Q&A with American Indian Studies professor
November is Native American Heritage Month, and to examine its importance, The Daily Tar Heel staff writer Hunter Toro sat down with Christopher Teuton, an associate professor of American Studies and Cherokee Nation member.
Teuton recently released a book along with four elders of the nation titled “Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club,” a collection of stories, conversations and teachings about the role of stories within Cherokee culture.
Daily Tar Heel: How important is American Indian Studies to North Carolina and UNC?
Christopher Teuton: In 2012, the census listed over 122,000 Native American people in the state of North Carolina. The population of the Native American people is large, and Native American studies is very important to serve that population, but also to educate the population of North Carolina concerning the history, the culture, the art and the continued vibrancy of Native American issues today.
DTH: What is the Native American student experience like?
CT: From my experience as a Native American student, a first generation college student, when I went to college, it was quite an alienating experience. I was away from my home, my people, and I was in different circumstances that I hadn’t been familiar with. It takes some adjustment.
There are some great resources here for students on campus. Among those are tremendous faculty within the American Indian Studies curriculum, and an American Indian center on campus, which is really important to building the networks between students, faculty and the larger Native American communities of North Carolina.
DTH: How has Native American culture changed in recent years?
CT: One of the first things I teach my classes is to talk about Native American peoples as a contemporary people — as a people just like any other culture, native culture, that has changed through time.
Oftentimes within the mainstream media and popular culture, we get depictions of Native American people as people of the past — people that stopped evolving in the late 19th century — and that’s just not correct. Native American people are people who hold on to their traditions and their belief systems and their storytelling traditions and those things that define them as a people.
But they are also people of the present. They are people who are deeply involved in the economies and technologies of today and of American culture as well.
DTH: What challenges do Native Americans face in modern times?
CT: One of the continuing challenges of today is for Native American nations to assert their own self-control of their internal affairs, to develop their own economies, to govern themselves as their own peoples, and that is a continuing challenge that comes from the past and is still a part of today.
DTH: How do you encourage your students to understand Native American culture?
CT: I ask them to first of all set aside their assumptions, and to approach the subject matter with an open mind and to listen. I think that’s one of the most important things you can do as we try to understand another culture, another people, is to try to understand the world from their perspective.
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