Respecting the earth and preserving a heritage
Interview with Ben Geboe, executive director of the NYC Indian Community House
For the Norwegian diaspora in New York City, Ben Geboe is definitely not a stranger. You can run into him in the Norwegian Seamen’s Church on 52nd Street, where he is one of the regular visitors. Ben has even organized events there in the past. One of them was the Nordic Expo, where New Yorkers could meet artists from the Nordic countries.
Ben is a friendly and dynamic personality, proud of his Norwegian roots. He even speaks the language of his ancestors, both Native Americans and Norwegians.
For the last couple of years, Ben has been deep in research and has just finished his Ph.D. at the prestigious McGill University in Montreal, Canada, doing research on Native Americans.
Marit Fosse: Tell us a little about yourself ….
Ben Geboe: My name is Ben Geboe, and I’m from the Yankton tribe of South Dakota. My father was Native American, and my mother was of Norwegian descent. Her people came from Bergen and Åndalsnes. I was raised on the Sioux Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. My priority has always been–and continues to be–to help Native American communities both in the United States and in Canada.
MF: Where does that come from?
BG: My father was a big advocate for education. He worked at a place called Sinte Gleska or Spotted Tail College, named after a local chief who believed in education, one of the first tribal-run schools on the Rosebud Reservation. He devoted his professional life to advancing American Indian access to schooling. He worked in the Office for Indian Affairs for many years running boarding schools and regular schools and working as a kind of community liaison in the Indian Affairs Office in education programs in Washington, D.C. I think I followed in his footsteps, as I’m now the Executive Director of the Indian Community House here in New York City and also a professor at McGill University in Canada.
MF: What are your plans for the Indian Community House?
BG: Right now, we are focused on the Land Back initiative. It is a movement across the globe through which nation states and concerned citizens are working on recovering Indian and Indigenous peoples’ land. I’m concentrating on this movement to help Indigenous communities actually get back land that has been taken from them. Here in New York City, we have this Native center with about 10,000 Native members from all over the United States and Canada.
Now we are looking for a new center where we can have community-based programs. The rents in New York are so high that many non-profit organizations are not able to compete. We were paying $40,000 a month, and government grants paid the rent in the end, but if we lose one grant our revenue cycle becomes weakened. Thus, we hope that this Land Back initiative will help stabilize us so that we can grow our community programs, such as health programs and social programs for community members, in particular for the youth and the students.
Recently, we were at Columbia University. A group of students at Columbia University organized a community pow wow. I came down from Montreal with Native students from Concordia in Montréal. We drummed and danced for the rain, and it arrived. We also had a student exchange. The American Indians were there, too, and brought with them information about the different communities. There is a lot going on right now.
MF: Where do you get the energy from?
BG: I really believe in helping Native people, and I love our community in particular for its diversity.
MF: Would you say that there is discrimination against the Native people in the United States?
BG: Yes, and the same applies to Indigenous in Canada, where there is not really access to quality education for Indigenous children. The inequality is huge. What happens then is that they are not able to get into universities and colleges because the education they receive at home is not delivered well or is just not adequate preparation. The government responds by trying to turn our people into manual laborers like construction workers, restaurant workers, and so on. They do not really think of addressing the Indigenous intellectuals. It is like they are saying, “You will never make it, so why don’t you clean or be a gardener?” So, we have to find ways to get Native people into higher or even secondary education – law schools, medical, nursing, social work…
I just got my Ph.D. from McGill University, and I interviewed Indigenous health-care providers across Canada about their experiences. Now I’m making my thesis available to schools of nurses and schools of social work so that they can learn about the Indigenous and their specific needs.
MF: You have done so many things. Could one say that you have been working for the Indigenous your entire life?
BG: Yes, I have done everything, including case management, homeless outreach, crisis services. Now I’m a professor at McGill University, teaching a field course with other professors around Indigenous experiences. We have students from medicine, nursing, and law that will go to a Native community. This year’s field course gives the students the Indigenous point of view that they would not get unless they went to work in a Native community. So, I teach that, and I also do tuberculosis research in Nunivak, which is north of Quebec in the Inuit community. We interview community members about their experiences with tuberculosis. In almost every Indigenous community, there is a strong prevalence of tuberculosis. It is very acute.
MF: How do you explain that?
BG: We are trying to find out from the community perspective, because the Inuit are heavily impacted. It is probably because they do not have nurses or doctors from their community. They are all outsiders who come, and they may not relate well to community members, because it’s a very specific Indigenous society. Perhaps the community members do not get the education, prevention, and treatment that would eradicate it.
MF: You are into teaching, research, and community service. How do you manage to find time for it all?
BG: I try to be very focused. You make appointments and keep them, you ask for help when you need it, and you do not over commit yourself. You cannot do everything! I often have all kinds of desires, but I make sure that I do my job.
MF: What would you say has been the most difficult part for you?
BG: It is always within the Indigenous services because there is inconsistent infrastructure. We are a very small community, altogether 3 million to 5 million people within the United States and the same in Canada. They might well have some kind of health institute, but then it might be led by one person, so, if that person retires as s/he should, or if something happens and we lose one valuable member, it takes sometimes a decade to replace the loss with someone. It is not like in a country like Belgium or South Africa, where there is a huge group of people from which someone can come forth, a boy, a girl – somebody that has leadership talents and can advance themself, eventually leading the community or the nation with us.
We are a small community of small units, so, when we lose somebody, it takes a long time to replace the loss. I’m always looking at the youth. Do you want to meet a professor, do you want to write a paper? So, to make sure that the future generation is there to take over is perhaps one of the biggest challenges.
MF: Are you in contact with other Indigenous groups around the world?
BG: Yes, we hosted a reception at the United Nations on April 25 with the Canadian Council for the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. We have hosted Indigenous from Australia, New Zealand, and many other places. So, there have been wonderful opportunities to meet with other Indigenous peoples.
MF: We often hear that the Indigenous people are one of the driving forces in protecting the environment. What is your take on this?
BG: That’s correct. We are among those who have lived most recently on the land compared with other communities and civilizations, so, we have an awareness of the importance of all life whether you see it or not. This means soil life, air life, water life… We were very active in anti-pipeline protests in the Midwest. People said that’s because you are Natives. Yes, but it is also because we focus on respecting all life and are protecting everybody. When oil gets into the drinking water, anybody will drink that–a white kid, for example, and that white kid can then develop cancer.
Environmental health is for everybody; it is not only a Native issue. We are often the ones protesting. We drummed in front of Wells Fargo Bank, asking the City of New York to divest from the Dakota Access Pipeline, something they did do, because the city had a very large pension that city workers were invested in. There is a lot of concern in the Indigenous communities about trees, about the water, about the air, about the soil, and about wild animals. The Westerners do it through non-profit organizations, but we do it through the community. The United Nations Earth Day was April 21, and we were invited to five different events to protest and to have a statement of solidarity. So, we have community members who attend these events.
MF: Does this attract more attention from the general public?
BG: Yes, especially now in a time of crisis. You can read, for instance, in The New York Times that people have micro plastics in their own bloodstream or in their lungs, and it is not a mythical illusion in protest against pollution. I can throw something on the ground, and I can end up absorbing it as it gets broken down, and I cannot even see that. I think that people are really starting to pay attention. The solution to pollution is not dilution but only finding ways of not polluting and to be circular and to minimize the impact on the environment.
MF: What are your future plans?
BG: I’m excited about many of the community activities we are doing. We have a residency on Governors Island, a small island, just off the tip of Manhattan. We have a house there we use for cultural programs. We go out there with the kids. We have a youth council. The kids play around, it is safe and there are no cars. It’s going to be a great summer out there. We also do a lot of Land Back initiatives, and I invite your readers to join us. Go on our website americanindiancommunityhouse.com and find us.
My big life dream is in 2024, I will try to organize a big gathering of the Great Sioux Nations which is my nation of South and North Dakota. We used to come together every fourth year, but we haven’t done so for some time. I will try to talk to our tribal leader to see if he will support us to do it on our reservation in South Dakota.
So, leaving Ben Geboe rushing off to his next appointment, we wish him and the Indigenous tribes all the best of success in all their endeavors.
This article originally appeared in the May 27, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.