What Matters to Me and Why

I work at a university with a leadership studies college. The school invites varying faculty, staff, and administration to talk about personal priorities and interests. As I always say, the more we know about one another, the more that the lines of separation fade. I love this notion of inviting people to talk about themselves. It becomes the living libraries favored by many communities. Here is one of my stories.

My father used to tell me, “Know something about everything and everything about something, and you will always be able to find common ground with another person.”  I have a penchant for music, literature, geography, history, art, language, biology, architecture, travel, navigation in air travel, and people.  Curiosity was the most important thing to my father.  He taught me to be curious, always!  Actually, I think my varied interests greatly inform my work in intercultural development, or helping humans find common ground with one another. It’s what I live.  It’s what I love. I like to begin my classes, workshops, and presentations with a land acknowledgment:

My homeland is the Uncompahgre Valley in Western Colorado, from where colonial settlers displaced my father’s people (Ute).  

In Kansas, I live and work on the ancestral territory of many Indigenous Nations, including the Kaw, the Osage, and the Pawnee. Kansas is currently home to the Prairie Band Potawatomi, the Kickapoo, the Iowa, and the Sac and Fox Nations. 

  I am grateful to these Nations. 

Please remember these truths.

It can be quite enlightening to research and discover what Indigenous Nation occupied the land on which you live, work, and play. We can think about:

Who granted the land?​

Who held the land previously?​

What was the U.S. Homestead Act of May 1862?​ Who was given land, and who was removed from said land?

So, I begin all my teaching with this acknowledgment. I am honored and obligated to my ancestors to do it.

Next in my processes of teaching, I acknowledge myself and my identities. Here are a few of the things with which I identify:

•Native (Ohkay Owingeh/Diné/ Uncompahgré) •Human Ecologist/Geographer •National Geographic Society Explorer •Social Researcher •Banjo player •Mother, daughter, friend, spouse, aunt, grandmother, motorcycle rider, writer… •King Alfonso X enthusiast, the original pluralist! •Blogger •Craftsperson •Nature enthusiast.

I could also say, I’m a mother, daughter, friend, spouse, aunt, grandmother, motorcycle rider, and writer.

Embedded in each of these identities that I share with you denotes aspects of my of my culture. However, the most challenging part of working to educate students, especially those from a dominant identity (Anglo-European descent) about culture is that they possess a culture. Many of my students tell me, “I don’t really have a culture. I’m just an American.” That just tells me that they have not thought about their identities.

Each of us, if we think about it, has several identifying factors that contributes to our cultural identity. You have the same sets of identities – each with sets of verbiage, practices, and thought processes that are part of your culture.

Certainly, our environments influence our patterns of behavior, our ways of knowing, our ways of living. I grew up in a mountain environment, as pictured here. We learn certain behaviors to thrive in mountain valleys, which can be different than the tallgrass prairie where I live now. In humans’ cultural practices, we learn, adapt, and adopt, often maintaining our foundational family and community systems.

Prairie or mountains: both are beautiful, and we adapt and adopt the cultural aspects of each geography.

Speaking of geography, I grew up in a household where National Geographic magazine was honored as much as the family bible.  My father read them from cover to cover.  My brothers saw them as anatomy lessons.  I vowed to visit all the places imaginable.  My work with National Geographic Society, as an explorer, put me in company with the likes of Maria Mitchell, noted astronomer in the 19th Century, Munazza Alam, 21st century astrophysicist searching for Earth’s twin, Harriet Chalmers Adams, journalists in the French trenches of World War 1, and notably, traveled to Africa to see Haile Selassie’s coronation as emperor of Ethiopia.  Of course, everyone knows the names of Edmund Hillary, Jacques Couteau, and Alexander Graham Bell as NGS explorers, but I encourage you to seek out the females who made great strides in the name of discovery.  Being a NGS explorer is the greatest way I can honor my father’s love of knowledge.

Two of the great products of my NGS funding was developing introductory course in geography for females of color, now in its fifth year, also thanks to our Center for Engagement and Community Development’s incentive grants, I was able to study the women in the African diaspora in rural SW Kansas, which became a chapter in a book recently published.  Here’s a picture of the book. My chapter covers the women of the African Diaspora now settled in Southwest Kansas. It tells of the brave women, displaced from their countries by war, worked in the beef packing plants while raising families and navigating health care, educational, and faith systems.

If you have read previous blog entries of mine, you would know that I greatly esteem George Washington Carver, the great genius in botany, invention, music, art, and philosophy.

Carver had a small homestead in Beeler, Kansas.  As a child, his slave owners near Diamond, Missouri actually saw his genius in plant pathology.  He came to Kansas, finished high school, and applied and was accepted into Highland college until he showed up. Carver was denied a college education in Kansas, because of teh color of his skin.

He found his academic home, first at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa.  Only being allowed to study the fine arts, his art teacher took great interest in his botanical illustration.  She connected Carver to her biologist husband who was teaching at what is now Iowa State University.  Carver received is Master’s degree there where his brilliance was duly noted by Henry Ford, who had invited him to work since Carver had created rubber out of golden rod. Thomas Edison tried to recruit him as an inventor since Carver was noted as a great inventor, having patents on wood stains made from peanuts and sweet potatoes.   Alas, he went to work at Tuskegee “Normal” Institute at the invitation of Booker T. Washington, because it was there that he’d “do the most good.” Carver taught chemistry, botany, and other biology at Tuskegee until his death. I found this picture on the internet with Carver’s rules to live by: “Education is the key to unlock the golden doors of freedom.”

Once a year, I pay homage to King Alfonso X, who ruled Castile-Leon (now Spain) in the 13th Century. Here are a few facts about the “Learned King.”

He ruled from1252 – 1284 13th C. Medieval – Father of Castilian language, which we now call Spanish.  During his time, his language was Galician-Portuguese, also called “Romance” 

420 songs, poems, and commissioned 3 dimensional pieces as a way to teach morality to his subjects. 

He had just missed being crowned the Holy Roman Emperor because he was “too learned!” according to the Pope of the Catholic Church at the time. I wrote a blog better examining the King last November. No doubt, I will write another about the king in the coming fall.

I like learning about different species in the animal world. I was a volunteer teacher at a zoo in Southwest Kansas. If you want to learn more about a subject, teach it! I was able to handle lots of cool animals. Here I am with a goshawk.

Finally, exploring my Indigenous roots remains an important part of my identity. I still practice the food, the songs, and the rituals of my grandmothers. The fire featured as my main image illustrates one of those practices of cleansing with smoke. I am born for the Ohkay Owingeh and the Dine and born to the Uncompahgre Ute.  I have DNA ties to the Athabascan, Alaskan Native.  My people, called the San Juan Pueblo by Spanish colonizers of what is now New Mexico. Spaniard plopped right on the Village at the confluence of the Chama and the Rio Grande Rivers.  Our villages straddled the rivers, so there was much struggle to keep our culture, our food ways, and our identities as The People of the Strong Land.  You can see a stature of our great leader, Popay, in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.  Despite the push toward erasure, we are still here!

My family remains the most important, my children, grandchildren, spouse, parents, siblings, and extended family, natural and adopted, as I call my dear friends. Find what makes you happy, and develop curiosity about an array of subjects. For me, I can only think knowledge is the best brain food.

Thank you for reading.

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