Bazile Panek is majoring in Native American Studies at Northern Michigan University. He is an enrolled tribal member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Red Cliff, Wisconsin.
“In native culture, sometimes it’s hard to speak about oneself. Humility is a huge aspect of the culture, so sometimes it may be hard for me to speak about myself. But I think that I can offer a unique perspective on native culture, language and history from growing up and being embedded in that space of practicing culture and ceremony. That unique perspective is something that I’m trying to bring into studying Native American Studies at Northern Michigan University. It’s this western institution, this western space, that’s dominated by white people. So I think that’s a unique perspective I can bring into this western institution and other spaces as well.
Being in that white-dominated institution in this western society is both a burden and an opportunity. It’s a burden because I feel the responsibility and I feel like I’m required to stand up for native people and to advocate. Especially for native students at college. The ancestors before me made their sacrifices and the work that they put into creating the space that I live in today. I feel like I should pay them back in some way. On the other side, it is an opportunity to do some amazing things and to talk about what I love and what I know. And that’s really where the opportunity lies, to do that work that I love to do. Educate people on things that I love. Enjoy their reactions and enjoy myself in it.
I’ve definitely seen the systemic problems that exist within reservations like alcoholism or substance abuse. I’ve seen systemic issues that exist today with people overdosing or familial abuse. And I’ve always believed that even since a young age, that culture, language, history, practicing our culture and ceremony for native people is one of the foundational solutions to those systemic issues. For me, practicing culture and attending ceremonies is the only thing that has kept me away from things like alcoholism or substance abuse. I’d like to solve those systemic issues, help others get out of that and not stray too far down the wrong path.
There’s all sorts of barriers to existing as a native person. Ever since colonization in 1492, things have been hard for native people. It’s hard just to even exist sometimes. So the power and the resiliency is especially tangible in native people today and you can see that within them. It’s been hard to exist, but we still continue to push forward and have some amazing and beautiful cultures that we practice every day. We should be proud of ourselves and we should be excited.
I am majoring in Native American Studies with minors in Sustainability and Entrepreneurship. I hope to combine the three. Obviously Native Studies is required in order to do anything with native people. You need to have cultural competency to really make a positive impact on reservations. I hope that my positive impact can be through entrepreneurship in business that also integrates aspects of sustainability so that it’s not so environmentally harmful as other businesses are. Using recycled materials, carbon neutrality, investing in renewable energies for your business or things like that. Entrepreneurship is all about pivoting and finding opportunities and developing things in missing spaces. And I think tribes could really benefit from integrating more entrepreneurial practices.
This summer, I’m conducting academic research on decolonizing entrepreneurship by Anishinaabe people and how traditional values can be integrated into entrepreneurship. So when we think of entrepreneurship and business, we think of money. And when we think of money, we think of capitalism. When we think of capitalism, we think of white people. And raping the land and kind of taking from people all the time. I think there are some ways that we can decolonize entrepreneurship to create more equitable businesses that really adopt and integrate our traditional values and perspectives on leadership and business.
It can be a holistic process where these resources are developed within a reservation. People can benefit from this. They’re paying the family and that family is paying for gas on the reservation. You’re paying their electric bill and taxes to the reservation. To specify it a little more, things like traditional perspectives on leadership and power can be more integrated into businesses by native people. And to specify that even more, to look at those hierarchical structures that exist in businesses and to decolonize those. To integrate traditional values on power and leadership, so to create more equitable frameworks within businesses that value all voices. Like the voices of the elders in the community or the youth and what they want to see and what they think would help them. Whether it’s healthier foods at a grocery store, by integrating their voices and what they want is kind of decolonizing it in a way. Caring for your community is decolonized. Because that doesn’t happen a lot of the time in western culture
The aggression of negotiation or getting the cheapest prices possible…with the idea of humility and care for community, that can really kind of hopefully be eliminated. By hopefully paying your artists as much as possible, or paying your suppliers as much as possible or getting your product directly from other indigenous people is how we can eliminate that aggression or extraction. Making sure everybody is paid well within the spectrum.
So right now I’m in the process of starting a business called Niim, which is an Ojibwe word, shortened niimi which means he or she dances. And the company is developing socks, like dress socks. Recycled cotton socks that will collaborate with artists on designing those socks. In return for designing socks, native artists receive 10% of the profits. I can’t really do any art at all. Don’t ask me to draw anything, but I think there are a lot of amazing native artists out there who deserve to make more money from their art. And they deserve to live off of their art for that economic betterment. So hopefully I can use my business knowledge and work with those artists to allow them to make some money off of their art. And for the other side, for the customers, we’re hoping to increase representation of native culture within our Western society through a fun thing, like socks. Everybody wears socks.
So the idea for Niim and that idea of representation in our western society came from me starting to attend NMU. I joined a business student organization where it was kind of required that you had to wear a fancy suit and tie and dress shoes. And I had never worn that before because for native people, business attire is ribbon shirts, or beaded medallions and beaded earrings and moccasins. That’s what I consider in business attire. And so being required to wear a suit and tie was odd for me. I didn’t feel as confident. I took a step back. I didn’t speak as much. But I realized that there could be a way for me to feel more confident. In instead of a tie I put on a beaded medallion, along with the suit.
So it was kind of a decolonized tie, if you will. Wearing that beaded medallion or something like Niim, providing those dress socks to wear with your suit made me feel more confident. I was more willing to speak in a meeting or put myself out there.
Being in Native American Studies, that academic aspect has really opened up my eyes to how education can be so important to native communities. Whether it’s research that’s going to eventually benefit native people or just learning more about our history, I think academics opened up my eyes to what education can do for native people.
Getting a better understanding of native history, especially knowing specifically what my ancestors have done and what they’ve had to go through, in terms of Wounded Knee or the Sandy Lake Tragedy helps me to know what I can do. I think that historical aspect really helps in terms of shaping my identity. It’s like, oh, that’s why this intergenerational trauma exists for me. And that’s why this intergenerational trauma exists on our reservations, which causes people to go down the wrong path. So understanding our history, the barriers we’ve had to existing as native people has helped me to form my identity and understand others.
We shouldn’t deny that little things matter, such as vocabulary or changing the narrative on signs. I think those little things matter and they add up to something. We should [also] be doing greater and bigger things like the Land Back Movement where native people could benefit by receiving land back. We should be doing those bigger things, but we also shouldn’t deny that those little things matter.
So the land that was taken from native people has been through things like treaty negotiations where white people used things like alcohol to get native people drunk right before the treaty negotiations. And that way they could get a little more land in these different areas, or things like wording that they didn’t quite understand [with] the language barrier of what actually was happening when they were signing those treaties is sketchy. [There are ways] that white people have taken more land than we agreed to. So I think the Land Back Movement is hoping that some of that land is almost repatriated. Because land is sacred and land is a living being that we recognize and have a reverence for.
Seeing Deb Holland as the Secretary of the Interior is really exciting. I think she’ll do a great job advocating for native people. Representation matters. That’s actually the slogan for Niim right now—the business that I’ll be starting—that representation in a western society matters. People are looking up to Deb Holland now and we can see that it’s achievable to become the Secretary of the Interior. Greater things are achievable and something to strive for. I think that’s motivating for native people to see Deb Holland in her place. I can be that someday. Or I can be a business owner. I can be tribal chair.
When we say the word peace, I think of inner peace, a lot. Feeling comfortable in your space, whatever that is. For indigenous people, it’s really hard to feel peace, with all those barriers to existing. And feeling peace is the ability to be confident in who you are, especially as indigenous people. Peace for a community such as a tribe, could be that people’s needs and wants are being met. And the community as a whole is proud of who we are as indigenous people.
Two percent of the population at Northern Michigan University self-identifies as American Indian or Alaska native. But there’s also another category of two or more races which kind of adds a discrepancy to what are those two or more races? For me, I click the two or more races box because I’m both Hispanic and Native American. So those are the two boxes I click. And you have to think about that as well in terms of American Indian population.
Currently I have the honor to serve as the president of the Native American Student Association at NMU. So that’s been an amazing way for me to advocate for native students at NMU. July of 2020, the board of trustees passed the official recognition of Indigenous People’s Day on the second Monday in October replacing Columbus Day. Though, it’s important to note that Columbus Day wasn’t celebrated or officially recognized on campus. But Indigenous People’s Day is now officially recognized on that day. And that has been a student-led movement by the Native American Student Association in collaboration with the Associated Students of Northern Michigan University. So that’s a good eye opener. The board of trustees finally opened up their eyes to that. Through Indigenous People’s Day programming, I’ve seen a lot of people kind of open up their eyes and be excited and like, wow, indigenous people have existed in these places for thousands of years. There’s these amazing cultures that are happening right in front of us. And I see a lot of people excited during events or celebrations like that.
I’m proud of our resiliency to exist. Through genocide, through all these things that are barriers to existing. I’m proud of our resiliency. And I hope that we can celebrate being indigenous and being native people.
My advice to others is be proud of yourself. Be proud of who you are as an indigenous person. There are ancestors before you that have gone through a lot, and they’ve created this space for all of us. So be proud of who you are, recognize those ancestors and do things that will be a benefit to our future generations.”
-What are your earliest memories of your culture’s traditions?
-Have you ever needed to assert yourself to maintain your identity?
-What are the things your ancestors have done to prepare the way for you?
-Do you see ways that we could make our economic model work better for all people?
-Bazile talks about the importance of representation in government and society. Share what that means to you.
-Are there places you see the need to decolonize common social constructs?