are their experiences are. My mother’s mother passed when my mother was a very young child, and my mother grew up in the care of family members, went to boarding schools, and attended Indian schools. She did not share many of her experiences with me, and my impression is that they were not very positive. What she did express to me was the importance of education.

At the age of five, I wanted to be the first female American Indian/Mexican President of the United States of America.  My mother had just begun to talk to me about walking in two worlds. She said we were different in many ways, but society was going to force us to be another. Her perspective at the time did not seem to matter to me; I felt that I was going to change the world. Little did I know that the president only has so much power. I also thought that I wanted to join the Marine Corps. I was a senior in high school when the war began. I admire many service members, but I could not bring myself to contribute to destroying another’s culture as was done to mine. Not only were recruiters pushing for me to join, their masculine egos were often challenged by my drive to succeed. My gender played a pivotal role in this, the way that the men spoke of women and the ongoing struggles to define myself by my standards. I had no idea what I was going to do. I decided to enroll in college, thinking I wanted to be a lawyer and would change the system from the inside.

I had the opportunity to work with my cousin on a project that she had been working on for many years. I went to training with her in San Francisco at the Cultural Conservancy. There I learned how to record and edit audio visual documentation of ethnography.  It was not until that following semester that I took my first anthropology class.

Many Natives are skeptical of anthropology, but the way the professor taught it with a “do no harm” approach I felt as though I finally found where I could fit in. I maintained my drive to finish my bachelor’s degree in anthropology, not to study people, but to help with language programs that my tribe and others may have difficulties with. After having a child myself, I know I need to know my Native language and my child needs to know who she is, not just what society says about whom she should be.

There are times that I am still discouraged in the anthropology department at school because of many of the different views of my peers. It is unfortunate that I feel that the time has come to have a written language as our ways are oral. I think that the constant pressure from the dominant paradigm that forces Natives to alter their ways. Traditions only last for so long.

I think that because of colonization and forced assimilation that we as Native people often fight change, not realizing how it may hold us back. When people talk about historical trauma, I think that it is very real, but it is also time to heal. We have control over our lives and letting the dominant culture tell us who we are has passed.  The more we know, the more tools we can acquire and use to help our children grow and thrive in a world that is often cruel and unjust.

Together we can change the world and help one another for the better.  We must educate one another in ways without discouraging each other, and inform the dominant society of who we are, rather than conforming to who they want us to be.

Melanie is currently an administrative assistant at First Nations Development Institute, headquartered in Longmont, CO. Melanie is an enrolled member of the Kaibab Paiute tribe. She was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, where she and her daughter, Elyse, reside. As a part-time student at the University of Colorado Denver, Melanie working towards a bachelor’s degree in anthropology.

Connect with First Nations on their social media outlets:

Think Indian? Think Government

In 1961, during his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy delivered the memorable line in which he emphasized, “Ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country.” While he meant to apply this statement to the United States and the world at large, I feel that it also applies to Indian Country and my personal philosophy of “Think Indian.”

For me, to “Think Indian” is to work in the family business of working for Natives everywhere.
My paternal grandfather worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, serving not only his own tribe but also all tribes in the United States. My maternal grandfather was a tribal council member for the Jicarilla Apache Nation for many years, served as the tribal president and vice president, and was on the founding Board of Regents for the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute. My parents both worked for the Indian Health Service and my father retired as a captain in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps after 20 years of service. He worked for the White Mountain Apache and the Isleta Pueblo, and still occasionally works for the clinic at the pueblo. My family provided such a strong influence in my life that I knew working for all of Native America is how I can make a difference.

I am currently a student in the masters of public administration program at Arizona State University. While it is interesting to learn about the necessary applications of bureaucracy, vertical intergovernmental relations, and the continual resonance of federalism, I find myself wondering how the American Indian thought process fits into this. To put it more simply, how does learning about government help me to “Think Indian”?

In addition to public affairs classes, I am simultaneously taking a Contemporary Issues in Native Nations class to give perspective to my degree plan. We learn about the contemporary struggle of Natives everywhere and how the problems are being met head on. I see Natives working to progress their people in all levels of government and all branches of government, from the local Arizona legislature to Native legal scholars working to demand that a new precedent be put forward in the Supreme Court of the United States for federal Indian policy. The takeaway from this class is that the fight is ongoing and best way to go about working for Native rights is to know the system in order to find how it can work for Native America. Once I finish my degree, I am hoping to apply what I have learned from my Contemporary Issues class, synthesize it with my public administration education, and apply it toward working for Indian Country.

Overall, to “Think Indian” to me is not to just think Diné, Apache, or Lakota, but to think for all Native nations. I want to work for all American Indians to ensure that we all progress together. I am not looking to ask what Indian Country can do for me, but rather, to ask what I can do for it.

Cole is a first-year master of public administration student at the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University.

Join Us in Celebrating, Donating in November

Native American Heritage Month is a great time to show your support for Native American students in higher education.  We invite you to share in the celebration and learn more about Indian Country with the fun articles, activities and blogs we have planned this month.  We hope that you will visit our blog regularly to hear from our guest writers who all bring their unique Native perspective for your enjoyment and enlightenment.

This month we celebrate the diverse and rich cultures of the hundreds of unique Native Nations.  The Native American population is growing at an astonishing rate.  In the last U.S. Census report from 2010, the Native population, including those of mixed heritage, grew more than 26% to just over 5.2 million.  In contrast, the total population in the United States grew by less than 10%. 

It’s interesting to think that the Native population has grown so much in the last decade.  After centuries of termination policies meant to “kill the Indian, save the man,” Native People are thriving in today’s world. There has been a resurgence of Indigenous knowledge and the tribal colleges and universities have been at the forefront of the battle to retain cultural knowledge and revive Native America’s teachings.  Today, we have language immersion schools and colleges based in reservation communities supporting and educating the next generation of Native leaders.

But there is still much work to be done.  Over the last three decades the number of Natives with college degrees has doubled, while still half that of the U.S. population as a whole, it is encouraging to see the progress. The American Indian College Fund (the Fund) holds an important place in securing the future for our Native youth by ensuring they are educated for tomorrow’s world. 

By helping Native scholars get a hand up with finances for college, the Fund supports and encourages Native youth to follow their dreams by earning a college degree that they otherwise might not be able to afford.  The Fund works closely with institutions of higher education to promote and award more than 4,000 scholarships annually.  With your help, this number will continue to grow.

This November, we  at the Fund challenge you to learn more about the unique and special Native Nations that have enriched our lives, celebrate Native ways and enjoy the rich and diverse cultural spectrum from the Seminoles of Florida to the Pomo of California and everyone in between!

DOUBLE YOUR DONATION! In honor of Native American Heritage Month, one of our supporters has offered to match ALL gifts up to $5,000! That could be $10,000 more towards our goal of $35,000… Please do what you can to help us. DONATE HERE:


Mod zi gidaz (Thank you in Arikara)

MeeGwitch, Neige (Thank you, friend in Ojibwe),


Michael Johnson (Hidatsa, Arikara and Ojibwe)

Manager of Annual Giving


Carrying on the Teachings

Yá’át’ééh, Shí éí Tó’aheedliinii nishłí, Persian éí báshíschíín. Kinyaa’áánii dashícheii dóó Persain dashshínálí. Lukachukai dę́ę́ íyisíí naashá, áádóó University of Kansas di ííníshta’. Shí éí Ashley Tso yinishyé.

My mother is of the Water-Flows-Together Clan and I am born for the Persian People. My maternal grandfather is Towering-House Clan and my paternal grandfather is Persian. My family is originally from Lukachukai, Arizona, but I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. I am a currently enrolled in the Higher Education Administration Educational Leadership & Policy Studies Master Program at the University of Utah. I represent the Diné Nation and the Persian people. My name is Ashley Tso.

I began my introduction the Diné way. A person’s introduction is not only about you and what you have achieved or what you have earned. It also tells a story about your family, about where you come from, and whom you are related to by clans and name. It is about your mother’s family, because the Diné are a matrilineal society. It is about your family’s origins; where they come from within our four sacred mountains. It is about your ancestors; who who you are related to. This is our way.

An introduction begins with knowing who you are, where you come from, and if you do not know, you take the time to find out. You surround yourself with the history and culture, the words, and the teachings of our elders. It is also about how you pray, when you pray, and who you pray to by learning about how you are linked to all your relations. It is not a single entity; it is Mother Earth, Father Sky, the four directions, and our ancestors. You pray to everything all around you. You are humble and strong in your words with no one single idea, but multiple ideas and you are thankful.

In this sense it means knowing “all your relations,” which is an ensemble of your clanship, your connectedness with your family (given or made), and your ability to bond with others. You connect on a happy or sour note with individuals of the same tribe, nation, or nationality. You build bridges linking yourself and your family to one another allowing communication and cooperation to flow.

However, an introduction is not a single idea of learning about whom you are and where you come from. It is about taking pride in your history and culture, and embracing and respecting your ancestors, your family, your relatives, and lastly, yourself. This is because without your ancestor’s perseverance your family would not be here, your relatives would be scarce, and you would not be able to strive and empower others and yourself.

Your heritage is a gift given to you by those who came before you. There is no being Native. You are not an act, a costume, a fashion statement, a fictional character, or extinct. You cannot be Native; it is a part of who you are. Embrace, empower, and educate yourself. Once an appreciation is achieved embrace, empower, and educate others because you are Native, you are Indigenous, and you are the First Nation.

Join Us in Celebrating Native Heritage Month


November 1 marks the start of National American Indian Heritage Month. All month long we will we celebrate the contributions of First Americans to our great nation and providing you with information on the traditions and cultures of the students we serve.

In a web portal developed by the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the celebration was proclaimed as “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Similar proclamations were made under variations on the name (including ‘Native American Heritage Month’ and ‘National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month’).

This November, visit our website and social media outlets, where we will share links and resources on Native culture, art, stories, photos, videos, recipes, events, and causes, shared by our Native scholars, to help you celebrate. We welcome your participation and encourage you to comment and submit blog postings (of any medium) for consideration and share with your friends.

Join our celebration on Twitter (@collegefund) and join the conversation with the Hashtag #nahm, and on

Want to share a story or post on our blog or web site as part National American Indian Heritage Month? Please contact the Public Education team at the American Indian College Fund at



Native Instructor Norma Marshall Shares Importance of a TCU Education

Norma Marshall of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma is a student adviser and instructor of Native American Studies at the College of the Muscogee Nation in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Marshall, who earned her baccalaureate in education with an emphasis in English and physical education from East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma and a master of science in counseling and student personnel, with an emphasis in secondary education, from Oklahoma State University, said she never thought she would end up teaching in higher education.

Marshall is the daughter of a Muscogee who attended boarding schools She emphasized the importance of tribal colleges in an interview in Indian Country This Week, saying they “give our Native American students a tie to their cultural identity.”

Many Natives are just learning about their culture and heritage at a tribal college, because public schools gloss over that, Marshall says. She is also a bilingual educator of the Muscogee language at the College of the Muscogee Nation, an AIHEC associate member school located in Oklahoma.

Marshall says the college’s curriculum is centered on indigenous history, such as Indian land issues, tribal court systems, Native American history and tribal governments, while also giving students exposure to the language.






2012 Flame of Hope Gala Raises $650,000

Dance. Dream. Discover.



The 17th annual American Indian College Fund (the Fund) Flame of Hope Gala raised more than $650,000 to benefit needy American Indian students.

Dwight Carlston (Navajo), a second-year honor student at Navajo Technical College, addressed the crowd, crediting his family with putting him on his path to college and the American Indian College Fund with helping him to achieve his goals as he continues to work towards earning a bachelor’s degree. Dwight was presented with the first-ever Richard B. Williams-Seventh Generation Leadership Endowment scholarship, which was established to honor the Fund’s retired President and CEO.


The Fund, under the leadership of its new President and CEO Dr. Cheryl Crazy Bull, honored the late Stanley R. Crooks, former Tribal Chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux (SMSC), for changing the lives of his people and Indian Country through his strong leadership. Dr. Crazy Bull said, “He saw all Native peoples as his relatives and supported them just as he did his own people. With his leadership, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community became one of the American Indian College Fund’s most valued and generous supporters.” Crooks’ wife Cheryl was in attendance to accept the honor.

Gala2012003_copy.jpgNationally renowned Native artist Bunky Echo-Hawk created a painting live at the event. The piece, a stunning portrait of an American Indian man in traditional dress, was awarded to the SMSC for pledging $50,000 to benefit the Richard B. Williams-Seventh Generation Leadership Endowment.

Pendleton Woolen Mills presented retired President Richard B. Williams with a commemorative blanket, named Tatanka Huhanska (Tall Bull), Mr. Williams’ Lakota name, in his honor. The blanket will be available for purchase in March, with a percentage of proceeds funding American Indian scholarships.

The event also featured performances by Native entertainers, including flutist R. Carlos Nakaí, Native Pride Arts dancers, Southern California Kahweeyah Bird Singers and Dancers, Pipestone Hand Drum Group, and Iron Boy drum group.

The key sponsor for the evening was USA Funds. Other sponsors included San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, Coca-Cola Foundation, Nissan North America, Comcast/NBC Universal, Lannan Foundation and local sponsors such as United Health Foundation, Travelers, US Bank, Grotto Foundation and the Northwest Area Foundation.

Please Click Here to View the Gala Slide Show

Advertisers Speak About Need for Diversity and Giving Back

Wieden+Kennedy founder and Advertising Hall of Fame inductee David Kennedy speaks about why his firm is committed to helping the American Indian College Fund and tribal colleges create greater awareness.