Bridging Lawrence cultures: Summit embraces city’s hidden diversity

Haskell Indian Nations University may sit within Lawrence city limits, but to some Lawrence residents it can feel like the school is a world away, said Bert Nash center CEO David Johnson.

“It’s interesting to me to discover how many people have never set foot on the Haskell campus, how many people have never walked around and seen what a great institution it is,” Johnson said.

That disconnect between many Lawrence residents and one of the largest Native American universities in the country led the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center to feature the school as part of its third annual summit event, “Bridging Cultures: The Native American Experience,” Saturday evening at the Lied Center on the Kansas University campus.

Beginning with the poetry and short stories of University of Arizona professor Luci Tapahonso, a Navajo who has published several poetry collections, the summit featured an array of Native American speakers and performances. Iris Heavyrunner, an expert on tribal colleges who recently received her doctorate in social work from the University of Minnesota, spoke to a crowd of about 150 people Saturday afternoon about the challenges of building strong communities, and the characteristics of people who can successfully bridge cultural divides.

“People — if they are going to come together — they have to know the history of what it was like, and where we come from,” she told the audience.

The theme of reaching across cultures and seeking an understanding of different groups has been a fixture in the summits since they began in 2003.

At the first summit, noted scholar Robert Putnam came to Lawrence and discussed the theory of “social capital,” a term he used to describe the value of community and interpersonal interaction. Putnam said the most valuable form of social capital was bridging a gap between two groups, which was the goal of Saturday’s event, Johnson said.

Luci Tapahonso gets ready to read an original poem about bread during Bridging

“It’s reaching across to those people that you don’t know, those people that are not like you and getting to understand them,” he said.

That mission seemed to resonate with many of the event’s attendees.

“I’m really excited to see us bringing a highlight to Haskell,” said Lawrence resident Debbie Hemming. “I think it’s one of the jewels of Lawrence we don’t publicize enough or interact with often enough.”

The evening culminated with the third and final performance of Ping Chong’s “Native Voices — Secret History,” a theater production exploring the experience of Native Americans, and a community panel discussion.