Building Cultural Bridges: A Native American and University Apparel Textiles Educational Program

Article excerpt

Abstract: The Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design faculty at North Dakota State University developed an educational exchange with the North Dakota Fort Berthold Native American community. The purpose of this program was to build a collaborative effort between a Native American reservation community college and an Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design department at a land-grant university. The objectives of the Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design Department were to understand and appreciate traditional Native American dress, to share information with the Native American community college on the selection, care, use, and marketing of textile products; and to encourage use of the department by the North Dakota Native American community as an educational resource. A framework for establishing a cultural exchange program is presented in this article, with emphasis on cultural sensitivity.

A wide chasm between the dominant Euro-American and the Native American culture still exists in North Dakota, a state with five Native American reservations. Although residing in the same state, the groups exist in their own cultures and seldom intermingle. What can be done to foster interaction between the faculty and the Native Americans residing on the reservation in the state? How and what can we learn from each other? A natural venue of contact between the two cultures is their educational institutions. (Each reservation has a tribal community college. Tribal colleges are funded by the federal government and are located on federal trust territory. It is the government's treaty obligation and trust responsibility to provide education for American Indian tribes. Of the 29 tribal colleges in the United States, five are located in North Dakota.)

One way to foster communication is to focus on the commonalties that exist in both cultures. Clothing and textile traditions and knowledge provided a common element for this exchange. Native Americans have clothing and textile traditions to contribute to the land-grant university's apparel/textiles knowledge; the faculty have information concerning characteristics and properties of textiles and the marketing of textile products.

To bridge the gap between the cultures, an educational reservation-university exchange was planned and brought about between the Department of Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design (ATID) of North Dakota State University (NDSU) and the Fort Berthold Community College (FBCC), one of five tribal community colleges on North Dakota reservations. The project was supported by a grant from the Planning, Priorities, and Resources Committee of North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota. The program included cultural and technical aspects and afforded the university participants an intimate, firsthand experience of Northern Plains Native American cultures; in exchange, the Native American participants were introduced to specialized information on apparel and textiles.

This article reports on the components of a framework used by the Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design faculty at North Dakota State University to develop a cultural exchange program. The framework of the program focuses on: (1) understanding the history; (2) clear objectives that provide benefits for both groups; (3) building the bridge, including establishing trust and a network as well as exchanging the benefits; and (4) evaluation.

Understanding the History

Successful cultural exchange programs must be built on sensitivity and trust. Understanding cultural history is an effective way to develop sensitivity to the peoples' life issues and traditions. The people of Fort Berthold were the first Native Americans to appear in the early written historical record of North Dakota. Fort Berthold Indian Reservation is made up of people from "The Three Affiliated Tribes," which include the Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan tribes. These three groups were not a nomadic people but settled in semipermanent villages along the Missouri River. …