What can I do and how can I make a difference?

Note: This is the script I wrote for a talk I gave this week at the Gathering Place, an inviting spot for Indigenous students and the campus community at Vancouver Island University, where I am ensconced for the semester. When I talk or lecture I write up my notes in advance. I don’t read them to the audience—I use the exercise as a guide, and then just…talk.

osage blanket

A traditional Osage blanket shows the open hand

What can I do and how can I make a difference?

I read these words–What can I do and how can I make a difference–a few weeks ago in an opinion piece written in the Globe & Mail by Jody Wilson-Raybould from British Columbia, a First Nations writer and politician who is currently an independent member of Parliament in Canada.

I found her words inspiring, and decided to spend my time today talking about the questions she posed (above), which serve as a useful guide for me.

Before I dip into the lecture, I’m going to ask you to look at your hand.

Now: think about three things, and as I go through my talk, we will discuss the three things.

Open your palm.

For the Osages, an open palm means you welcome visitors: you have no weapon. Your palm is empty.

Now think of your hand and imagine you have a few pebbles or stones in them. Think about what the pebbles would feel like.

And third, note that your fingers can make many signs, and one of the signs I want to show you is my index finger.

With my hand I’m going to make the sign of “one.”

I do this to help you remember the third thing I’d like you to think about.

Sometimes, all you need is …  just one thing.

Just one smile.

Just one sunny day.

Just one good friend.

In Osage, we greet each other with an open hand and say, How-Wey.

My family is from Grayhorse, one of the villages in the Osage reservation in Oklahoma.

And because I’m a visitor to the Island, here in British Columbia, I would like to acknowledge the people of Nanaimo, on whose land my boots are now centered, and to thank them for the opportunity to be here today.

Speaking of boots, when my husband and I drove up to Vancouver Island from Portland, Oregon, we each brought one bag. And I packed four pair of shoes—two pair of sneakers (I wore one pair), one pair of boots, and one pair of dress shoes (just in case).

Ever since we arrived at the beginning of September, I spend each day fishing out pebbles and stones from my shoes.

Maybe it’s because Nanaimo has great sandy beaches or maybe it’s because I walk through the woods to catch my bus.

But every single day I have to stop and shake out my shoe.

The reason I mention this is because of Susan Power’s book, The Grass Dancer, which follows the stories about Sioux families over time in South Dakota.

One of the characters is a budding medicine woman and something of a trickster. Her name is Anna.

Anna plays tricks on a non-Indian woman, Jeanette, who teaches in the local school.

One of Anna’s tricks is that she takes a bit of grit, roots around in the teacher’s closet when she’s not at home, and Anna places dirt in the teacher’s shoe.

Anna reasons that, when the time comes, Jeanette will be tied to the earth: she can’t leave the reservation, even if she wants to.

When I empty the pebbles from my boots I wonder: is this a message that I need to stick around the Island a little longer?

*  *  *

Let’s return to the questions: What can I do and how can I make a difference?

On my way to graduate school in the 1980s—I moved from the Pacific Northwest to the Eastern part of the United States—my family and I stopped to visit relatives in Oklahoma.

I asked my auntie, who lives in Grayhorse, what I can do that will make a difference, now that I am embarking on new studies?

In that quiet and subtle way of many of my relatives, she simply smiled and said:

You will know when the time is right. 

My major was communication, and I was keen on understanding the intersection of communication with mass media, governance and democracy.

In my first semester, I learned how mass media influence elections, and I was determined to find out more about how Native Americans voted, and how our votes count.

I jogged up to the Library—this was before the heyday of the Internet—to scout for research on Indigenous voting in the United States.

Guess what?

I found nothing.

I could not find one source in scholarly literature that addressed the issue of the Native vote.

I tried popular literature.


But I continued to study mass media and governance.

And I soon learned that a mining company was eyeing a small town in Northern Wisconsin, planning to build a copper mine on traditional Ojibway lands.

The local tribe—the Lac Courte D’Oreilles—(the French called them “short ears”) occupied the land long before the United States said it would take the territory and hold it “in trust.”

That meant the Native people could hunt, fish and gather on the territory, but they lost the ability to make decisions about the land.

When the tribe learned that a copper mine was planned on their traditional land, and that effluent from the mine would be discharged into rivers the tribes used for their livelihood, they sued to stop the construction.

The Ladysmith copper mine controversy gave me an opportunity to discern how the conflict was communicated in newspapers throughout Wisconsin.

I discovered news framing depended on where the newspaper was located.

The newspapers that were more likely to give voice to Native American viewpoints were the mid-sized papers that were distant from the copper mine.

The large mainstream newspaper paid the mine less heed because it was concerned with other statewide issues.

And the town paper?

The Ladysmith newspaper read like a newsletter from the mining company. The local newspaper treated the company as though it owned the newspaper.

The paper did carry comments from the Lac Courte D’Oreilles tribal chairman, but tended to bury the stories deep within the paper and situated them without context.

But that I mean the Native viewpoints read like opinion pieces, and they were bracketed—set apart.

There was no analysis or back-and-forth between tribal viewpoints and the mining company.

Meantime, the mining company acted in good faith, from a propaganda viewpoint.

The company bought a fire truck for the town and launched a “save the owl” campaign in local schools.

And the mine was built.

I shared my findings in as many circles available—both academic and journalistic. I published my research and presented talks at meetings.

I reckoned that the way I could make a difference is by sharing my research.

The next time someone wanted to study how mass media cover conflicts in Indigenous communities, she would find at least one soul working on the issue.

I reasoned that sometimes it takes just one person.

*  *  *

Once I had studied the construction of a mine on Indigenous land, I couldn’t get away from issues that embroil Native tribes over their resources: earth, water and air.

My next adventure concerns an ancient skull and skeleton that was discovered in the Pacific Northwest in 1996.

The bones–discovered on territory that is home to Native tribes–turned out to be thousands of years old.

First, you need to know the US has a law that protects Indigenous remains and artifacts—the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

So when the skeleton was unearthed, naturally the local Indigenous tribes believed the ancestor would be returned.

What else could explain the origin of the 9000-year-old being?

A freelance anthropologist who sent off a chunk of bone for carbon dating called a press conference when he learned the skeleton’s age shortly after it was pulled from the Columbia River.

He said the skull looked just like Jean-Luc Picard, a fictional character on television and films, from the future, played by an English actor.

The news reported that the skeleton was Caucasian.

Not Native American.

The discourse favored the scientific view: the skeleton’s ancestry needed to be investigated.

Meantime, local tribes urged the government to release the skeleton to their care and so that he could be returned to the earth.

A group of scientists sued the US government to study bones.

After nearly a decade in court, the judge ruled that the scientists could study the skeleton.

For the last 20 years I’ve been studying how the discourse about this conflict has unfolded.

The issue, from the Indigenous perspective, is that Native people need a seat at the table.

They want their concerns taken seriously.

They want their culture taken seriously.

But you wouldn’t know this from the public discourse.

Indigenous concerns were treated as exotic, superstitious, and framed as “religious.”

This stands in opposition to the scientific rationality of objectivity.

Indian people were framed as anti-science.

And that didn’t seem right to me.

Then, in 2016, a group of geneticists from Denmark developed new techniques to assess DNA, and they linked the skeleton’s genes with members of the Colville peoples in Washington.

*  *  *

To investigate further, I applied for a fellowship to study at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, where I could talk to the scientists who sued to study the skeleton, and where I could meet with staff members at the National Museum of the American Indian.

I learned there are two separate worlds: one for the scientists. One for the Indians.

When you go to the Natural Museum of History, you can find an exhibit that features scientists who study bones.

Written in Bone—the name of the exhibit—looks and feels like a scene from the television franchise CSI: Crime Scene Investigations.

Scientists are characterized as forensic explorers, on the hunt for bones “that tell stories.”

If you walk over to the National Museum of the American Indian, you can learn how Native people use science in every day, by learning how to navigate by the stars, and figuring out which wood makes the best boat.

The difference is that, at the Native exhibits, you learn that science is woven into daily life.

In Osage, there’s no one word for science.

There’s no one word for religion.

It’s all wrapped together.

At the history museum, there are separate silos: there’s science, which is separated from art, and which is separated from literature, which is separated from politics, which is separated from …

So when I think about the ancient skeleton, or the copper mine in Ladysmith, I think about how scientists and politicians placed their concerns in a separate packages: one for science, one for fishing, one for health, one for copper, one for beliefs, one for laws.

In contrast, the Native Americans embroiled in the conflict talk about the whole package: a way of life. A way of thinking.

In closing, I find I have the privilege of studying discourse.

My contribution is to share what I learn across a range of interests: academic, journalistic and community—Native and non-Native alike.

I’m just one person.

I can show you what that looks like on my hand: one finger.

And I hope that this one person can make a difference.

Thanks for listening.



Hay ch œa.


9 October 2019

Photo credit: Gilcrease Museum

Dedicated to the people of Vancouver Island 








































About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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