Mount Union Hosts Native American Heritage Speaker

November 16, 2012

ALLIANCE, Ohio—The University of Mount Union’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion welcomed guest speaker Dr. Don Bartlette to the Campus Grounds of the Hoover-Price Campus Center on Thursday, where he presented his story “Macaroni at Midnight.”

The tale is of Bartlette’s own experiences growing up as a Chippewa Indian in rural North Dakota, a place where he faced emotional and physical abuse from his father and schoolmates, a physical disability, poverty, violence, homelessness, racism and alcoholism.

Bartlette was born in 1939 with a severe physical disability that left him unable to speak as the result of fetal alcohol syndrome. His father, ashamed of his son’s disability, left the family to escape the handicap. Forced to raise him alone, his mother sought the medical advice of white doctors who instructed her to leave him to die, stating that an Indian with a disability didn’t need to live.

“I still run like a child,” Bartlette said of having fetal alcohol syndrome. “My wife will tell you.”

Unwilling to condemn her son to death, Bartlette’s mother returned home. Regardless, doctors came to take Bartlette away. They left him in a North Dakota hospital for nearly nine years before an intern finally persuaded the doctors to help him. They hastily stretched his face, leaving him scarred and still unable to talk. After sending him home, Bartlette lived the next 17 years without speaking before getting any real help.

“Life was hard,” said Bartlette. “We had to steal food. I remember my mother dropping water in the hole on my lip to help me survive.”

Although his father returned to the family, Bartlette was never treated like his brothers and sisters. He remembers constantly wondering why his father didn’t love him.

“If you don’t understand the child, you’ll never understand the man,” said Bartlette. “Back then, I didn’t understand how my father had lived as a child. Now I understand him.”

Without a proper father figure, Bartlette befriended rats.

“They were the only ones who didn’t judge me,” Bartlette said.

When his mother realized he was playing with rats, she took him to town to enroll him in one of the town’s seven churches so he could have an education. Because of his disability, however, they wouldn’t accept him, and she was forced to enroll him at a local public school.

“I remember the kids making fun of me,” said Bartlette. “They would take me outside and beat me. I remember them hurting me. They would take me out to a tree and tie me to it with my hands behind my back and beat me so that I was bleeding. I remember one girl spitting in my face. I became filled with fear. I became filled with anger.”

In his anger, Bartlette and his role model from the community later went through a period of lashing out at white people.

“We burnt down churches in San Francisco,” said Bartlett. “We hurt many, many people.”

Bartlette told other short stories of the racism he faced, including one time when a woman approached him and complimented him for not even smelling “like an Indian” and another time when the manager of a grocery store kicked him out for trying to write a check, saying he wouldn’t accept it from an “Indian.”

“Once, I was dressed in my native regalia when at the airport. When I tried to get on my plane, a white woman who worked there stopped me and said we had a problem and that she couldn’t allow me to get on without asking a supervisor. She finally came back, begrudgingly, with a black man who reminded her that only she had the problem with me and insisted she let me onboard.”

One recent event that angered Bartlette was Victoria Secret’s allowance of one woman, model Karlie Kloss, to parade down the walkway in a headdress during its annual fashion show.

In Native American culture, headdresses are reserved for men war chiefs and warriors and are a symbol of high respect. Victoria’s Secret has since apologized for the offense and has vowed not to include the outfit in its national broadcast next month.

Although he said he still gets angry at the unjust treatment he and other Native Americans experience, Bartlette is much better at controlling that anger.

“People look at me and wonder how I can speak about all the hatred I experienced,” he said.

Today, Bartlette is proud to tell his story to audiences internationally.

“When white people develop relationships with Native American people, that is something we value and revere.”

Toward the beginning of his speech, Bartlette told the story of a political prisoner being held in captivity by the FBI, Native American Leonard Peltier. Bartlette’s one request of his audience was to celebrate Native American Heritage Month by writing to President Obama and asking him to pardon Peltier.

Bartlette, of Canton, is a former social worker and counselor with more than two decades of experience helping minority children and other disadvantaged people. Bartlette and his wife have eight children. He volunteers frequently at the North Canton Chick-Fil-A and attends the YMCA every day.

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