An oral history project at Northwestern University will capture glimpses of Chicago life as told by generations of Native Americans who live in the Midwest’s largest city.
The project brings to light some pieces of American history that would go unnoticed if the class of 11 Northwestern students were not documenting these stories of urban American Indians.
The students’ work is part of a course offered this quarter in the Medill School of Journalism, taught by professor Loren Ghiglione. A former dean at Medill and former newspaper editor, Ghiglione has long been a supporter of diversity in the news media and in education.
The goals of this new course are to learn about some of Chicago’s Native Americans who represent various tribes and different generations, and to document their life stories “in their own words” in video histories.
“It’s not as if you can feel that you are in the American Indian community in Chicago anymore, the way that you can feel that you’re in a Latino neighborhood or in a black neighborhood or an immigrant neighborhood,” Ghiglione said about Chicago’s Native population, which is scattered among the 2.7 million residents in the nation’s third largest city.
The roughly 40,000 Native Americans who live in Chicago represent an estimated 250 tribal nations, yet they are “invisible” in the city, he said.
“I hope the project will diminish the ignorance of non-Natives about American Indians living in Chicago,” Ghiglione said.
The oral history project comes at a time when the local Native American community has put pressure on Northwestern to acknowledge the link between university co-founder John Evans and the brutal Sand Creek massacre. About 150 unarmed Native Americans were slain by the Colorado Territory militia in an attack that claimed the lives of mostly women and children in 1864. Evans, for whom the city of Evanston is named, was the territorial governor of Colorado at the time of the massacre.
In May of last year, a university committee issued a report on Evans and recommended that Northwestern take corrective action, including “increasing the access of Native Americans to a Northwestern education and of all Northwestern students to the study of Native American history and cultures.” The report stated:
John Evans deserves institutional recognition for his central and indispensable contributions to the establishment of Northwestern and its development through its early decades, but the University has ignored his significant moral failures before and after Sand Creek. This oversight goes against the fundamental purposes of a university and Northwestern’s own best traditions, and it should be corrected.
Ghiglione serves on the university’s Native American Outreach and Inclusion Task Force, which made its own recommendations last fall. The task force suggested ways that Northwestern could increase its presence of Native Americans on campus, strengthen its ties to the local Native American community, conduct collaborative teaching and research on matters that impact Native American populations, and expand its knowledge of historical and contemporary relationships between the university and Native communities.
Ghiglione’s course, called “Native American Tell Their Stories,” falls in line with one of the task force’s recommendations that urges the university to undertake a “National Native American Oral History Project.”
Pamala Silas, executive director of the Native American Journalists Association and a member of the Menominee Nation, also serves on the task force and is one of the interviewees featured in the oral history project. She said Ghiglione is making significant contributions to the Native American community and Native American journalism.
“I am so proud and grateful that he did not wait for any report to tell him that improvements were needed at NWU,” Silas said in an email message.
“He has demonstrated with action his commitment not only to the few Native students on campus, but to the rest of the students and faculty the value of improving their knowledge and relationship with Indian country and tribal media,” she said.
Silas said she believes “the seeds he is planting” will lead to an increase in Native enrollees at Northwestern and “a better experience” for current students.
“I wish we had a champion with his determination and many career accomplishments in every school of journalism,” Silas said.
At Ghiglione’s invitation, I spoke to the class on Jan. 30 about tips for interviewing Native people. I was honored to share the floor with Oglala Lakota author and journalist Charles Trimble, and to speak to the group of talented student journalists.
Through this class, Northwestern can create a model for a national oral history project. Such thoughtful journalism is needed to tell a more complete story of who we are as Americans. The national project also would go a long way toward fulfilling the recommendations in the Evans report and those made by the university task force.
Ghiglione said the oral histories produced by his class will be made available to the interviewees and the organizations that helped develop the course. They include the American Indian Association of Illinois, the American Indian Center of Chicago, the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies of the Newberry Library, the Native American Journalists Association and Northwestern University.
Follow me on Twitter @karenmichel.