Reflections on Mission Week 2011

By Lauren Haberkorn

Thirza Defoe

Thirza Defoe plays Native American flute for audience in the jPad

If you weren’t in the jPad last Tuesday afternoon, I am sorry to say, you missed out.

As part of Mission Week 2011 here at the Diedrich College of Communication, students and faculty were given the unique privilege of watching Thirza Defoe’s native flute performance and hearing a lecture from guest speaker and New York Times best Selling author, Margaret Coel. After speaking with faculty and students after the event, I realized I wasn’t the only one who came to this lecture thinking I was not going to have anything in common with the speakers or the Arapaho Indians. I had no idea that within an hour, I was going to connect with the words Margaret Coel so eloquently spoke and the spirit of the Arapaho that she and Thirza demonstrated so strongly.

Thirza Defoe, also known by her Indian name, Giizhiigoquay, is a performer from the Ojibwe and Oneida tribes of Wisconsin. Though she’s only in her 20s, she’s got a resume that looks as if she’s lived an entire lifetime. She is widely known for her sacred hoop dancing she has been performing since she was a little girl. Her repertoire consists of performances at the Grammy Awards and the Native American Music Awards in 2002. In 1992, she danced in the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Barcelona and celebrated the Millennium in Egypt in December of 1999. She’s been featured in National Geographic World magazine and was named Wisconsin’s Best Kept Secret by News from Indian Country: The Independent Native Journal. She’s had principal roles in independent films and has been featured in PBS educational documentaries.

In May 2004 Thirza graduated from the world-renowned, California Institute of the Arts were she received her B.F.A. in Theatre. Later that year, she was awarded the First Americans in the Arts Scholarship for students pursuing careers in acting and the Indigenous Heritage Festival award in the category of Performing Arts. This award is given to artists who have made a major positive impact on indigenous people and issues of the world.

Those that were in attendance at Tuesday’s event in the jPad, would have never guessed that this humble young girl had so many accomplishments. She began with a prayer in her native language, what she called a “prayer song” that was about the sacred circle, the hoop of life, that reiterated the idea that we are all related and connected. She played the drum for us, which was to represent the heartbeat of all the people.

The drum is very sacred to the indigenous people because it is representative of Mother Earth, also, it is believed to be the first music we hear as human beings. While in the womb, a baby hears the heartbeat of its mother. She chanted a prayer to us, while beating the drum, “I’m going to walk in a good day. I’m going to walk in a good day. I’m going to walk in a good way”; this is similar to the Catholic hymn “as I’m going to follow Jesus.” Thirza reminded us that like Catholic hymns, the indigenous people sing songs that teach us of sacrifice, giving parts of ourselves to others, and helping those in need. Their stories serve as symbols as parables do in the Bible. The indigenous people use natural instruments that do not contain any metal. They believe that the instruments they use represent the natural sounds of the Earth. The thunder represented by the drum, the voice represents lightning, the rattle represents rain and the flute plays the sounds of the wind.

As Thirza spoke she not only captivated our attention with her knowledge, but also with the dignity and respect in which she spoke of her heritage. Thirza closed with another one of her native stories, which again seemed quite similar to Catholic teachings and stories many of us could probably recall from Sunday school or weekend mass.

Next, Dean Lori Bergen of the Diederich College of Communication introduced us to Margaret Coel, Marquette alum (Jour ’60) and winner of the 1998 Byline Award from Marquette’s College of Communication. Her novels have received wide recognition and acclaim. They have been on the bestseller lists of numerous newspapers, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, and five have received the Colorado Book Award. The Spirit Woman received the Willa Cather Award for Best Novel of the West and was a finalist for the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award for Best Novel.

As we celebrate our centennial year here at Marquette, it is interesting to note that had Marquette not been the first Jesuit University to open its doors to women, we might not have the privilege of celebrating Margaret Coel’s success. She would’ve most likely studied at the Jesuit University closer to her home in Denver, Colorado, but at the time they were not enrolling women. She is an acclaimed alumnus for more than one reason!

As Ms. Coel approached the podium, she set the audience immediately at ease with her self-deprecating humor. She quickly answered the question on all of our minds, is she Arapaho? The answer is no. She says she gets asked this question by a lot of people, the only ones that don’t seem to ask are the Arapahos themselves. Margaret clarifies a common misconception that writers only write “what we are.” She said if that were the case, she would get bored very soon; and her readers would get bored even sooner! She said writers write about what interest them. She herself does not know what it is that interested her about the Arapaho, there is no explanation, it was a mystical interest that had taken hold of her when she was a little girl and never seized to stay ignited in her heart – she just had to write about them.

It’s hard to believe Margaret is not an Arapaho considering her incredible knowledge regarding these people that were once apart of the Algonquin tribe.  As she began her research on the Arapaho people she was working for a magazine. However, her interests seemed to go far beyond what would fit into a tiny magazine article. She wanted to know all about the Arapaho – what was their history? Where were they from? What were their villages like? What did they trade? Who did they trade with? What was their burial ground like? Margaret found herself researching the Arapaho all over the country, digging deep into archives. As she put it, she was literally “obsessed.” During her research, she stumbled across Chief Left Hand, a leader of the Arapaho from the mid 1800s. She discovered that he was fluent in English, whereas most Arapaho didn’t know English at all – they didn’t need to- so why did Chief Left Hand set out to learn the language? She decided she wanted to write about this interesting man, and thought that she would be able to come up with a short magazine article about him. Five years later, after researching Chief Left Hand and traveling all over the country to learn every little known fact about him – she realized she had a 350 page magazine article – enough to fit into an entire book. She also realized that his story had never been told before. She believed he deserved to have his story told. So the University of Oklahoma Press published her novel in 1991. It has never gone out of print.

Coel was drawn into this research because of her interest in history, and her interest in the people. She was not on a quest to discover her spirituality or reaffirm her faith. But in studying these people she could not ignore the two characteristics that seemed to shape the life and way of the people. First, she realized the Arapaho were practical people, they were traders, diplomats, negotiators, and peacemakers. They were businessmen. Second, she realized that the Arapaho were spiritual. They were devoted prophets, constantly searching for signs in their lives from God, searching for small wonders. They had an inner dignity and determination. These two characteristics seemed to be rather opposing, spiritual businessmen? How could the Arapaho be diplomatic negotiators but also embody a quiet constant reverence for God? This is what Coel set out to discover.

Margaret Coel then began writing mystery fiction. She really began to immerse herself in their culture, visiting the Arapaho villages and befriending the people. As expected, they welcomed her with open arms. It was in this phase of Margaret Coel’s life she seemed to have discovered her faith in a much deeper way. Coel reassured the audience that she was not a spokesperson for Arapaho spirituality by any means – she speaks of her own personal experience. She said that throughout her personal experience with the Arapaho people, throughout the spiritual ceremonies she has been apart of (the Sundance, for example) she came to find a common ground between her and the Arapaho. These devoted people enriched her life and her spirituality  – she discovered that the Arapaho were incredibly accepting of the Christian message: in fact, many of them consider themselves Catholics or Episcopalians. They attend mass on the weekends. The have a cultural spirituality that remains alive, but they also are able to integrate the Catholic message into their lives.

Coel says she believes that they are accepting for two reasons – first, she discovered that in 1823, Jesuit missionaries spent a good amount of time with the Arapahos. They baptized them and brought them the Gospel. She believes that the Arapahos first encounters with Christians were good – the Arapahos saw the way that the Jesuits brought them their Christianity not only in words, but in actions. The Jesuits embodied the words they spoke just as the Arapaho do. Coel also believes they were prepared for the message of Christianity because they had such a strong foundation of spirituality to accept it and understand the Catholic message.  The Arapahos hold a Sundance every year in July, it is a traditional dance that has been going on for thousands of years. It is a time of thanksgiving, prayer, and sacrifice.  Thousands of Arapahos spend a week camping, watching about 150 men of the tribe dance in prayer and petition to the Gods. Their have even been times in history that Jesuits have said mass on the Sundance grounds. Coel discovered that the Arapaho tradition and the Catholic tradition are two ideas and ways of life that are not in conflict with one another – lives centered on a belief in God, prayer, and sacrifice.

Lauren Haberkorn is a junior studying Corporate Communication in the Diederich College of Communication

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The opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Marquette University or the Diederich College of Communication.

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