A Q&A with community leader Fay Givens
In recognition of Native American Heritage Month, we talked with Fay Givens, former executive director of the nonprofit organization American Indian Services. She is also co-producer of a documentary about the boarding schools for Indigenous People that hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were forced to attend between 1869 and the 1960s, tearing them from their homes and families in a brutal act of cultural genocide. Along with discussing that, Ms. Givens also talked about her family’s forced removal from their ancestral lands when she was a child, the untold contributions her people have made to the world, the problems that continue to plague them, and a reason to be hopeful.
Q: What is your tribe?
A: Mississippi Choctaw and Cherokee.
Q: How did you end up in the Detroit area?
A: In the 1950s and ‘60s, the American government, in an attempt to break up the reservation system, forced about half of the Indigenous population into cities. My family was relocated to Detroit. I was 7 years old. We were given a two-week housing voucher and basically told, “Good luck.”
Q: Do you prefer Native American, Indigenous Person or American Indian?
A: There are some 600 tribes in America, and the preference is to be identified by our tribal affiliations. American Indian is the legal definition, but, overall, the term Indigenous People best encompasses all of us.
Q: Ten years ago, you and your twin sister, educator and author Dr. Kay McGowan, co-produced a documentary about these schools and the generation-spanning hardship and trauma they inflicted. What motivated you to do that?
A: I had been executive director of the nonprofit organization American Indian Services for almost 20 years at that point. One of the things we offered was a place for the survivors of boarding schools, their children, even their grandchildren, to hold a weekly Talking Circle – what the mainstream would call a self-help group. They were all still trying to deal with the trauma these schools caused. Sitting in my office, I could hear their conversations, hear them laughing and crying, and decided we had to get it on film to get the message out about these schools and the horrors that they created. We wanted to tell a story that needed to be told, that these schools were created to carry out cultural genocide intended to eradicate our languages, religions and customs in an attempt to force us to assimilate.
We never imagined the impact it would have. Our modest little film has been distributed to close to half a million different entities around the world.
Q: You mentioned American Indian Services. Can you tell us about the organization?
A: American Indian Services was in existence for 49 years. I was its head for 27 years. We were always underfunded. Then the COVID pandemic hit, and that was the final straw. We had to close, creating a tremendous hole in our community. Now, there is no place in this area providing services specifically designed for indigenous People. No mental health services provided by people with an understanding of the trauma caused by boarding schools, no youth programs where American Indian children from around Wayne County could come together to help keep their heritage alive. Nothing. We had a food program that helped feed 6,000 people a year. That’s gone. The saddest part of all, I think, is that our people now have no place to go to simply congregate with each other. It is very sad.
Q: Given all the atrocities committed by the U.S. government against your people, how do you navigate living in America and being a citizen of this country?
A: It is a struggle every day. We are legally part of 600 separate, sovereign nations that exist within the boundaries of the United States, and didn’t ask to be made citizens of America -- which didn’t happen until 1924. Even with that, some states prohibited us from voting until 1957. The struggle is to keep our own cultures intact, and resist assimilation. We don’t value what the mainstream tells us we should value. We have our own value systems. We our own religions and our own cultures, which are unique, with deep, deep roots. We have been on this land for 23,000 years. So, I deal with it one day at a time, pushing back where I can.
Q: What keeps you going?
A: Anger. And love. I am driven by my fury at the injustice of what has been done to my people in the past, and the injustice that continues to exist. But I’m also driven by the love for my people, who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Q: Is there anything in particular you’d like non-Native people think about and do in terms of recognizing Native American Heritage Month?
A: Yes, learn more about Indigenous People. Learn about the contributions we’ve made to the world. It was us who first cultivated tomatoes and potatoes and corn. We were the first to use the bark of willow trees as a pain reliever – which Bayer used to create aspirin. The first “sunglasses” date back to prehistoric Inuit people. Though we were called savages, significant parts of what white people refer to as the Iroquois Constitution were incorporated into the U.S. Constitution. That’s how sophisticated our civilization was before white people came to kill it, and us.
But we also don’t want to be stuck in time, either – which happens because, in the eyes of the mainstream media, modern Native Americans do not exist. They try to make us invisible, so others do not know the incredible struggles that we continue to face: poverty, inadequate health care, substandard educations and racism.
It is all very sad.
But I’m happy to be able to have the opportunity to talk about all this. Hopefully, there will be some who hear what we have to say.
Q: If you could recommend only one book for non-Indigenous People to read, what would it be?
A: There’s two, both by the same author, Vine Deloria Jr., who was a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He was really able to put his finger on the issues facing our people. In God is Red, he talks about the failure of Christianity, and describes the basic principles tying together Native religions. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto is a brilliant collection of essays that documents how Indigenous People were treated by the U.S. government and other powerful institutions, their exploitation of our people, and the resistance we continue to pose.
Q: Have you seen any positive developments?
A: Yes, the appointment of Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. It is the first time in this nation’s history an Indigenous person has held a Cabinet position. To have one of our people in charge of the agency that includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs is a milestone. It is definitely something that inspires some hope. It is a bright and shining star.