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IWOK Coordinator works to protect Tribal citizens, strengthen sovereignty

September 12, 2014

  • News Image
    Since 2008, Se-ah-dom Edmo has coordinated Lewis & Clark’s Indigenous Ways of Knowing program.
  • News Image
    Ed Edmo telling Native stories at Alumni Weekend.

Since 2008, Se-ah-dom Edmo has coordinated Lewis & Clark’s Indigenous Ways of Knowing program. By providing educational experiences through a multicontextual process rooted in Indigenous worldviews, the program prepares native and non-native teachers, counselors, and related community leaders for positive and informed leadership roles.

Caleb Diehl ’16 contributed to this story.

A grainy black and white photograph in an old Dalles High School yearbook shows three rows of students smiling from the bleachers. Beneath them, sitting cross-legged on the hardwood and wearing a feathered headdress, is Se-ah-Dom Edmo’s father. He doesn’t smile. 

Edmo hated being the Dalles Eagle Indians mascot. On the way to school, he passed signs that read, “no dogs or Indians.” Worse, he had to hide that he was bisexual. Some “two spirit” Native American teenagers were forced to flee their families. Edmo came out many years later, when his daughter’s work gave him the chance.

“I was able to be a part of creating a space where he felt safe enough to do that,” says Se-ah-Dom, the coordinator of Lewis & Clark’s Indigenous Ways of Knowing Program. “It’s a lot of work, but worth it when you see a healthy behavioral response, rather than one that reinforces systems of shame and blame.”

With Basic Rights Oregon and local tribes, Edmo compiled the Tribal Equity Toolkit, a set of codes and resolutions to guide tribal leaders toward creating more inclusive policies. Edmo hopes to create a tribal cohort, where leaders can meet to discuss the toolkit.

“I didn’t want it to be something that was held in an ivory tower and people didn’t care about,” she says. “I want it to be available to any tribe that wants to use it.”

Working early for equity

IN 2007, The Oregon Indian Education Association passed a resolution against using Native American mascots in Oregon High Schools. Their efforts began with the story of a basketball player at an away game against the Molalla High School Indians. At halftime, the Molalla mascot danced on the court with a headdress and a bullseye painted on his chest. The player protested, and wound up in a scuffle in the parking lot.

After Edmo became the association’s vice president, she began writing op-eds to the Oregonian and rallying local tribes. She encouraged OIEA students and parents to write the state board of education during its public comment period, and won support from Basic Rights Oregon, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, and the American Civil Liberties Union. She informed policy makers about Indian identity and tribal sovereignty.

“People think they can walk up to Joe Indian on the street and ask if mascots are okay,” she says. “That’s not a legitimate reflection of what the entire nation thinks.”

For Edmo, western cultural biases made appearances as early as Kindergarten. When her parents told her Columbus wasn’t the first to discover America, she cried. In high school classes at Catlin Gabel, her teachers refused to speak about sovereignty or race.

“When you’re little you think your teachers know everything. It’s the old-school way of thinking about the expert, the teacher, and the learner—instead of a learning process back and forth,” she said. “When you’re an adolescent you don’t want to call out your own differences. You want to fit in. You want friends. I think I struggled a lot with finding what my identity was, completely surrounded by folks who weren’t like me.”

Frustrated by the classroom, Edmo joined the environmental branch of the newly inaugurated Americorps. She hauled bags of fertilizer along old logging roads, took part in watershed restoration, and cleaned up national forests. To ease erosion, she rappelled down slopes, caught a 100-lb burlap cloth thrown from above, and fixed it to a patch of loose dirt. The physical work buried thoughts of school.

At the end of the year, she represented Americorps with three other students in Bill Clinton’s oval office. As policy makers loosed rhetoric about Americorps’s costs and benefits, Edmo showed them its bright young face.

Activism in academia

She felt the lure of academia again after reading Linda Smith’s writing on decolonization and Sherman Alexie’s poems and short stories on reservation life. She studied with Smith in Auckland, New Zealand at the International Research Institute for Maori and Indigenous Education. After returning home, she enrolled in the environmental studies program at Oregon State University, where she advised pre-med students for the admissions department.

Drawing on her advising skills, she coordinated diversity achievement programs at Oregon Health and Science University for Black and Latino students without the money or family support to apply for medical school. She taught a Medical College Admission Test prep class, helped students denied admission raise their test scores and GPA to gain acceptance to the program, and planned a symposium where area high school students learned about medicine.

At a conference, Lewis & Clark faculty offered her the position of coordinator of the Indigenous Ways of Knowing Program. Since then, she’s guided the program’s collaboration with local tribes to provide better access to education and mental health services throughout Oregon. As a bonus, Lewis & Clark offered Edmo the chance to return to school. A paper for her Rhetorical Criticism class turned into a book about the rhetoric of Indian identity in the classroom.

Across the nation, Edmo’s environmental restoration, pre-med advising, and tribal sovereignty work has shaped a more just world. At OHSU, the number of students of color skyrocketed, and some went on to medical school at UCSF or Cornell. A tribe in California used Edmo’s toolkit to trash its marriage ban—two days before the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. And at a two-spirit summit in November that Edmo helped organize, her dad came out.

“My mom always used to tell me that things become harder and easier all at the same time,” she said. “That’s how life has gone for me. We do as much as we can for as long as we can, and carry these causes until somebody else picks them up. Hopefully, we’re good mentors, and a whole lot of people will say, ‘I want to pick that up.’”

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