Watch now: ISU student calls for better understanding of Native American culture

Nitakechi Muckintubbee, ISU sophomore in History and Social Sciences Education, is the president of TRIBE, the student chapter of the Organization for Indigenous Autonomy. TRIBE stands for Teaching, Reviving, Indigenizing, Beautifying and Equalizing communities. He’s sharing a short video message on his hope for future change.

BLOOMINGTON — A quote from Lakota Chief Sitting Bull rings true for Nitakechi Muckintubbee: “Let’s put our minds together to see what kind of life we can make for our children.”

The Illinois State University sophomore is president of Teaching, Reviving, Indigenizing, Beautifying and Equalizing communities, or TRIBE. The 25-member group’s mission is to give voice to Native American, Inuit, Pacific Islander and other groups who are part of the ISU community.

“We need to stop thinking about the past and the things that we’ve learned, and we need to relearn new things. We need to see what world we can craft for the next generations,” said Muckintubbee, who grew up near Peoria and is part of the Choctaw and Chickasaw communities.

The focus is a step in the long effort to reflect the extensive historical injustices endured by Native Americans, times marked by forced relocations, massacres, starvation and disease.

“Our country was conceived on a promise of equality and opportunity for all people — a promise that, despite the extraordinary progress we have made through the years, we have never fully lived up to,” the proclamation reads.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last week formally declared “squaw” a derogatory term and said she is taking steps to eliminate it from federal government use and to replace other derogatory place names.

And on Thursday, members of Native American tribes from around New England gathered in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to raise awareness about the centuries of sweeping mistreatment.

“We Native people have no reason to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims,” said Kisha James, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag and Oglala Lakota tribes and the granddaughter of Wamsutta Frank James, the event’s founder. “We want to educate people so that they understand the stories we all learned in school about the first Thanksgiving are nothing but lies.”

Muckintubbee said his people have been portrayed in ancient and narrow terms, and become detached from traditions.

In his case, one of his ancestors walked the Trail of Tears while pregnant with his great-great-grandmother, Katie Muckintubby. He has great-uncles who were sent to boarding schools designed to take Native children from their families, change their names and keep them from speaking their language. Their hair, which is considered sacred, was cut.

“The only reason my grandma didn’t go is because her dad stood at the door with a shotgun and said, ‘You’re not taking my daughter,’” Muckintubbee said.

Muckintubbee said the motto of these institutions was “kill the Indian, save the man.” The goal: morph people to fit more into white society.

Although his grandma escaped boarding school, she became victim to “termination policy,” which was the government’s attempt to disband tribes from the 1950s through the 1980s, he said.

Those laws continued to displace Native people to urban population centers, he said. As a result, they lost legal representation.

Native Americans in Illinois

Today, fewer than 1,000 Choctaw and Chickasaw live in Illinois. Historically, the Illinois, Miami, Winnebago, Fox and Sacs (Sauk), Kickapoo and Pottawatomie tribes all had a presence in Illinois. The Trail of Tears, which saw the removal of thousands, also passed through the southern part of the state.

“Their culture is still based around this place,” Muckintubbee said. “They’re the people that hold this land sacred.”

Greg Koos, a retired director of the McLean County Museum of History, has studied Native American history in the region.

Koos said the Grand Village of the Kickapoo, now a park near what is now Moraine View State Recreation Area, was wiped out by a smallpox epidemic in 1813. Six years later, the Kickapoo signed a treaty and ceded millions of acres of land to the U.S.

Koos said some groups of Kickapoo stayed, including followers who took up the ways of American settlers hoping their presence would be accepted. But they were rounded up by the U.S. government by 1830 and forced west or south.

Muckintubbee said their identity as Native people is based on tribal association. That includes their kinship and being able to learn and carry on the language and traditions of ancestors.

Muckintubbee said that’s hard to do when you’re physically removed from your community. He feels his own connection is distanced; he’s only been to the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma once.

Muckintubbee, who is majoring in history and social sciences education, said the key is for non-Native people to forget everything they’ve learned about Indigenous people, because much comes from outdated history books, cartoons, or spaghetti westerns.

He also wants people to know Native communities are alive and present in the modern era — and not just “descendants of Indigenous people.” 

He recalled attending grade school in Bartonville and having to complete a classroom assignment on Columbus Day. Students were given a little paper boat and instructed to color in the flag of the country that their people left before coming to the U.S.

Muckintubbee said he drew in the flag of the Choctaw Nation, and “I was basically berated by my teacher.

“She said that Native Americans are all dead, so I can’t be a Native American and I had to redo the boat.”

Returning to their homelands

Muckintubbee said more steps need to be taken to give Native Americans economic opportunity in the lands they were forced to leave.

Native tribes throughout the Midwest were were still finding use for traditional prairie structures when Earnest Hoppe took this photograph around 1903.


Muckintubbee pointed out efforts here could help lessen the impact of the state’s sharp population decline in recent years. There are thousands of people in rural communities across the U.S. who would love to return their homeland in Illinois, he said.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for building a family life here that aren’t able to be done in places like rural Oklahoma and rural Kansas,” he said, adding their options in those areas are limited to farming, ranching, or maybe working for a small business.

Incentives for the Indigenous could include forgoing taxes on registering new businesses or sales taxes. He said people can’t just pick up their whole lives and move.

A diorama at the McLean County Museum of History displays how native Americans built homes on the prairie.


“It takes state support, and it also takes cooperation between both governments,” he said.

Today, TRIBE is working to join the ISU Multicultural Center, and it’s encouraging the university to provide assistance to Indigenous students in the form of tuition waivers or discounts.

Of the members, 8% are American Indigenous, 20% are Caribbean or Mesoamerican Indigenous, and the rest are non-Indigenous people who support them.

Said Muckintubbee: “We are not monoliths. We’re not tokens. We’re not caricatures. We’re human beings.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Contact Brendan Denison at (309) 820-3238. Follow Brendan Denison on Twitter: @BrendanDenison

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November 27, 2021 at 12:13PM

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