The American Indian Experience

Melody Moberg

John Low, the executive director of the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston, Illinois, spoke in Riverview Lounge Monday, May 5, at 7 p.m. His presentation titled “On the Great Turtle’s Back, The American Indian Experience” addressed contemporary and historical issues related to the problems and experiences of Native Americans. The Multicultural Affairs office sponsored the event.
John Low belongs to the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. He has a law degree from the University of Michigan and practiced law for over 17 years, serving as tribal attorney for his community.
Low also holds a bachelor’s degree in American Indian studies from the University of Minnesota, a master’s degree in social sciences from the University of Chicago and is currently enrolled in the doctoral program in American culture at the University of Michigan, having completed all-but-degree for the doctorate.
In addition, Low holds a certificate in Museum Studies, and is the first native director of the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian.
Low spoke about the American Indian experience using personal stories and a slideshow presentation. He also combined his message with images, sounds, scents and narratives from tradition. The presentation began with a prayer in which, in a calm and measured voice he gave thanks to Mother Earth, his ancestors, the four directions and Lawrence University for hosting the event. He continued, “Prayers are not just words, but sounds,” and closed his prayer with the low music of a wooden flute.
Low later explained the cultural significance of his clothing. In addition to jeans and moccasins, he wore a ribbon shirt in the four colors of the wind, which his wife made, following tradition. The leather soles of his moccasins enable him to “feel Mother Earth beneath his feet” and to feel “the bones of his ancestors.” Sitting in the comfortable chairs and couches of Riverview with the sunlight pouring in, surrounded by the smoky scent of burnt sage to “cleanse the self and the environment,” the presentation was less of a lecture than an experience in itself.
Low introduced his topic by paraphrasing an introduction written by John F. Kennedy to a book about Native Americans. Kennedy states that the heritage of every American is reflected in the history of our native peoples. Low also explained the title of his presentation, which was inspired by a common creation story in the Great Lakes region that holds that North America rests upon the back of a turtle.
Low gave a brief description of the experience of the Potawatomi before and after European contact. Because of technical difficulties, he was unable to give an overview of Potawatomi history to the present. He moved onto contemporary issues concerning Native Americans and took questions from the audience. He discussed casinos, health care, ancestral remains and material culture, mascots and treaty rights.
Low also focused on the many problems of reservations, which he described as “rural ghettos,” which are both “islands of poverty and islands of cultural continuity.” The position of reservations as sovereign nations both approaching “third world” standards and as rich, irreplaceable centers of Native American culture makes attempts to help or “deal with them” difficult. “Native people do not want to be assimilated, or to become part of the American dream,” Low maintained. “They had a dream long before the American dream.”
More information on Low and his museum can be found at the Web site