Marlin Spoonhunter: Tribal Pride, Empowerment And Education On The Reservation

“Education will help our people; children, grandchildren for our future, even our adults,” Marlin Spoonhunter, Arapahoe Tribal Leader

Marlin Spoonhunter is president of the Wind River Tribal College. Realizing that it was a cultural shock for many native students to attend colleges away from the reservation, tribal colleges started to form around 1972 in the United States to meet the needs of their community.

Spoonhunter said that native students who go to a community college are more likely to continue their education to earn a bachelor's degree.

“Education is a good thing for our native people,” he said. Spoonhunter, who was a first generation student, was taught at a young age the importance of education by his uncle. As Spoonhunter got older the academic goal got higher. From being told to earn a high school diploma to a bachelor’s degree to a master's degree; his uncle continued to raise the bar on Spoonhunter’s education.

“I was reminded that I needed that education so we need to remind our students,” Spoonhunter said. After Spoonhunter completed his degree he knew he needed to come back to help his people."

Marlin S.: We lived in a one cabin, uh, house. We had no electricity, or water, or anything. So we lived off the land and- and we hauled water from the river. We, uh, heat, we used, uh,cottonwood, when, um, wood stoves in the home, and a lot of times we had to hunt for our food. And we knew that life wasn't easy, but you know, we lived the hard life so, you know, we're, uh, prepared for it.

Emy Digrappa: Hello. I'm Emy Digrappa. Each week, we bring you stories asking our guest the question, why? We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care, and what can we learn? What better place to explore the human landscape and from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming. And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities? Serving our state for over 45 years, we share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. This is What's Your Why?

Emy Digrappa: Today, we are talking to Marlin Spoonhunter. He is a tribal leader for the Northern Arapaho tribes. Welcome, Marlin.

Marlin S.: Good mornin'.

Emy Digrappa: Is that a good way to describe you and what you do for the Wind River Reservation, is that you're a tribal leader?

Marlin S.: Uh, yeah, but, you know, uh, I like to take part of my, uh, community.

Emy Digrappa: And what- what makes someone a tribal leader?

Marlin S.: Well there's different ways. Uh, educationally, you know if you go off to school and return, and you get a, one of the director's jobs for some of the programs on the reservation, then, you know, you're, kind of, considered a leader. But then there's, also, um, our Tribal Council where you can be elected as a leader, you know, from you're- you're community. And in our tribe we have, uh, six, uh, you know, we- we call councilmen. They get elected every two years.

Emy Digrappa: Okay, and those are your council members?

Marlin S.: Yeah.

Emy Digrappa: Where did you grow up?

Marlin S.: I grew up on the Wind River Indian Reservation in a little area called 17 Mile. It's a little-little community between the communities of Arapaho and Ethete.

Emy Digrappa: And when you grew up, what was your experience? What is like to grow up on the reservation? How would you describe that?

Marlin S.: Well, where I grew up it was, uh- uh, really remote. I had a big family, I came from a big family. There was eight of us in our family. My mom died when I wa-, I was six years old. And, my uncle raised me, him and my older sister, and she was only, like, in 4th or 5th grade.

Marlin S.: We lived in a one-cabin, uh, house. We had no electricity, or water, or anything. So we lived off the land and- and we hauled water from the river. We heat ... we used, uh, cottonwood when, um, wood stoves in the home, and a lot of times we had to hunt for our food.

Marlin S.: And, so it was real, you know, it's tough growing up like that, but also promoted a lot of values, you know, for myself and some of my brothers and sisters as we grew up. And we knew that life wasn't easy, but, you know, we lived the hard life, so, you know, we're, uh, prepared for it.

Emy Digrappa: What made you want to go to school and further your education?

Marlin S.: Well my uncle that raised me, he only went to, uh, 8th grade. And back in those days our men would only go to 8th grade, then they would look for jobs. And that was, like, in the 1940s, 50s, and even the 60s.

Marlin S.: And my uncle would always tell me, "Martin, I need you to graduate from high school." And then when- when I [inaudible 00:03:55] when I was, like, in 4th grade. Later on, uh, 4th grade in the summer he's, we're sittin' around at our home and he says, "Marlin," he say, "you know what? I think you're gonna have to graduate from college," he said, "because I think they're gonna change by the time you're 18 years old and you graduate, so you need to get a college degree." He said, "You have to get this degree they call, uh- uh, bachelors," he went like that.

Marlin S.: Now when I was in 5th grade he, uh, told me again. He says, "Well, Marlin," he says,"I don't think when you get that, to be that age in college", he said, and he- he said, "I think you need to get a masters degree," he said, "because, you can get a masters degree like your cousin that lives down the road here, uh, Angie Spoonhunter." He said, "She's the first Arapaho women to ever get a masters degree," he says, "so I think that's what you have to do."

Marlin S.: You know, uh, I was told about education ever since I was, you know, really young, and that's why, you know, I was able to, you know ... It was a goal that I ful- fulfilled, you know, throughout my lifetime.

Emy Digrappa: And- and what are your degrees in?

Marlin S.: I have a Associate of Arts Degree in, um, from, uh, Haskell Indians Nations University, which used to be just called Haskell Indian Junior College, uh, in liberal arts. Then I got my, uh, bachelor's degree at the University of Montana in elementary education. Then I got my, uh, master's degrees in adult education from Montana State University. Then I got an administrative endorsement from Montana State University.

Emy Digrappa: And what is the biggest difference between understanding what it is to get your education, and helping these young students that are coming up understand what that means for them?

Marlin S.: I think to me, you know, we need to share experiences that we had, you know, uh, with each particular college or [inaudible 00:05:40], 'cause I went to three different colle-, four different colleges and- and different experiences at each one. And I think, you know, if we share our experiences with our younger people and get'em prepared for it, and, then, you know, I know they'll be successful.

Emy Digrappa: Well I'm wondering, as I'm talking to you, what are the biggest challenges for the Native Americans right now in- in education?

Marlin S.: Well the biggest fundin' issue, not only for Native Americans, but for, you know, a lot of students is fundin'. Uh, you know, they need to get, you know, types of fundin' to make sure they're able to continue on with their education and, and they pay tuition fees and all that. But there's other costs that, you know, are unforeseen and we're not told about, you know, especially when we're in high school, when we're just, you know, applying for college.

Marlin S.: And I think fundin's are a major issue. You know, we as, uh, native, uh, people face ... A lot of times, um, some of us are fortunate to get into degree programs that are, um ... You know, funding comes from, uh, professional development grants and- and that's, uh, to, from the Department of, uh, Education and Office of Indian Na-, Education in D.C.

Marlin S.: But I think that, uh, to me, hm, it's the big issue now that we face. And our students need to seek different types of fundin', you know, for themselves to be, uh, to be able to stay in school.

Emy Digrappa: Not just the funding, but, I mean, culturally, do you think there's obstacles that discourage your young people from continuing their education, or is it just, is it just hardship?

Marlin S.: It depends on the school you're at. The Montana schools, uh, university system is pretty good,because there's seven reservations up there. Uh, you know, they have a lot of contact with, you know, tribal people. Whereas here in Wyoming we only have one reservation, one university, and so it's, kind of, a little harder for us to, you know, be able to communicate. You know, especially, you know, like I said, we go from a 90%, you know, high school population to, like, uh, 1% that attend University of Wyomin'.

Marlin S.: And, uh, some of the issues that we face are ... And there- there's, uh, race discrimination, stereo-typin', you know that, hm, occurs. And I- I think that, uh, you know,uh, we- we just got to deal with it in the best way that we can. Uh, we can, you know, turn to anger, and do you think that, you know, it would never, you know, to create, like, um, bad feelings between people.

Marlin S.: I think that we're in the day and age where people should be educated enough to know that there's gonna always be cultural differences and then, that they need to accept it. You know, like a lot of diversity.

Emy Digrappa: What do you think about, right now, with the young people entering into school, and how do they deal with discrimination in terms of where they come from, and living on the reservation their whole life, and not really having that outside view of the rest of the world? Does that contribute to their understanding or misunderstanding?

Marlin S.: I think that, yeah, you know, like, right now I know the University of Wyomin', is, uh, you- you-you know, they're addressin' the issues that we talk about. And, uh, you know, to me it'd been, it depends on the leadership, you know the university.

Marlin S.: And Dr. Nichols is, you know, a real advocate of, uh, you know diversity, and especially if you live in Wyomin'. And our students, uh- uh, you know, we ... And then a lot of have already experienced, you know, issues of discrimination and stereotype, just, you know, within our reservation, on our reservation from, uh, border towns. And, uh, we have, uh, people that can, you know, g- g-, help and guide them. I'd be able to talk to some of them, you know about, you know, my experiences of how, havin' to deal with such, you know, issues.

Marlin S.: And, so, I think that they're gonna face it, and it depends on, you know, a support system they have within wherever they may be going to school, uh, if it's gonna be available for their support. And we want 'em to stay in school instead of, you know, when they confronted with a issue like that, and then they return home because it's not gonna get 'em anywhere if they don't have an education. And I think they need to stay in school and, you know, get support from, you know, the counselors there and, other s-, uh, Native students that attend.

Emy Digrappa: What are some of the typical stereotypes that you're faced with as a Native American that people think of you and put you in an, a certain box of you're this or you're that?

Marlin S.: Hm, well one is, uh, you know, they say that, you know, we get handouts. We don't have to pay taxes, which we do. They say that we get everything free, which is, you know, not even realistic. Uh, we pay for everything just like anybody else.

Marlin S.: You know, uh ,people need to be educated, you know, about what we do, you know, on our, with our life on the reservation. And our life is just like any other life, uh, that people ... You know, we all get up in the morning and we're gonna all face the same issues throughout the day. And how we deal with it is, you know, what's gonna determine our success.

Marlin S.: And, so, those stereotypes, one is, you know, that I always had to deal with, was, you know, they always say, all Indians know how to sing and dance. And, yeah, you know, we know that there's, you know, some of our tribal members that can sing. We got, we know there's some tribal members that can dance. But, you know, and then we probably have the best singers and dancers, you know, in the world. But some of the best singers, it's the best dancers that travel all, you know, in wh- what we call the Powwow Circuit and do quite well.

Marlin S.: Uh, another stereotype is, uh ... stereotype that, you know, I always used to hear is, you know, uh, all Indians they drink and they're all drunks. You know, I heard this, you know, at a board meeting in one of our local towns, and, uh, I- I thought, wow, you know, uh, you know that lady was talking about ... She was saying that- that these Indians here just embarrass our community when tourists come through. And she's, 'cause they're always walkin' around drunk. And she said, "They're always drunk," and then ...

Marlin S.: So I told her, I said, "Well," I said, "ma'am," I say, "you know what right now? If you and I were walkin' downtown and went in-, went into every bar here," I said, "you probably, you won't find Indians in there." And I said, "There'd be no Indians in there drinkin'." And they drink too, you know.

Marlin S.: And so, those are thing, you know, just stereotypes, but we overcome 'em by, you know, p-, um, bein' positive, bein' proud of our culture, and bein' able to, you know, educate people when they ask us, you know, questions like that.

Emy Digrappa: How do you overcome when they call it a white man's education? And, so, how do you hang onto your culture and your customs, even though you go to college and go away from the reservation?What do you do about that?

Marlin S.: Right now, you know, you know the term that, you know, it's, kind of, uh, been goin' a- around through, um, Indian country is, you know, this Western education hasn't really, you know, done us wonders. It's allowed us to get degrees and stuff, but, you know, and, uh, the presentation and the information that we get, you know, it's comes from the Western view.

Marlin S.: And they get people that are educated now, especially with tribal colleges and universities. And,and- and they're creatin', you know, our own indigenous, uh, indigenous way of knowing, and been able to teach our own knowledge to s-, uh, college students that do it in, you know, tribal colleges.

Marlin S.: And- and somewhere,even, you know, helpin' out mainstream, uh, universities about, uh, you know, presentin', you know, our information. And a lot of it changes, though, because, you know, a lot of the history books that were written, you know, weren't from, you know, our perspective, but from different authors.

Marlin S.: And, so, today the... well it's different. Because, anyway, I've been an author, second, right? You know, about our way of life, and how things are totally different from what was written in the previous, uh, decades before, you know, uh, we started gettin' our own authors, lawyers, and, you know, those types of people that will, are able to show the rest of the world that, you know, we are different, we are unique, and, you know, we are, uh, way more educated than we ever were.

Emy Digrappa: And I'm just wondering. When you're out there in the world, do you share as much as you can about your culture to non-natives. That you can cross a bridge, or build a bridge between people. How do you do that?

Marlin S.: To me, if they ask, and they ask, like, in a, in a, you know, respectful way, you know, I'm always willing to share, you know, some of the information that they're seeking. Because to me it's teaching them, you know, about our way. But it's, uh, teaching them, you know, in a good way, you know? And if they're gonna be respectful, you know, with their questions, to me, you know, I need to be respectful back and share the information that they might want to know.

Marlin S.: And, uh, you know,there's, uh, lines that are drawn, you know? Especially, you know, for us as native people, uh, when we reach that line and we need to stop, because ...especially when it comes our, um, religion and ceremony, so.

Emy Digrappa: Okay, so there's certain things that you keep sacred that are just part of your own personal culture-

Marlin S.: Mm-hmm(affirmative).

Emy Digrappa: ... that you don't share. That no one can really understand.

Marlin S.: Yeah, yeah, it's, that's why I say, you know, you need to draw the line and know, you know, how far you can go with sharing, you know, some of our private information. And,or, you know, for us as native people to ... that have helped us survive.

Emy Digrappa: What is the difference between a tribal college and a mainstream university?

Marlin S.: Most of them offer two-year degrees. There's a few that might offer, uh, you know, a four-year degree. There's a couple that offer a masters.

Emy Digrappa: And are tribal colleges just on the reservation?

Marlin S.: Um, yeah, a majority of them are on just, on the reservation. And, uh, they were created to, so that we could address our own needs of higher education, uh, you know, on our, you know, within our own communities.

Emy Digrappa: And ...

Marlin S.: And they focus a lot on our, you know, our tribal languages, and our history, and culture, and our way of life.

Emy Digrappa: When you go to a tribal college and get a degree, is it a degree in sociology, psychology? What- what is the difference?

Marlin S.: Yeah, it's just like any ... You know, whatever degree program a student prepares to take, you know, it's- it's a degree they'll get in, you know, get, like, you know, psychology or ... Some, some just go into Native American studies. Uh, there are some students that go into business. You know, so there, you know they're just like any other two-year college that, you know, offer, you know, probably about 10, 15, 20 different types of degrees.

Emy Digrappa: What is your specialty, or maybe not specialty, but what is your experience on the Wind River Re-Reservation that you are cultivating for your people? Is it the language? What do you think you're, you ...

Marlin S.: Well right now in the tribal college, a lot of people, you know, come over. And maybe it's for seekin' information about our language. And, you know, our statistics are really, you know, not that great. Um, just for example, in 2007 we had about a little over 9,500 and some enrolled members, and out of that 9,500, uh, there was only 242, uh, fluent speakers, and they were all 55 and over.

Marlin S.: Then last year in 2017, they had a meetin' in Denver and, uh, those that were there, and they were tryin' to ident-, they were tryin' to identify all the fluent speakers that were left, and this was 11 years later, and they could only in- identify less than 50. And, you know, fluent speakers.

Marlin S.: And, so, a lot of the s-, community members, and they come to the college, you know, wanted to learn, or they want to know if we any- any information on the language that we can share with them. And, you know, we give 'em, you know, some of our lessons. We give 'em dictionaries.

Marlin S.: And, um, fortunately we're, right now, we have a site that, uh, where we're able to go to through the University of Colorado. And we ... There's a linguist down there that's worked with our tribe for over 30 years. His name is Andrew, Dr. Andrew Cowell, and he's done a lot of research, along with, um, one of our former, uh, Arapaho culture commission, uh, officer [inaudible 00:18:22] passed on. But, he worked and shared a lot of information with Dr. Cowell. So they have a whole website, and it's really neat.

Marlin S.: And to me, I think that a lot of people, if they- they learn how to use it, you know, they can even teach themselves Arapaho.

Emy Digrappa: Well I've heard that when you learn somebody's language, you learn their heart, because that's- that's where it comes from.

Marlin S.: Yeah, to me I think that the language is there, and anybody that wants to learn it, you know, and it does come from the heart. And if you really want to learn the language, you know, you can.

Emy Digrappa: Hm.

Marlin S.: The- the big question that we always, or excuse, I should say, that we get is, people don't have time. And if you're gonna learn the language, you need to find time, and,then, because it's there. Our- our language identifies us who we are as, you know, you know, as Arapaho people. And it also helps in our [inaudible00:19:17], which is our Arapaho way of life.

Emy Digrappa: So you are, you are fluent in Arapaho?

Marlin S.: No I'm not. And, um, so my ... I am ... And, so my [inaudible 00:19:27] ... I worked in Montana for over 26 years. And I moved back home, and I started takin' the language and learnin' it and, so, I've only been, you know-

Emy Digrappa: Hm.

Marlin S.:  ... re-exposed to it over the last 11 years. And, so, I'm still learnin' just along with, you know, all those that want to learn. Well it's a powerful language, it's a living language, and, you know, I'm really proud to be [inaudible 00:19:54] Arapaho.

Emy Digrappa: Oh that's beautiful. Tell me something in Arapaho. I want to, I want to hear your- your language.

Marlin S.: When I meet people, you know, and- and when I speak to groups, other than our tribal members is,you know, you do an introduction. And I say, "[Arapaho language00:20:14]".

Emy Digrappa: And what did you just say?

Marlin S.: I said, "Good mornin'." I said, "My name is, uh, Whistlin' Thunder Eagle. Years ago my uncle whose Arapaho name they called him [Arapaho language 00:20:52]. He used to speak Arapaho to me and my siblin's, and we used to listen, but we would never speak it. So now I'm readin', I'm learnin', uh, the language. And when I catch onto it, I'm gonna help my children, my grandchildren, my tribe, my people learn the language, because this language will help us in our Arapaho way of life, and our language is sacred."

Emy Digrappa: Oh, thank you. Thank you for being here.

Marlin S.: Yeah.

Emy Digrappa: Thank you so much.

Marlin S.: I appreciate it.

Emy Digrappa: Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why. A production of ThinkWY, Wyoming Humanities. This has been Executive Producer Emy Digrappa. Please subscribe and never miss a show. For more information, go to