By Erica Marra
The Meridian Times Staff Reporter
“Do you know anything about the Nokomis Learning Center?”
“Could you possibly make a guess as to what the center is used for?”
“Um… learning? I’m sorry, I really don’t know.”
This sort of response does not come as a surprise to Victoria Voges, educational director of the Nokomis Learning Center, a non-profit institution located in Meridian Township dedicated to the preservation and education of Native American art, history, and culture.
In fact, she said she finds the lack of awareness to be a general consequence of existing as a cultural establishment in a dominantly caucasian township such as Meridian.
“I think we’re Meridian Township’s best kept secret,” Voges said. “I think if people aren’t searching for the native community for one reason or another, they can miss us completely. Michigan is nothing but native history, and I think that makes us an asset to the community. Now are people interested? Not necessarily.”
According to the United States Census Bureau, 80 percent of Meridian Township’s population identifies as white. To some cultural leaders residing in the township, this uneven representation within the population makes it more difficult to flourish as a person of color.
Voges said she has repeatedly noticed the challenges faced by her fellow community members of native descent.
“Not all native people are thriving,” Voges said. “There’s still a lot of struggle and there is still a lot of bias. We’re facing all of the same struggles that every human being does, but we have to take in consideration the controlling culture and whoever may be in office at the time and their background. It’s still the struggle of survival.”
A 2015 poll administrated by the Huffington Post and YouGov stated that white people are half as likely as black people to see racism as a major problem. Carl Taylor, professor of sociology at Michigan State University, said that he believes factors such as institutionalized biases sometimes keep white communities from developing an interest in differing cultures.
“I think the lack of interest is rooted in ethnocentrism and racism,” Taylor said. “When I say racism I say it cautiously, because I don’t think people realize that they are being racist. People tend to be only concerned with their own, and that has a lot to do with how they’re socialized. ”
Taylor said he believes that such disinterest can be reversed, but the responsibility to do so relies on the willingness of the American people.
“I think disinterest can be reversed but at a very high cost, or at a very risky cost,” Taylor said. “We can do what we want, the question is do we want to do it. People have been demonized, and it’s something we don’t want to talk about it. It is deep, it is ethnic, it is racial.”
Okemos High School graduate Prabhu Ragunathan felt that more could be done to combat such biases during his junior year of high school. To further educate his peers about the diversity within the student body, Ragunathan and his friends planned a school-wide “Diversity Day” in addition to the school’s yearly diversity assembly.
“The diversity assembly was mostly geared towards students who could dance or play music. We wanted to give people who weren’t necessarily musically or artistically inclined the chance to share pieces of their culture with other students,” Ragunathan said. “We definitely got a lot of feedback about how successful of an event it was and it really engaged the student body. They learned about the different ethnic backgrounds students in Okemos come from.”
Even so, Ragunathan said that more can be done to make Meridian Township more of an inclusive environment.
“I think that relying on one day of the year to remind students of diversity is ineffective and limits the notion of diversity to only cultural identity. I think there should be more conversations on intersectionality of race, socioeconomics, gender, sexuality, and so on in the education curriculum so that students become more socially active and aware,” Ragunathan said.
Meridian Mall-goer Sean Harwood, whose knowledge of the Nokomis Learning Center was quoted at the start of this piece, said that educating the youth on diversity and inclusion will lead to a more accepting society.
“The earlier we start exposing kids to more culturally diverse backgrounds and the different ideals of different cultures at a younger age, as they’ll grow up, they’ll think about it more,” Harwood said. “If you grow up in mid-Michigan out on a dairy farm and your first encounter with anybody other than pearly white is when you’re 19 years old, you’re not going to think much about [diversity].”
Yet, Harwood said that though he does he tries to make an effort of keep different cultural groups in consistent consideration, diversity is admittedly not always his top priority.
“To be blatantly honest, even if I did hear about the Nokomis Learning Center or something similar on the radio, I probably wouldn’t hear it, you know? It would come over the speakers but I wouldn’t listen, just because it’s not what would be at the forefront on my mind that day,” Harwood said.
Voges said that a handful of misconceptions could contribute as to why turnout at the center is generally low, including the assumptions that the the center is closed the majority of the time or is only open to indigenous peoples. However, she said that the importance of educating the people of Michigan outweighs any hardships the center may face.
“Without the Nokomis Learning Center here, with the library, with the elders that speak the original languages of Michigan, there wouldn’t be the same educational resources,” she said. “With our lack of funding, what we have could be easily taken away. But that’s why I’m here. That’s why we’re here. We’re not going to let it go down if we can help it.”