Henrietta Mann on her way into the White House for the 2021 National Humanities Medals dinner and ceremony on March 21, 2023. Credit: Pauly Denetclaw / ICT

Legendary Native American studies professor and historian Henrietta Mann, Cheyenne, was all smiles as she made her way into the White House for the 2021 National Humanities Medals dinner and ceremony on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 21. 

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Following close behind her was Shawn Spruce, Laguna Pueblo, Jaclyn Sallee, Inupiaq, Denise Morris, Aleut, and Art Hughes of “Native America Calling” and Koahnic Broadcast Corporation, which produces the iconic radio show.

All were in Washington, D.C. to receive a National Humanities Medals presented by President Joe Biden. For 2021, only 12 medals were awarded. As a surprise, Sir Elton John was awarded his medal in 2022. 

“We’re here surrounded by some really interesting people, some very notable, high profile individuals, celebrities from the arts and humanities world,” Shawn Spruce, host of “Native America Calling,” told ICT. “We’re just enjoying it.”

Spruce was calling from the East Wing of the White House during the dinner that prefaced the medal ceremony. In the background was the hum of conversations and laughter. 

“The National Humanities Medal recipients have enriched our world through writing that moves and inspires us; scholarship that enlarges our understanding of the past; and through their dedication to educating, informing, and giving voice to communities and histories often overlooked,” Shelly C. Lowe, Navajo, chair for the National Endowment for the Humanities, said in a press release. “I am proud to join President Biden in recognizing these distinguished leaders for their outstanding contributions to our nation’s cultural life.”

Due to the pandemic the ceremony had been postponed. The National Humanities Medals “honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects,” according to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“But you know who it’s really about, it’s Indian Country, Native America, because the show is titled “Native America Calling,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who’s hosting. It doesn’t matter who’s producing. At the heart of the show are all the listeners and all the Native communities who enjoy the show and who call in with their feedback. This is an acknowledgement and recognition for everybody, whether you’re part of the show, as the host or producer, or you’re the audience, you’re a listener. This is a huge win for all of us.”

“Native America Calling” took to the airways in the summer of 1995 from the University of New Mexico at the KUNM radio station. The format of the daily program is an hourlong live call-in show about a specific topic or issue that centers the Indigenous voice. (On Tuesday, it was about Native American Muslims.)

The show airs on over 130 radio stations, 74 of which are Native-controlled, across the U.S. and Canada. When it first started, only 14 stations carried the program. 

The first caller was from the sovereign lands of the Oglala Lakota in what is now Porcupine, South Dakota.

From left to right, Art Hughes, Jaclyn Sallee, Inupiaq, Denise Morris, Aleut, and Shawn Spruce, Laguna Pueblo, representing “Native America Calling,” before heading into the 2021 National Humanities Medals dinner and ceremony on Tuesday afternoon. The celebration was postponed due to the pandemic. Credit: Pauly Denetclaw/ICT

It cannot be overstated how important “Native America Calling” is for the hundreds of Indigenous nations across the country who often live in rural communities and still rely on radio stations to stay updated on current events.

“When the show first started, radio was one of the premier platforms for people to get news and information, along with television,” he said. “Even though technology has evolved, and more and more people are streaming content, or they’re getting information online, [in] so many of our Native communities, our rural communities, radio is still the preferred method of communication and news information. A lot of our communities, they don’t necessarily have access to internet. So tribal radio stations, public radio stations, are still very, very relevant.”

Spruce and Art Hughes, executive producer, got a cryptic email from the National Endowment for the Humanities asking for a Zoom meeting. Spruce created a list of questions and was prepared for what he thought would be a story pitch from the federal agency. 

“Art and I were both shell-shocked,” Spruce remembered. “We were like, ‘What?’ They don’t want us to report on the news. We are the news. It was really exciting, definitely had to pinch myself like, is this really happening?”

“Every day from a studio in New Mexico, “Native American Calling” airs a live radio show exploring everything from the legacy of Native newspapers to Native cuisine to Native American solidarity with Ukraine, capturing the vastness of the Native American life, and it’s a profound impact on the country,” President Joe Biden said during the ceremony.

Mann is a pioneer of Native American studies, history, language and culture. She was the first Native American to direct federal Indian education programs when she worked at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

She was a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Montana and Montana State University, where she became the first person to hold the Katz Endowed Chair in Native American Studies. At each university she helped to develop Native American studies programs.

After the creation of tribal colleges and universities, Mann helped to develop the Native American studies program at what is now Haskell Indian Nations University. 

Around the turn of the century, she became the founding president of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College, the nation’s first tribal college, which has since closed. Mann is a citizen of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.

“We have to provide an environment for our young people,” Mann said in an interview with Humanities magazine, “that is consistent with who they are, so that they can take courses in American Indian history, culture, language, philosophy, spirituality, literature, our oral traditions, our stories, which hold so much of our history and culture within them.”

On her way to getting her doctorate degree, Mann was told in her master’s program that she could not study the oral traditions of her nation because there would be no one to evaluate her work. 

“I wanted to write about Indians. I was working toward my second degree in English. And so I proposed this to my adviser, and was told, no, you can’t,” Mann told Shelly Lowe, Navajo, in Humanities magazine.

Generations of Indigenous researchers, professors, historians and academics have followed in her footsteps and create knowledge about their Native nations. 

“Henrietta Mann, a teacher, a scholar and leader, she’s dedicated her career to Native American education and to establishing a field of Native American studies,” Biden said. “Thanks in large part to her, Native American studies is now taught at universities across the country, strengthening our nation-to-nation bonds for generations to come.”

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