As the first in his family to attend college, Sandy “Macky” Scott could have been forgiven for simply trying to get by, and get his degree, at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Instead, the senior in management and member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska became involved with the University of Nebraska Inter-Tribal Exchange, or UNITE, a Recognized Student Organization that connects Native students while promoting their academic success and development at the university.
Even after returning to the Winnebago Reservation to help care for his ill mother, Scott has continued his Husker education from a distance. As program coordinator of a State Tribal Education Partnership project funded by the U.S. Department of Education, he’s also busy linking the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska’s education agency with its state and local counterparts.
To mark Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Nebraska Today spoke with Scott about the evolution of his Native identity, the importance of education in advancing Native causes, and the realities of maintaining his Winnebago legacy.
You earned an associate of arts degree from Little Priest Tribal College in Winnebago before coming to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. What was the adjustment like? How did you get involved with UNITE?
I’d always wanted to attend a university, and I looked at Nebraska’s business program and really liked what was presented there. So in spring of 2016, I moved down to Lincoln and was getting adjusted to the campus. It was kind of a crazy transition, because Little Priest Tribal College has smaller class sizes — it’s not a huge campus.
A few community members go to school at Nebraska, and they’re actually in UNITE, too. So I linked up with one of them, and they said, “Hey, come to UNITE. You might enjoy it. It’s like a home away from home.”
And it was. It was really great just experiencing that and having (that) family, because family is a really big component of our Native culture and beliefs. Being separated from your family and not seeing them every day, that was a transition for me.
How has your Native identity developed over time?
I hadn’t really gotten close to my identity until my junior or senior year of high school. I grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, which is 30 minutes from Winnebago. Growing up there and going into the public schools there and being away from my reservation, I didn’t have that exposure to my culture, the language, the history.
(Then) I moved out to the reservation and lived with my dad. That’s when I was going to school at Winnebago and was around more of my community and learned more about my culture. What really opened my eyes is when I went to Little Priest Tribal College and took some Native American classes there.
The things that we were taught in (public) school were the basic Native American (curriculum), which is not the full story. So that’s what I grew up with. When I was little, Thanksgiving was one of my favorite holidays. But when I got older, I was just baffled to see the true history behind Thanksgiving and what really happened. So that wasn’t my favorite holiday any longer. Those types of things, growing up in a city, I didn’t learn or have exposure to.
What are you aiming to achieve through the State Tribal Education Partnership project that you help coordinate?
Part of this STEP grant is implementing our culture, language and history into the standards of the curriculum for the public schools in Nebraska. So we’re working with our local education agency now, and it’s come so far. We’re focused on social studies, but we plan to expand out.
We have stories and history of our own that is not out there on the web or that we keep here in the community. I think (it’s worth) creating that consistent relationship to understand that Natives have it a little different — just thinking about those things and incorporating that into some of the programming and systems.
This is one outlet to make something like that happen — not just from kindergarten to fourth grade, which are what we’re focusing on right now, but kindergarten through 12th. Then, also, taking it to the universities and colleges and actually integrating some consultation from specialists who are dealing with those types of subjects in classes. One of the activities that we’re doing with the teachers is creating professional development for them to learn our history and culture. Of course, we’re not going to force our beliefs on them, but just present, “This is why we believe this. This is why we say that.”
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is Oct. 12. How do you think of the holiday? As an overdue recognition and celebration of indigenous people? An opportunity to correct the narratives surrounding Christopher Columbus?
Personally, just labeling a day or even a month — you know, November is Native American Month, February is Black History Month — for a while there, I was really proud, like, “OK, yeah, we get a month dedicated to who we are.” But then I had a really open conversation with one of my closest mentors, and they said, “Well, why be recognized on one day? Why be recognized just for a month?” That’s just saying, “OK, here comes that time, and we’ll give you the spotlight, but then your spotlight’s over.” I don’t really like that idea, because it should be a consistent open-mindedness. And I think when we have that mindset of just celebrating at a certain time, it kind of defeats the purpose.
In this case, with Christopher Columbus Day: It’s really hard to want to celebrate someone like him. You can’t discover something that’s already here. We don’t want to celebrate someone who enslaved people. There were a lot of killings and a lot of kidnappings and rapes and atrocities. Building monuments to or putting a spotlight on someone like that — it’s heartbreaking, and it’s really upsetting. We’re just trying to tell people, “This shouldn’t be celebrated.” The holiday is basically saying, “This person did a really great thing. Let’s recognize them for that.” But that’s not the reality of it. There’s more to it. I think a lot of people don’t understand that, so I do think it’s important to remove that and replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
The thing about it is: Some of our tribes orally tell our stories, and we don’t write those down. There are certain times to tell different stories or certain moments when you learn those types of things, and there’s reasoning and a purpose behind that.
Is there any tension between the desire to maintain the oral storytelling tradition of the Winnebago Tribe and the potential educational benefits of writing down some of those stories?
You kind of hit it spot-on. Is there disagreement or friction among (Natives) wanting to write that down and put it out there for everybody, or keep it oral and traditional? I think that’s one obstacle that some tribes deal with. We have to adapt to the modern day, and we can’t fully be how we were back then. If we were, I don’t think we would be advancing.
To a certain extent, that is one of the challenges that we’ve dealt with (internally), too. Because of teaching them orally, some of our customs and some of our stories might vary within the tribe. In our tribe, we have 12 clans, and back then, each clan was posted in a certain area of the village. Each one had their own responsibility, but they also have their own stories as to how the clans were started — why does this clan have this role in the tribe, things like that. But because of our oral tradition in passing that down, it’s like a game of telephone. You get four people around, and you can only whisper something once into an ear. And then, by the time it gets back to you, it’s something different. So that’s a challenge that we deal with sometimes.
It comes back to being adaptive to the modern day and knowing what stories to share and whatnot. There’s a basic foundation of knowledge that everybody knows that I think we’d be willing to put out there, but when it comes to (some of) those stories, there’s a reason why those stories are told (specifically) in the wintertime or the springtime, for instance. Those type of stories, I don’t think that we would be comfortable publishing.
What sorts of misconceptions or stereotyping do you encounter? What correctives or context would you want to share with those who hold them?
A lot of people don’t even understand that we’re still here, or that we don’t live in teepees. Not all Indians lived in teepees. There were different types of housing, just as there’s not one type of Native.
There are Native Americans who have achieved some really great things, but they’re not really out there or really known. Some of that comes back to the hardships that we deal with, and with historic trauma. Some people say, “Well, that was a long time ago. Get over it.” But there’s research that shows historic trauma is built into our genetics. So it is hard for us to push forward with that. When we’re born, we’re (often) already dealing with those types of things: poverty, addictions, first-generation student experiences, one-parent households. Those take a toll, and even if it’s not in your (immediate) family, if it’s your cousin or your aunt, your uncle, that still affects you. It comes back to how, with our culture, family is a big thing. Family is an important component of our tribe. We make sure everybody’s fed and everybody’s doing well and helping each other. Basically, when one hurts, all of us feel that hurt.
How do you view the progress being made regarding non-Native, especially white, perceptions and treatment of Native Americans?
I really do see progress being made, and things are changing a little bit. But it’s at a slow pace. There are a lot of improvements that need to happen with Native Americans in different fields: education, health care, social services. There are so many changes that are needed. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of Natives going to school or getting their education. I really am an advocate and believer that education creates opportunities and advancement. But our people are having struggles (with that).
Our elders (often) didn’t go to school. And a lot of our elders (who did) were abused and part of the boarding school system. So when they think of boarding school and school (in general), that is something that is not a good memory for them. Sometimes, I feel like that’s why our elders or some of our people don’t necessarily encourage school, because they reflect and remember those horrible, horrible times. When you talk about education, it can get kind of touchy.
I feel like there are those among us who are trying to create change; I just think there’s a long way to go. But there are those advocating for us and working with us. I just really feel like it comes back to the history and knowing the struggles of different Native American tribes. That’s why we feel so passionate about it.
The whole rebranding of the Washington football team — that is a huge win for us. A lot of people don’t understand how hurtful that is. Some people will say, “It’s a mascot. It’s recognizing you guys.” There are other ways of being recognized and showing that type of respect.
Or with Halloween coming up, that is a big issue with us every year, too, with the costumes and the headdresses and things like that. It might seem simple, like, “Well, it’s just clothing.” But there’s so much beyond that. For example, with the headdress: That’s a thing you see all the time. I can’t speak for all tribes, because tribes have different customs and different beliefs. But in my tribe, wearing a headdress signifies honor and sacrifice. That’s for our chiefs and people who made sacrifices. They earned that right. With our veterans here in the States, when they get these prestigious medals, it’s basically (equivalent to) saying, “I’ve been to war. I’ve made sacrifices.” They have to go through so much hardship; they might have to take people’s lives. After making that sacrifice — you’re never really the same after that. When you dress up like that, you’re mocking, in a way, our history and our hardships and the things that we’ve been through.
It’s just: Do you really understand what you’re wearing or what you’re doing? We’re not a mascot. There’s more to our identity. I can only speak for my tribe, because people might feel different in different tribes, but the majority of the time, it’s not a good look.
How do you go about remaining true to your Winnebago identity and traditions in the modern-day United States?
With my tribe, we were moved five times. We were originally from the Wisconsin area. Some people stayed up there; some people were moved. Right there, that’s kind of a severance, because you’re losing people — you’re losing elders who know those stories, those teachings, and you have to deal with what you have and push those forward.
It’s just those different things that I wish I knew when I was younger, because it does influence a lot of who I am today. Even my mindset — there were times when I took some business courses at Nebraska, and they talked about how the business world is a dog-eat-dog world sometimes, and you kind of have to do the best you can and look out for yourself. That was a guest speaker’s point when they were talking in a human resources course and explaining their journey. But that was conflicting with my self-identity, because with our culture, we’re always taught: When you have a visitor over, you give them water and food. You host them; you make sure they feel comfortable, and you look out for the overall well-being of that person. There’s a compassion there.
As we were growing up, we were always told that you’ve got to balance yourself with your culture and your teachings, but also with what they called the white man’s world. You have to balance the two, because you can’t fully be yourself in the white man’s world, because it doesn’t work like that. It’s unfortunate that it’s that way, but that’s a hard lesson that we were taught when we were growing up — taking those two and balancing them when we’re out in the world.
Election Day is Nov. 3. How do you see voting as it relates to the Native experience?
I bring this up because it even surprises me to this day, and it gets me kind of shook. I think a lot of people don’t know that Native Americans weren’t considered citizens until 1924. They passed the Indian Citizenship Act, and before that, we didn’t have the right to vote. Even then, with the act that was federally recognized and passed by Congress, the states still had control over voting. It wasn’t until years later that we were considered (as really having) the right to vote. That’s less than a hundred years ago. We weren’t considered citizens as other people were, and we didn’t have these benefits of being a citizen.
I feel like sometimes we’re lagging because of the obstacles and how we were seen and treated. We’re trying to catch up, or even get ahead, but we’re dealing with the obstacles and the trauma. That’s going to be a little while, and I think that’s something people should understand, too.
What do you say to non-Natives who have questions about your culture and experience?
When I approach these types of issues, I know they’re tough to talk about, and they’re really sad and tragic. But my approach is (that) I don’t want to make other people feel guilty or bad about it. I just wish there was more education, more consideration to it. And when I talk about these things, I try to tell people: Just ask me the question you really want to learn about. Even if it sounds like you’re being ignorant, you’re not going to hurt my feelings. Not all Natives are like that; they might take offense to some things. But I’m open-minded and try to educate.
At some point, I believe we can’t keep pushing the blame on somebody. We need to move forward and heal ourselves from here, push forward. But part of that healing is (having) the understanding and the consideration, too.