In observation of Native American Heritage Month, Dr. Michael Yellow Bird of North Dakota State University spoke on campus Friday, discussing the impact of colonization for Native American peoples.
Yellow Bird is a citizen of the North Dakota Three Affiliated Tribes – Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara – and director of indigenous tribal studies at NDSU.
Speaking at the Alice Peters Auditorium with students and members of Native American tribes in attendance, Yellow Bird opened the event speaking in his native tongue.
“I try to speak my tribal language as much as I can. Early on, I was taught it wasn’t of any value and that it’s not going to help us in any way in this culture,” he said. “But it’s an important part of who I am and a way of thanking the people of the territory we are on.”
During the discussion, Yellow Bird elaborated on colonialism and how the colonizing of people leads to the control of their thinking – a term he coined, “neuro-colonization.”
“Colonization inhibits an idea, understanding of the mind and brain, which makes those subjected believe in an idea that is untrue or exacerbated. George Orwell stated that those who control the language also control the people,” Yellow Bird said.
The result of this is modern-day colonialism, so deeply ingrained in American culture, is that it’s often accepted and brushed off, he said. He used examples such as the childhood game “Cowboys and Indians” and the NFL team name The Washington Redskins.
The idea of colonialism reaches as far back as the Founding Fathers, he said. Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson and George Washington all held detrimental policies against Native Americans, such as The Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of thousands of Native American tribes from their homeland, he said.
“Colonialism is like rust. It never sleeps,” Yellow Bird said. “It’s always breaking down so it can continue to control and manipulate.”
Yellow Bird discussed the importance of “decolonization” of the mind, or trying to change native peoples’ thoughts about themselves as colonized people so they are liberated from the thought that they are controlled.
“Resolving ideas through diversity, to fight the system and overcome oppressors and our own selfish ways of thinking,” Yellow Bird said. “We must come to understand not the decolonization process, but the beauty of understanding ways of life that are sustainable.”
“There seems to be this idea that we are living in a world of American exceptionalism, and that God will guide this country. If that’s true, God doesn’t like Indians,” Yellow Bird added.
The event was organized by the First Nations Indigenous Student Organization of Fresno State, the President’s Commission on Human Relations and Equity and the Office of the Vice President of Student Affairs. A second guest, Dr. Cornel Pewewardy of Portland State University, will speak on campus on Nov. 17.