But Stein, one of 14 educators from nine Montana tribal colleges, five units of the Montana University System and two tribal colleges in South Dakota and Wisconsin, who participated in a Fulbright Fellowship in Peru and Guatemala this summer, learned that there is a world of difference in life and philosophies of the indigenous in Montana and their brethren in South and Central America.
"We saw a very different world," said Stein of the 30-day trip in South and Central America.
"In a country where there was a lot of brown skin around, we felt much the outsiders," agreed Walter Fleming, chair of the MSU Center for Native American Studies and an enrolled member of the Kickapoo tribe of Kansas.
Stein, Fleming and Lisa Aldred, also an MSU professor of Native American Studies, were the MSU participants in the Fulbright organized by Lynette Chandler and Scott Friskics of Ft. Belknap College. Friskics and Chandler, who is Stein's eldest daughter, successfully applied for and received a $60,000 grant for the Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad seminar in Peru and Guatemala.
"We wanted to look at other indigenous communities so we could internationalize our Native American studies classes in Montana," Chandler said. She said the trip, which was hard, revealing and frequently life-changing, will help participants develop seminars and new courses, enrich existing courses and just plain help the educators to know about the indigenous world.
"It was definitely an experience," said Chandler, who received a master's degree in Native American Studies from MSU in 2002 and an English degree from the university in 2000.
Aldred, who teaches an MSU class called "Peoples of the Americas," agreed with Chandler that the trip "changed my whole viewpoint," particularly on Indians in Peru.
"All the textbooks I'd ever seen and used on the Incas portrayed them as violent, bloodthirsty people, but I learned that was wrong," said Aldred, who said she learned about the spiritual side to the modern-day Incas from their descendents that populate Peru. "We saw that their spirituality is linked with their sacred landscapes, which is similar to the Indians in Montana."
"Another difference is that in Peru, almost everybody is indigenous, and they don't draw the same ethnic classifications there," Aldred said.
"Ethnicity and classification have maybe less to do with whether one is Indian or indigenous than income," said Stein, who called "Peru a country in search of a nation."
Indeed, Aldred, Stein and Fleming all were impacted by the fact that identity hinges more on income in Peru than ethnic heritage. Such ethnic-based keystones as Native American Studies programs and Indian pride movements are just beginning there. And public education is nearly nonexistent, they said. There were a couple of similarities in the indigenous in South America, including sense of humor and generous spirit.
"Those are things that you will find in all people who are close to the earth," said Stein, who has spent time in indigenous communities in New Zealand, Thailand and Canada.
Fleming said that as a man who has battled stereotypes throughout his life, he learned that he had a few stereotypes about Central and South American Indians that were changed during the trip. "For instance, we think that the Incas are extinct, but they are not," Fleming said. "They are very much still a part of the culture there."
He said that while 40 percent of the country is called indigenous and the rest is called "Latino," the country is ruled by just two percent of the population, which is composed of both Indians and Latinos. In fact, the president of Peru is Indian. However, the campesinos, or people who live in remote villages in the country, are Indians who "live much like they lived when Cortez and Pizarro showed up," Stein said.
The situation in Guatemala was much different than Peru, mostly because it is a war-torn society where violence was evident everywhere and armed guards were everywhere, even in such places as McDonalds. The threat of possible violence in everyday places was a strain, the MSU professors said.
"The Indian people there live in extreme poverty and much the way our parents or grandparents lived on the reservations," Fleming said. "My reaction is that we have come a very long way in two or three decades."
All three of the Fulbright participants said the trip enriched them professionally and personally, and Fleming and Stein said each experienced unexpected feelings of what it means to be an American Indian.
"For the first time in my life, I realized I was part of the 'other,'" Fleming said
"I learned that I am really happy to live in Bozeman, Montana," Stein said. "(The trip) emphasized my own identity as an American."
Contact: Wayne Stein, Walter Fleming, Lisa Aldred (406) 994-3881