Interview with Professor Duane Bird Bear

As a minority in higher education and STEM, Professor Bird Bear gives insight to being Native American.

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Bird Bear, a truly fascinating human that happens to be Native American. There are several different areas of history, culture, and what it means to be American Indian in society today that are touched on.

Duane Bird Bear is a physics and history teacher at both Community College of Denver and Metro State University. He received his B.S. from the University of Denver, his M.S. from the University of Colorado, and a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona.

Bird Bear is originally from Denver, with his mother being part of the Navajo tribe and his father belonging to the Mandan Hidatsa tribe in North Dakota – though Professor Bird Bear identifies most with his father’s tribe.


Dependent Domestic Sovereignty

“Indians are not a sovereign nation like France, but a domestic sovereignty. They’re a nation within a nation. Now, this was problematic because the U.S. Government was afraid that Indians would sign treaties with the British or with the French, and the last thing they needed was more British troops or French troops.

So again, the Supreme Court decides, 'Hey, listen, American Indians are actually wards of the state.' We have kind of a guardian and that the U.S., Federal Government, is our guardian and kind of taking care of them so that the U.S. Government can make sure we’re doing okay, but also go ahead and regulate our sovereignty.”


Citizenship and Religious Freedom

“American Indians do not become citizens though until 1930. You have like 150 years we’re living here and doing our thing, yet we have colonizers saying you’re doing something else. What I think is very interesting is even though you are a U.S. citizen, we didn’t have Freedom of Religion until 1978. And so the question is, 'Wait a second, America is founded on the notion of religious liberty, yet you’re not granting U.S. citizens the right to practice their own religion.'"


Boarding Schools for Native Americans

“A lot of times, they were sending kids to schools that were not in Colorado. The boarding school period was a very interesting aspect of the treaty era. The Treaty of Fort Laramie is what my family signed that was for our tribe up in North Dakota. They’re like, 'Yeah, we’ll give you medical care, give you schools for the kids,' but what they did is they took the kids from North Dakota and sent them to Pennsylvania. And so you had 4-year-olds being separated from their family and allowed to return when they turned 18.

My grandfather was a boarding school child. He was four years old and taken to Carlisle (Indian Industrial School) and allowed to return when he was 18. He wasn’t allowed to speak Navajo, hair was cut short. His original name was Nah Wéh Kiíilichini, but while at boarding school, they changed it to Robert Harvey.”


Growing Up

“My parents were very adamant that we grow up speaking our tribal languages and being proud of who we are. I was in the Air Force for a while, so I had pretty short hair, but as soon as I got out, I grew the hair long again. It was definitely one of the most overt signs to say that I’m Native American. Each tribe has significance for how they look, some tribes don’t have long hair. There are more than 574 federally recognized tribes in America. They look different, different languages.”


Military Experience

“American Indians have the highest rate of military service of any ethnic group in the United States. And it’s not so much that we’re defending red, white, and blue, but it’s more like we have to protect our homeland. Plus, ya know, being at war was kind of our pastime so it was pretty easy to go from, 'Alright, I’m pretty good at this, I’ll just keep doing that,' but what it really boils down is it’s the soldier that wants peace the most. My whole family has a history of military service.”


Voting as a Native American

“We were discussing that the other day in my class, whether American Indians or Native Americans should vote. Ya know, we didn’t ask to be citizens; it was literally 1930 they just waved a wand and said, 'Listen, you’re American Indian, you’re now a U.S. citizen.' I didn’t ask for that. And so does participating in the great experiment called democracy. Is that adding legitimacy to what happened to us? Or by not voting, 'Oh yeah, you take that, Washington,' right?

For me, it certainly feels like, 'Listen, you’re in prison, but we’re going to let you choose the color of your cell. You can have it red or blue.' I’m like, wait a second, that’s what democracy is for me so far. And I’m like, well, I don’t want to be in prison. 'That’s not an option. You can get red or blue.'

There are a lot of people like, 'Listen, ya know, Indians, why can’t you get over it?' Right, ya know? 'I mean, what happened in the past, let bygones be bygones.' Hold on a second. We didn’t ask to be under the constitution. That wasn’t like – we had our own constitutions.”


Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB)

“What’s interesting is I have to carry around a card that you don’t. You’re a U.S. citizen, I’m a U.S. citizen, but I have something called a CDIB, which is literally a physical blood quantum of how much ‘Indian Blood’ I have versus you. I have a number issued by Uncle Sam that identifies me to the U.S. Government as an enrolled member of the tribe.”

So, in a way, they’re tracking you?

“You could say that because what they’re trying to do through the blood quantum program is that if I marry a non-Indian, right, the blood quantum for my kids goes down. And there are enrollment requirements that you be so much Indian to be enrolled in the tribe… and so if they can slowly erase tribes, they can take the land from them.”


Oil on the Mandan Hidatsa Land

The Bakken, where the Mandan Hidatsa, where my reservation is, currently has the largest oil reserves in North America. As we move into the 22nd century, you start to look at these tribes that sit at the headwaters of the Colorado River, and they’re like that water technically should have been theirs, 'But now Los Angeles needs it, so we’re going to go ahead and bump you off that land because of the interest in national security or the greater good that you guys really don’t need these raw materials or resources.' And it’s a pretty ugly ongoing conflict that started in the 1800s and has been going ever since.”


Moving Land/Flooding

“The crazy thing about my family is that the Mandan Hidatsa were originally a nomadic tribe kind of at the headwaters of the Missouri River. The Treaty of Laramie puts them into – here’s North Dakota and here’s South Dakota and here’s Nebraska, here’s Colorado and Kansas – and they said, 'Alright, you guys can have this area.' And then you discover gold in the black hills. So they say, 'That’s too big for you guys. We’ll reduce you down.'

And we’re still up at the headwaters of the Missouri River. Well, St. Louis is flooding, and so they decide to build a dam which then floods out my reservation. And so they move us – they move us over here to Central North Dakota, and we were supposed to be farmers, but you can’t farm up there.

The land is not arable. People were just dying of poverty. There’s no money, no nothing, no jobs; this is 12 hours away from Denver, 12 hours away from Minneapolis, there’s not a whole lot out there. 2008 we discover oil. Well, alright, now we got a lot of money, but what do we do with money? It’s led to a lot of problems.”


Parents being Gas and Oil Lawyers

“They started off on [the] big oil side. They spent a considerable amount of time working for Conoco, Dupont, among others, and then they switched. They were like, 'Okay, now that we have this knowledge, let’s go back and help tribes negotiate better oil and gas or mineral contracts,' so they wouldn’t be exploited.”


Teaching History in Schools

“I think in an academic setting like this, it’s important to be able to say like, 'Listen, this isn’t just made up.' You look at the Indian Relocation Act, we could look at what happened after the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1864, which my great great grandfather signed, Chief Four Bears. We could say, “How did it turn out?” Well, it didn’t turn out so good, and, you know, why are we still in these situations? Why are Indians relegated to history? There aren’t any ‘real’ Indians, right? Like YEAH, I’m still around! What does that make me?

You certainly have questions of identity. I’m sure you had an idea of what you were going to walk in and find sitting behind a desk. Do I have a horse? Are we going to wear our feathers? Are you a real Indian? These questions of what makes Indian-ness and how do you become more Indian? Do real Indians wear bow ties, carry around fancy briefcases? Are they physicists? I’m like, well, what else am I supposed to be? I like science. I think it’s interesting."



“That’s the neat part about science: it kind of erases those identity or cultural questions a lot of people have. Gravity still works for me just like it does for you, just because I’m Indian.”


Wearing Your Wealth

“You wear your wealth. We don’t have banks, all right? The more turquoise you have on, the wealthier your family is. What’s interesting, though, is that the notion of wealth is really more dependent on what you can give away. The more you give away, the richer you are. It’s a very interesting idea.”


Navajo Tribe Not Signing Any Treaties

“The Navajo culture is one that’s pretty resilient. They’re the one tribe who never signed a peace treaty with the U.S. Government. They’ve maintained a pretty good hold on what you consider traditional beliefs. Surprisingly, they’re also the largest tribe in the United States.”

Do you think that’s because they never signed a peace treaty?

“I think it is – that they were able to do their thing unimpeded by the U.S. Government down there.”