The Sequoyah National Research Center, a Native American archive and gallery on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is unveiling a new exhibit Tuesday. Entitled “Native Voices,” it examines the diverse and holistic ways many Native Americans approach illness and health.
“Most of the time when people think of American Indians they think that they stopped in the 19th century, before ‘civilization began,’ and so we try to bring that narrative into present day issues and existence,” explains Erin Fehr, an archivist at the center who helped organize the exhibit. Part of the Yup'ik tribe, Fehr says getting the word out about events such as these can be difficult because of common misunderstandings about contemporary Native American life.
“Currently there are 567 federally-recognized tribes within the US, and each tribe has their own form of government and they are all sovereign nations. They work with the U.S. on a nation-to-nation basis,” she says. “While some are very close ethnically and culturally, they do have individual identities. The Coquille are completely different than the Sioux or the Cherokee.”
Today, Native nations exist across North America. No federally recognized tribes currently reside in Arkansas, but the Osage, Quapaw, and Caddo tribes were considered indigenous to the state before the United States government forcibly moved them to Oklahoma.
The SNRC’s current exhibit, Native Voices, comes from the National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. It explores contemporary Native American relationships with health and wellness, through text, art, and multimedia works. Fehr’s favorite display table includes the SNRC’s cookbooks from various tribes.
“Some of them are talking about things we are not familiar with here in Arkansas, at least using them in this way. The Anishinabe people from Minnesota have a cookbook that we have, and it has a recipe in it for cattail pollen flapjacks. I have never eaten cattail pollen; I don’t really know how that tastes,” she says.
“We also have a collection of DVDs that are called ‘Seasoned with Spirit’,” she says, “that are interviews with Native people about certain foods that they cook, so it's sort of like the food network for native people.”
Fehr says diet is a big part of Native American wellness, because many Native American people have begun to eat more processed foods, instead of eating regional foods that they had eaten for many generations. As a result, Fehr says, diabetes is a big health concern in Native communities, and so returning to those subsistence diets is important.
Diabetes is a big concern in Native communities,” she says. “Largely because there has been a stepping away from subsistence lifestyles, where they are eating natural things found within their region”
“Native peoples have relied for generations on that subsistence lifestyles, and so within the past just two or three generations, there's been this fast increase of these processed foods, and it's creating a very high increase of diabetes,” Fehr says.
The exhibit also features iPads positioned around the back of the room that allow viewers to go face to face with Native peoples. Visitors put headphones on to listen to Native American people describe in their own words how their tribe approaches healing.
One interview describes, “For Native peoples, healing is more than the treatment of physical symptoms. It is intertwined with larger concepts of health that are derived from balance in nature, community support, positive tribal identity, and individual self respect.”
“Traditional healers spend large amounts of time with their patients, working to discover the root causes of their illness. This process often involves a spiritual journey,” it narrates.
Through art and interviews, Native American people describe the many ways in which traditional and western conceptions of healing interact and conflict with one another.
“Like, talking about the combination of using western medicine in addition to traditional healing methods that would have been used before western medicine was available,” she says.
“They really stress being involved in the community, and participating in certain ceremonies and festivals and feasts. I do think that sometimes with western medicine we tend to do it opposite, we tend to isolate people who have certain issues as opposed to bringing them into a community atmosphere, and making them feel at home and at peace,” Fehr says.
The Native Voices exhibit will be open until August 3 at the Sequoyah National Research Center. In conjunction with the exhibit, the SNRC is presenting a film screening of Heartbeat Alaska on July 19th, focusing on Alaska Native perspectives on health and wellness. You can learn more about the exhibit here.