When Rose Ann Abrahamson handed a quiz about Indians to the Indian students in her workshop at the Northwest Indian Youth Conference, she delivered it with a challenge that would have seemed politically incorrect in any other setting.
“I want to see what you injuns know about yourselves,” she chided.
The workshop was one of 36 during this week’s conference that drew some 350 Indian students from the Northwest and Canada to Idaho State University.
The workshop was called “Circle of Understanding Through History and Dance,” and Abrahamson lined the 20 students up single file in the middle of the room before asking them 18 true-false questions. She then told them to step to the left of the line if they answered true and to the right if they answered false.
Seldom did all the students agree on their answers.
“Indians receive a per capita check every month from the government for being an Indian” found two of the students on the true side.
“Where do I sign up?” Abrahamson teased, saying, “No, Indians don’t get money for their heritage.”
A Lemhi Shoshone, Abrahamson is bilingual coordinator at the Shoshone-Bannock School in Fort Hall. She demonstrated the diversity of Native American languages by saying hello in about a dozen.”I collect hello words,” she said, apologizing for any mispronunciations.
That diversity of languages also came through in a quiz question - “All American Indians can converse with one another in the Indian language.”
It was one of the few on which all the students answered the same way - false. Many of them can’t converse with their elders in their own native language.
Another question finding two students with the wrong answer was, “Most Indians want to assimilate and join the mainstream of America.”
“Many Indians don’t want to assimilate,” Abrahamson said gently. “We do want to borrow from other cultures.”
She told of a Blackfeet woman in Montana who borrowed from the culture of modern science in discovering taxol, the cancer-treating chemical produced naturally in the bark of the yew tree.
Other discoveries by white scientists, such as the theory of plate tectonics, were already known by Indians, Abrahamson said.