MSU journalism students launch 3 new ethnic guides

BIG NEWS: Students at the Michigan State University School of Journalism are dramatically expanding their popular series of books: 100 Questions and Answers About … Individual readers, nonprofits, companies and other schools are ordering these books to encourage “cultural competence”—helping Americans from diverse backgrounds to build positive relationships.

Your Opportunities …

Come to Detroit in August for the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) annual conference and you’ll meet MSU project director Joe Grimm. At NAIN, Joe’s MSU team will announce another expansion of this project—and invite NAIN participants to help shape that next phase. (Here is the NAIN-Detroit-2014 website.) The ReadTheSpirit team, including authors Wayne Baker and Lynne Meredith Golodner, also will be presenting workshops. We’ve already published one earlier story about some of the key people coming to NAIN from across the U.S. Please, join us!

Many groups are ordering special quantities of these books for incoming students, employees and other new residents. Unlike other publishing projects, these books can be modified to include the sponsoring group’s logo and background information. That makes these books a valuable form of outreach for your group. Learn more here.

Thousands of books have been published about ethnic groups. So, why are readers snapping up these slim new books from MSU? Because they answer the questions real people are asking every day. We invited MSU’s Joe Grimm to explain this distinctive approach …



Students at Michigan State University have been busy using new publishing tools to help increase cultural competence. This spring, they published two new 100-question guides. There will soon be six guides in the series. In a program we call “Bias Busters,” MSU journalism students conduct interviews across cultures to surface the simple, everyday questions that people ask in coffee shops and cafeterias. Some Google analysis also helps find the questions people are asking.

The students select and research the questions and write the answers, which are then vetted by experts nationwide. After everything is edited and polished, these slim paperback guides are published in print and digital formats. It takes about 10 weeks from when the students first meet each other to when the guides are listed for sale on Amazon. The speed and flexibility, which comes from Front Edge Publishing tools, means “Bias Busters” can respond to current events—just perfect for journalists. At a time when so many people are pessimistic about journalism, these young creators find that traditional skills and new tools mean they can publish information that helps people, do it quickly and explore a promising business model that they can carry with them after school.

The guides are intended to be just the first step toward deeper conversations about race, ethnicity and religion. Besides the guides, the students have built a website, Facebook and Twitter accounts. A facilitator’s guide is in the works.

Let me introduce three of our new guides …

100 Questions and Answers
About Hispanics and Latinos

100 Questions and Answers about Hispanics and Latinos was created by 14 students in the spring “Bias Busters” journalism class. About the time the guides went to press, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that Latinos became the largest group in California, our most populous state. Other nuggets in the guide:

  • WHAT’S IN A NAME? Hispanics and Latinos go by a wide variety of names and, except for in Texas, do not show much preference for either of those labels. Many prefer names like “Mexican American” or Puerto Rican.” The guide uses Hispanic and Latino interchangeably. Other names described in the guide are Tejano, Boricuano, Chicano and even Chican@ and Latin@. Some academic departments have begun using those terms to reflect the fact that Spanish refers to males as Latinos and Chicanos and women as Latinas and Chicanas.
  • DID YOU KNOW? We were surprised to learn that the quinceañera, a celebration that signifies a 15-year-old girl’s transition to adulthood, is now being used in some families for boys who turn 15. Then, it is called a quinceañero.
  • We were reminded about the complicated status of Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens by birth, but who cannot vote in presidential elections if they are living on the island because only people living in states have that right.
  • Pope Francis is the first pope from Latin America, but many Latinos do not consider him to be the first Latino pope because his parents are Italian.
  • By 2050, Hispanics will account for about a third of the U.S. population.
  • Most Hispanics in the United State were born here.
  • The state with the highest proportion of Hispanics is New Mexico, with 47 percent.
  • About a quarter of public school students in the United States are Hispanic.
  • The Hispanic market in the United States was $1 trillion in 2010 and is projected to be $1.5 trillion in 2015.
  • Hispanic people should not be lumped into one political camp. Their political affiliations mirror the country overall. Although they usually vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, they are as likely as the overall U.S. population to identify themselves as socially conservative.
  • The large number of eligible Latino voters who do not vote is widely regarded by political analysts as a sleeping giant.


100 Questions and Answers
About East Asian Cultures

100 Questions and Answers about East Asian Cultures had the benefit of a cross-cultural creation team. Members were students in an international advertising class taught by Dr. Dawn Pysarchik in the MSU Department of Advertising and Public Relations. This team included students from China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and the United States. They worked in cross-cultural pairs, learning from each other as they researched. This guide was done, in part, because Michigan State and colleges and universities nationwide have large enrollments from East Asian countries. Americans have questions. These are some of the answers.

  • DID YOU KNOW? Asian countries, cultures and languages are incredibly diverse. While there are some shared cultural values, the differences among countries are incredible.
  • Differences between China and Taiwan or South and North Korea are profound. Millions of Asian people learn English, but do not know Asian languages other than their own.
  • Value systems such as collectivism, Confucianism and high-context communication play out in everyday activity.
  • In Japan, it is not uncommon for people to practice more than one religion.
  • Colors and numbers can have special significance in gift-giving, weddings and ceremonies, commerce and luck.
  • Japan gave us anime, manga, karaoke and Hello, Kitty.
  • South Korea gave us Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and K-Pop, part of the “hallyu” wave of pop culture.
  • China gave us eight major cuisines, not just the one or two you have heard of.
  • Speaking of food, chopsticks are not traditional in all Asian countries.
  • East Asians are adaptable, with Japan having become a strong U.S. ally since World War II and China easing its one-child rule and greatly enlarging its education system.

100 Questions, 500 Nations:
A Guide to Native America

100 Questions, 500 Nations: A Guide to Native America, originally published by the Native American Journalists Association in 1998, helped inspire the Bias Busters series. It has now been updated, redesigned and republished to reflect developments of the past 25 years. These are a few:

  • DID YOU KNOW? As the title reflects, there are now more than 500 federally recognized Indian nations. The guide includes a list of 566.
  • The tribes are sovereign, a concept that has been in the news in recent stories about Ukraine, Taiwan and the Middle East.
  • Tribal sovereignty is affirmed in treaties, court case law and the U.S. Constitution, but is still the subject of dispute.
  • It is OK to use the term “Indian Country” and many prefer “Indians” to “Native Americans.” Many prefer to identify themselves by their tribal affiliations.
  • Of the estimated 350 Indian languages that once existed, about 200 remain. Navajo has about 80,000 speakers, about 40,000 speak Chippewa and some others, in danger of extinction, have just a handful.
  • Indian casinos had $27.9 billion in revenue in 2012, but most tribes do not have casinos and this is only 8 percent of total gaming revenue in the country. Some Indians oppose gaming; some see it as a traditional activity.
  • Some people oppose the nickname of the Washington Redskins professional football team because, they say, it is on a racial par with the N word.


Other guides in the series

  • 100 Questions and Answers about Indian Americans has been available from Amazon since mid-2013.
  • In 100 Questions and Answers about Americans, we flipped our reporting perspective 180 degrees to produce a book intended for newly arriving students, workers and immigrants—answering the real questions newcomers to these shores commonly have about puzzling aspects of our American culture.
  • 100 Questions and Answers About Arab Americans (Coming in May)

COME TO NAIN in Detroit in August to learn about the next expansion of our project! Want to follow plans for the NAIN conference on Facebook? Here is NAIN Connect.

Our Holiday Grab Bag of 12 Guilt-Free Gifts

shopping for a little something? Perhaps a last-minute gift for a friend—or, maybe someone gave you a little cash in a holiday card, and you’re going to choose something for yourself? The staff and friends of ReadTheSpirit suggest these 12 Guilt-Free Gifts.


For more than 30 years, the Rev. Edward McNulty has been a national treasure. Since the 1970s, Ed has used his skills as both a Presbyterian clergyman and a professional Film Critic to write movie reviews, study guides and books that show readers how to explore films from a faith perspective. Each week, to this day, Ed “gives away” new film reviews in his department within Read The Spirit, called Visual Parables. But, today, we’re encouraging you to dig deeper into Ed’s wealth of resources: The way to receive Ed’s small-group study guides, each month, is to purchase a fully paid subscription to the one thing he sells: Visual Parables Journal. Please, support the work of this faithful film critic—and enjoy lots of uplifting fun with movies in 2014. How to get this: CLICK on the Visual Parables graphic at right; then, at Ed’s website, choose “Subscribe to the Full Journal.”


If you’re shopping for a gift that you can share with family, friends or a small group in your community—then, please, buy a copy of Lynne Meredith Golodner’s The Flavors of Faith.  Lynne’s book tells the true story of how different kinds of bread are connected with the spiritual traditions of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Native Americans. She not only tells the sacred stories of these “Holy Breads”—she also provides delicious recipes for each bread. This will give you and your family months of inspiring eating—and it’s a great idea to use in either a New Year’s class or a Lenten-season small group at your church. How to get this: CLICK on this link, or CLICK on the Flavors of Faith book cover shown in the left margin of this webpage.


Faith-and-pop-culture expert Jane Wells is just releasing her newest inspirational book. As we discussed with Jane in a recent author interview, her new book, called Bird on Fire, taps into the phenomenal interest among teens and 20-somethings in science fiction and fantasy tales like The Hunger Games. This is an age range largely missing from most churches. However, as Jane says in our interview, the themes that are so compelling in these novels and movies are connected with major charitable campaigns in churches nationwide: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and freeing contemporary slaves. These themes also connect with inspiring Bible stories, which Jane explains in her book. Energize and welcome this missing age group in your congregation by starting a local group to discuss Bird on Fire. How to get this: CLICK on the Bird on Fire graphic to jump directly to our Bookstore; or click on this Interview link to read more about Jane and her book.  


Longtime readers are familiar with columnist Rodney Curtis, known by the title of his first memoir, The Spiritual Wanderer. Since we started ReadTheSpirit online magazine, Rodney’s quirky columns have launched 1,000 laughs. What’s amazing is that his good humor continued—even as Rodney hit the direst challenges of our era: losing his job in a downsizing industry—and—discovering that he had life-threatening cancer. He has survived both with his attitude undimmed. In our recent interview with Rodney, he talks about how he manages to keep “laughing in the face of fear”—and to encourage his readers to do the same. There’s not a better, more-hopeful gift for someone who needs a shot of humor than buying one—or all three—of Rodney’s books. How to get this: CLICK on the Rodney Curtis book covers, above, to jump to our Bookstore. Or, click on this Interview link to read more about Rodney and his remarkable work.


There’s no storyteller like Rabbi Bob Alper, the world’s only full-time stand-up comic and practicing rabbi, whose hilarious routines are heard daily on the Sirius/XM clean comedy channel. His new book features 32 true stories from settings as far flung as The Tonight Show studio, the hills of Vermont, and a tiny Polish village. Readers meet a stained-glass artist whose granddaughter is Drew Barrymore, a woman who attends services with her dog, a 5-year-old grief counselor and an elderly Holocaust survivor who discovers that he can speak about his lost sisters for the first time. Warm, touching stories that evoke laughter and tears—this is a perfect gift for you or a loved one in the depths of Winter. How to get this: CLICK on the image of the smiling boy from Bob’s book cover, above, to jump to our Bookstore.


If you happen to read this column before December 27, 2013, then author, journalist and religious historian Don Lattin is giving all of us a gift. He temporarily set the Kindle price at $1.99 for his fascinating book, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk. In April, we interviewed Don Lattin about this new book, which is an in-depth look at influences behind the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous and the spiritual connections between Bill Wilson, Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley. The 12-Step movement now is regarded as a historic breakthrough in the history of world religions—and Don’s book is a terrific read. We guarantee: You’ve never heard the true story he unfolds in this book. How to get this: CLICK on the Distilled Spirits book image to jump to Amazon. Or, click on this Interview link to read more about Don and his remarkable work. Or, you can visit Don’s own website. (And if you’re reading this column after December 27—hey, the book is still a terrific read!)


The full title of Margaret Passenger’s new book is, She and You and Me: Finding Ourselves in the BibleMargaret’s long career spans three professions as: a high-school English teacher, a newspaper copy editor and a United Methodist minister. She and her husband, editor Henry Passenger, are longtime friends of ReadTheSpirit magazine and Books. Also, here in Michigan where our Home Office is based, the Passengers are very active in the interfaith network known as Michigan Communicators. Margaret agrees with us here at ReadTheSpirit in one pointed critique of inspirational publishing nationwide: Most readers of these books are women; yet more men than women are given opportunities to publish such books. Margaret spent many years working with small groups in parishes to perfect this book-length study of women in the Bible. We recommend it and encourage you to support Margaret’s work by ordering a copy. It’s a great choice for a New Year’s or Lenten small group discussion, because one of the central themes is: encouraging women today to take courage from the examples of biblical women. How to get this: CLICK on Maragaret’s book cover, at right, to jump to Amazon.

8. A Rare Story of Jesus as a Boy

Speaking of interfaith connections in publishing, we are impressed with the work of Chris Stepien, an independent author whose story appeared in ReadTheSpirit in June. His new book is called Three Days: The Search for the Boy Messiah. Like the Passengers (mentioned above), Chris is a long-time media professional who now is active in interfaith work. A devout Catholic and a father, Chris felt moved to explore the brief biblical account of Jesus as a boy getting “lost” in the Temple in Jerusalem. Even though Chris admits that he isn’t a formally trained Bible scholar—he set out to research and write a novelized account of those experiences. We are impressed with Chris’s approach to this work. Using his professional talents as a writer and researcher, Chris sincerely is trying to build cross-cultural connections through his storytelling. We say: He’s setting a great example. Get the book! Read it! How to get this: CLICK on the “Three Days” image from Chris’s book cover to jump to Amazon.

9. Fran McKendree helps out with a song

Singer/songwriter Fran McKendree is a good friend to our readers, through his regular sharing of stories and songs. Among his past columns in our online magazine: You can see and hear him in this story, which includes a video of Fran performing Times Like These. Then, in his column Let’s Go Fly a Kite, Fran described a retreat he designed involving kites. This autumn, he wrote about his involvement in the Awakening Soul project. Then, one more link: Many readers enjoyed this meditative chant in video form. Our message to all of our readers is: Get to know this talented and faithful musician! He travels the country working with church groups and peacemaking events. And, right now, he’s selling a Christmas carol (for a dollar) to help raise funds for a good cause. How to get this: CLICK on the image of Fran to jump to his website. (And if you’re reading this column after Fran is finished with the Christmas carol effort—hey, get to know him through his website! He’s always starting something new and inspiring.)

10. Learn about Native Americans in ‘Our Fires Still Burn’

Filmmaker Audrey Geyer devoted years to producing the documentary, Our Fires Still Burn, about the contemporary lives of Great Lakes Indians. What inspires us about this film is that Audrey balances the stories she includes in her film so that she is honest about some deep wounds, including the campaign to force Indian children into boarding schools, but she also highlights bright sparks of renewed life, as well. Her film has been featured in public showings—as well as regional broadcasts on PBS stations. You may see Our Fires Still Burn showing up on a PBS affiliate near you in 2014. Right now, though, we are encouraging our readers to visit Audrey’s website, learn about her documentary, make people aware of the film—and, please, consider ordering a DVD. How to get this: CLICK on the image from Audrey’s film to jump to her website.

11. Don’t Forget the Caregivers!

Helping the nation’s millions of caregivers is a major goal at ReadTheSpirit, spearheaded by columnist Heather Jose. In fact, Heather recently wrote a column, called What do we give? If you’re reading this item and you’ve forgotten to think of a caregiver in your life at this time of year—go read Heather’s column and make a plan. We are urging readers, as 2013 moves into 2014, to bookmark so you won’t miss the many inspiring and helpful columns Heather brings us, each week. She welcomes guest writers, as well, including Benjamin Pratt, Rodney Curtis and Paul Hile. Of course, we would love to have you look at our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore and support these writers by buying any of our half-dozen caregiving-themed books. And, if you’re thinking of organizing a caregiving ministry in 2014, we would love to hear from you! Heather occasionally makes appearances at events nationwide and she’s always looking for ideas to highlight in her columns. How to do this: CLICK on the blue Caregivers logo to visit Heather’s department. Or, email us at [email protected]

12. Join MSU in Celebrating American Diversity

Finally, one of our proudest accomplishments is enabling the Michigan State University School of Journalism to launch a whole series of books helping in nationwide efforts to encourage “cultural competency”—the phrase commonly used today to describe educational efforts to break down cross-cultural bias. With coordination from MSU’s Joe Grimm, a veteran journalist and educator, MSU students first produced The New Bullying and quickly discovered that the book made a real impact in awakening adults to emerging forms of bullying among teens. Since then, Joe and his MSU teams of students have produced the first two volumes of what will be an extensive series of books on gaining “cultural competency.” Please, do your part to build healthier, more peaceful communities in 2014 by learning about the MSU project and buying these guides to use in your region. How to do this: CLICK on the image of MSU students to visit our most recent story about this pioneering project. You’ll find links there to purchase their guides.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

The Kent Nerburn interview on Neither Wolf nor Dog trilogy

For thousands of Kent Nerburn fans, all we really need to say is: Kent’s back on the road on the Great Plains! Come along! Click the cover, at right, to visit the book’s Amazon page and start reading!

But, first, you might want to read this new interview with Kent, the best-selling author of 16 books and a longtime friend to our online magazine. If you are meeting Kent Nerburn for the first time, here are a few things you need to know about him:

His vision is vast: Best known as an author, Kent also is a scholar, theologian and artist. He studied in the U.S. and Europe and finally earned a doctorate in religion and art. His sculptures, many on religious themes, are in collections around the world.

He invites us on pilgrimages: Best known for his books exploring Euro-American relationships with Native Americans, Kent also sees himself in a long and rich tradition of American arts and letters about the nature of journeys and cross-cultural connections. His road trips start humbly and we are half way through the bumpy ride before we discover these truly are pilgrimages.

He shares his wisdom in many forms: Some of his best books—such as Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life—are spiritual reflections drawing on Kent’s broad knowledge of faith and culture—but not necessarily focusing on Native American themes.

Ultimately, Kent is a unique American theologian—working his way through cycles of stories and artworks, travels and talks, toward developing an authentically North American theology rooted in the geography and peoples of this continent. It’s a grand goal—an immense lifelong project—and we all are richer that, once again, we are invited to hop into Kent’s old car and roll down back roads in The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo: A Child, an Elder, and the Light from an Ancient Sky.

Now, Kent talks with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm about his travels, his new book and the grand vision behind it all …


DAVID CRUMM: You have touched lives around the world with your art and your stories. This year is the 20th anniversary of Native American Wisdom, the first collection you published jointly with your wife Louise Mengelkoch, the journalist and educator. We’ve been on the road with you, Kent, for quite a while.

KENT NERBURN: For me, the journey began long before that. My Dad was an American Red Cross regional director for disaster relief and, as a boy in the 1950s,  I would go with him in the car to places where he took care of people in the midst of great distress. I remember a big apartment-house fire one winter where he was called to help with the people who had lived in the building. There was one woman in her 80s who Dad showed over to our car and asked me, “Just stay with her.” I was 12 years old and I remember trying to console her as best I could, sitting beside her in the car and listening to her. Of course, I was confused. I was young. I remember her talking, over and over again, about her hope that they could get her cat out of her apartment. These were experiences that most people, at that young age, would never encounter. In those experiences with Dad, I suppose that I saw too much too early that was far too large for me to understand.

And so, I became a watcher. Even working as an artist, I didn’t sign my sculptures. I didn’t want to put my name on the pieces. I wanted to step back from them and be the watcher.

DAVID: Let’s remind readers that you are not a Native American. You’ve never claimed to be Indian and your books really are about how Euro-Americans can bridge the gap after so much pain and death—to build new relationships with Native Americans. Am I saying that correctly?

KENT: That’s right. I have never claimed to be Native American. You’ll never find me putting on native trappings or trying to claim native ceremonies. And, I have no patience with Euro-Americans who go out and claim Native American ceremonies as their own and start teaching them. There is a lot of legitimate anger on the part of native people who have seen their world appropriated in so many ways by non-native culture. I don’t want to be one of those who tries to take their culture from them, once again.

But I am helping in the retelling of our American narrative in a way that includes Native Americans. Our national narrative is so badly served by the way it is commonly retold. One of the central problems is this unresolvable tragedy at the heart of our American narrative when we look at what we did to the people who lived here first. Not only did we expunge the native history from our history books for a long time—we took generations of Native American children into boarding schools and tried to expunge their history from them by force. A lot of the struggles with Native Americans over the years have come because of these efforts to destroy—to erase—their stories from our national story.


DAVID: This connects with the much larger vision behind nearly all of your books. You argue that all of us living on this continent are called to envision a larger North American theology—a philosophy of this place, this geography, and our ultimate place in it. And you argue that the native peoples on this continent could have been—and still can be—an essential doorway in that journey.

KENT: Around the world, monumental forces have shaped people’s understandings of the gods and of our ultimate human concerns. People who live in mountainous regions tend to understand the gods differently than those whose culture is based along oceans. In North America, we ought to have a spirituality that speaks to the great forces embodied in this continent. As you know, I studied theology. My academic background is in theology and the arts. Native Americans have a connection to the theology of this land, a connection we worked for centuries to eliminate.

Now, I want to be clear: I’m not trying to create some artificial pan-Indian theology. Native people tell us not to do that. Native American traditions varied widely. But there are elements they hold in common. One is the sense that God is in every rock and river and aspect of the landscape. We European Americans have this assumption that nature is just out there for us to conquer. We have this idea of building cities on hills. Native people know that God is in the hill itself. Native peoples are mindful on a much deeper level of every hill, every stream, every cloud that passes through the sky.


DAVID: One of the central arguments that runs through all of your work is that we will never connect with this continent if we don’t leave our homes and start traveling around in this vast land. Most important in traveling is getting to know the people we encounter. When I read the opening pages of your new book, The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo, and I read about this woman asking you to drive her to the cemetery for a visit—wow!—right away my mind was connecting with one of your most famous stories: The Cab Driver, or sometimes it’s Called The Taxi Driver. These stories span your entire career.

KENT: Hey, you’re a sharp guy! I wouldn’t have thought of that connection—but you saw it and, sure, there it is! Yeah. We have to go out into the world and meet people and talk to them. That’s what I’ve done all my life. That’s what the cab story is all about. It’s true: I really did work as a cab driver and I encountered many experiences as powerful as that one I wrote about. I wish I’d kept better notes or a journal. Today, I’d have 100 stories like The Cab Driver from that time. That’s just one I managed to write down from that time.

DAVID: You’ve been making a much bigger case through the decades. The quintessential American story is a tale of the road. We could list all the writers from Melville and Twain to Steinbeck and Kerouac. The list could go on and on. You’re trying to tell us something about repairing and clarifying what we might call The Great Story of America and, at the core of it, you’re telling us is a great, wide, nearly endless road.

KENT: The journey is my American experience. The road is my path. When I was very young, The Beats fascinated me. I actually did go out and hop freight trains. I hitchhiked. I can tell you some stories of experiences on the road that, now, I realize could have ended my life far too early. I didn’t know much, but I knew that I had to travel. I had to keep moving. I had to look everywhere to meet people and learn their stories.

For me, a kid from Minnesota, I always looked West. That part of the American mythic journey—looking West—is part of my life story as well.

DAVID: Let me read a passage from the middle of this book. It’s just one of many descriptions of the road itself—literally the act of driving across the seemingly limitless expanse of the Great Plains. I’ve crossed the Plains a good number of times myself, as a journalist, and it’s hard to describe this kind of driving. Here’s how you put it:

We rode on into the growing twilight. The tar strips beat a hypnotic rhythm beneath us as the lonely asphalt highway cut a meandering line through the treeless hills toward the horizon. It was a peaceful, almost empty landscape. Every few miles, a gravel road would cut off from the main highway, and a small house could be seen sitting alone and isolated far up in the hills. Here and there a rusted car body sat solitary in a field, or a broken farm windmill rose above the landscape on its spindly, triangular stilts. But mostly it was just earth and sky and the thin ribbon of roadway coursing like a fierce, dark river through the great, unpopulated land.

KENT: I’m so glad you read that passage. There’s nothing I love more than observing the passing landscape, whether from a train or a car. I can’t remember exactly where I was when I wrote those lines. But I was in South Dakota. As I was moving through that landscape, it was all about the watching and the emotion I was feeling. Then, later, I would recollect that journey and write down the telling details. I do make notes as I travel. I noted: windmill with broken vanes, road going back into the hills … Things like that. But, then, I go back and in memory I recapture the emotion and the essentials to put down on paper.


DAVID: You write so beautifully in this new book, not just about the landscape, but about the culture stolen from native people through the whole array of institutions where Indians were locked away for so many years.

In your earlier book, the second volume in this Neither Wolf nor Dog trilogy, you wrote about the boarding school era. Then, in this book, you write about other kinds of prison-like institutions that were set up. Now, more and more Americans are learning about what took place in our collective name over so many years. The “boarding school tragedy” is becoming a part of our common knowledge. But one thing that is so crucial to convey is the voices of people who actually experienced being locked away until their culture was—in many cases—literally beaten out of them.

Let me read from later in the book, a man describing how the boarding schools left him:

Every day I was scared of dying. I was scared of being beat. I was scared of burning up in the Christian god’s fire. I was scared of dying in a white man’s bed surrounded by the bird women and men with the yellow teeth. I was scared and lonely, and I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be. But I knew what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to follow the rules. So that’s what I did. That’s all that I did. I didn’t say nothing. I didn’t do nothing. I didn’t smile. I didn’t cry. All I did was keep my mouth shut and follow the rules.”

KENT: Again, thanks for reading that passage. I do want to say that, in these books, I am not trying to beat readers over the head with the endless litany of horrible things that took place. Many of these horrors now are well documented. There are lots of tragedies I could have described—but, in our world today, there are so many tragedies and murders that our hearts become inured to it all.

I remember once I was teaching a class and I began to show the students Claude Lanzmann’s film, Shoah, and this one girl raised her hand. She asked: “Why are you making us watch this? I don’t need to be aware of this.”

Of course, I thought she was wrong but I understood that response. In this new book, I tell a story through the voices of one or two main people.

DAVID: And it is a lively and engaging story. It’s part a travelogue, part a cycle of great tales from the Great Plains, part a vivid slice of Indian life today. But there is this subtext to the book, always asking us to remember what was done in our collective name. As people learn more about the boarding school era, they’re likely to be shocked to learn that a lot of this occurred right up into the 1960s and 1970s. This isn’t ancient history. There are people living today who were locked away in schools and other institutions. There were international parallels, of course. In Australia, where the national government now has come to terms with the tragedy more completely than our government has even attempted, this pattern continued right into the 1970s, as well.

KENT: And often the people running these places were doing it with what they perceived as the best of intentions. We should say that the worst of the boarding school abuses ended by the 1950s, but these institutions did continue. There are some boarding schools today, although they are of a different kind than the schools we’re describing in these earlier eras.

I went to visit one of these places. I was invited to talk to some clergy and, while I was on that trip, I stopped by a cinder-block cafe at a time when it was almost empty. There was just one old man at a table. I asked if I could join him. He said, “Sure.”

I asked, “Did you go to this boarding school when you were young?”

He said, “Yeah, I went.”

“How was it?”

He said: “I learned good language. I learned good Christian.” Then, he paused. Finally, he said, “And now I’m no longer myself.”

To me, that was a dagger in my heart. This was a kindly man, a good man. And yet he was telling me that the boarding school experience had taken a boy and made him into someone who was cut off form his roots. The boarding schools did give many young people a good trade. It taught them good English. It gave them a warm place to stay and regular meals at a time when many on the reservations were starving on those reservations. So the whole experience is a very mixed narrative.

DAVID: I want to close by asking you about the loyalty of your fans. I went into Amazon and looked at the reader reviews of quite a few of your books. You’ve accumulated hundreds of reviews—and the vast majority are 4 or 5 stars. In fact, most of them are 5-star raves. To what do you attribute that strong enthusiasm for your books? Maybe that’s an unfair question to ask. But do you have an answer?

KENT: Yes, I actually do have an answer. I’ve thought about this and I think the response is: It’s because I really try to write from my best self. I don’t let my ironic self or my sarcastic or angry self get into my books. I had a professor in graduate school who ended a seminar on Creativity and the Sacred with these words: “I don’t care where all of you come out spirituality, but I hope you all realize you have a ministry.”

I understand exactly what he meant. As a writer, I have a ministry. That ministry is to write from the heart.

I don’t live from the heart every day. I often feel like I’m a troll beneath a bridge holding up an angel on a stick. People look down and see me, that troll down there, but what I’m interested in doing is having them focus on the angel I’m holding up. It’s easy to write with a wry edge or to drip sarcasm on the page. I am sometimes like that in my life—full of sarcasm. But that’s not the ministry with readers.

I’m called to hold up the angels. I’m giving readers stories with heart. I’ve worked very hard on this. I’ve had years of spiritual formation. I’ve spent years developing this voice from an open heart. And readers respond—because they recognize a good heart when they encounter it.

Care for more from Kent Nerburn?

Get the books! Click on the linked book titles, above, to visit their Amazon pages.

For more on the two previous books in the “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” trilogy—including more historical details on the Native American boarding schools—read our earlier interview with Kent Nerburn. That interview focuses on Kent’s second book in the trilogy, “The Wolf at Twilight.”

Shopping for great reading? Please, visit our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore anytime. Support our work by buying our recommended books—and telling friends.

(Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

St Kateri Tekakwitha opens Native American spiritual vistas

The canonization of the first Native American saint by Pope Benedict XVI means that more than 1 billion Christians around the world now are encouraged to learn more about Native American spiritual vistas. These insights are poignant because this deep religious wisdom was opened to the world even as tribes were decimated by the collision of American and European cultures. Today, while millions of native men and women across the North American continent maintain only their ancient spiritual traditions, millions more blend both their ancient cultures and Christian spiritual traditions.

What St Kateri Tekakwitha’s Canonization Means

In declaring the sainthood of the 17th-century convert Kateri Tekakwitha, Benedict is telling all Catholics around the world that she is, indeed, a heroic saint worthy of spiritual reflection and inclusion in prayers of the saints in any congregation. Her influence also extends far beyond the Catholic church into other Christian communities and national cultures. Some criticism remains of ongoing Christian evangelism among Native populations, but St. Kateri’s canonization is widely celebrated as an honor for all Canadians and all Native Christians.
In his declaration, Benedict said: “Leading a simple life, Kateri remained faithful to her love for Jesus, to prayer, and to daily Mass. Her greatest wish was to know and to do what pleased God. Saint Kateri, Protrectress of Canada and first Native American saint, we entrust to you the renewal of faith in the First Nations and in all of North America! May God bless the First Nations!”

Bringing Native American spiritual wisdom into your congregation

One way to bring this discussion to your congregation is through the spiritual memoir of Odawa teacher Warren Petoskey, called Dancing My Dream. Visit the book page for Warren’s memoir to learn more about how Warren weaves his own deep American Indian traditions through his conversion to Christianity. You will come away from Warren’s story inspired and humbled by the tragedies his family suffered and the soaring spiritual insights he shares with all of us today.

Care to learn more about St. Kateri? You’ll enjoy Stephanie Fenton’s column about her, marking her saint’s feast day earlier this year.


Huston Smith new memoir urges: And Live Rejoicing

CLICK THE COVER TO VISIT THE BOOK’S AMAZON PAGE.In the same season that religious studies pioneer Jacob Needleman is publishing An Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of the Earth—another beloved pioneer, Huston Smith, is publishing a new memoir, And Live Rejoicing: Chapters from a Charmed Life — Personal Encounters with Spiritual Mavericks, Remarkable Seekers, and the World’s Great Religious Leaders.

Writing this review, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I think back across the many decades when Smith was a fixture on PBS, the man behind the standard volumes on world religion like the newer The Illustrated World’s Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions—and a tireless advocate of seeing religion as a source of global goodness. I have interviewed Smith a number of times throughout his career and, as recently as this spring, ReadTheSpirit recommended the earlier Huston Smith Reader.

As journalists, we also recommending reading the whole true story of Smith’s life, including his involvement with the early experiments in the use of drugs to induce altered spiritual states as told in Don Lattin’s The Harvard Psychedelic Club. Huston Smith himself wasn’t shy about discussing his personal research into mind-altering drugs that are part of major world religions; he wrote an entire book about it called Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemical. In the 1990s, Smith publicly worked on the political campaign to preserve Native American rights to use peyote in sacred rituals. For full balance on Smith’s legacy, we also recommend reading Huston Smith’s critics as well; the most articulate critic these days is Stephen Prothero in his book God Is Not One.

At this point, anyone who cares about religious cultures around the world probably has a couple Huston Smith books on the shelf—perhaps a half dozen including more than one edition of The World’s Religions, originally published in 1958 as a major milestone in this field of study. So, the question is: Do we want this new book, prepared in collaboration with Phil Cousineau, Smith’s main colleague in writing and editing. Smith is 93 as of this book review and has ever-increasing trouble speaking and moving, so works closely with Cousineau to keep communicating with the world.

So, let me answer a few questions readers may have about this book:

Is this a new book? Some “new” Huston Smith books represent old Smith material in new packages. That’s not a bad thing. The illustrated version of his world religion’s book is beautiful. Live Rejoicing is new in the sense that he has newly produced about 200 pages of autobiographical stories and reflections.

Is this a book about joy? In the opening pages, Smith tells readers that this book revolves around the question: How do we seize the day rejoicingly—with hope and happiness over each new encounter? That is the general tone of the book, but you shouldn’t expect Chicken Soup-style happy endings to every story. A vivid story about Smith’s early experience with a Native American sweat lodge, for example, mainly shows us why it’s tough for non-Indians to understand that ritual.

What section of Huston Smith’s life does this book cover? The short answer is: all of it. However, the book is neither chronological nor sequential. The first stories jump right into Smith’s mid-career work as an author; he then takes us back to his childhood; then, toward the end of the book, we travel back again for several anecdotes about his early public-television series, including an interview he conducted with Eleanor Roosevelt. In fact, if anything, the book’s timeline often is confusing. Open this book as you might settle into a theater seat for an evening of Huston Smith talking about his life. Expect to ramble with him.

What parts of the world does Smith cover? Again: all of it. Given the rise of China as a world power, many readers may find the sections on China especially fascinating. As one might expect, there also are sections here on India and many other parts of the globe.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.




‘Up Heartbreak Hill’ takes us inside Navajo Nation

Thomas Martinez runs down Asaayi Road. Image courtesy of Thosh Collins (Pima/Osage/Seneca-Cayuga).WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TO SEE “UP HEARTBREAK HILL”
“Up Heartbreak Hill” is scheduled to air on PBS’s highly praised POV series, Thursday July 26—the eve of the 2012 Olympics. Check showtimes and learn more about the documentary at this POV website.
NOTE FOR iPAD and iPHONE USERS: This film has been selected as one of PBS’s free-to-mobile opportunities, starting now. Read more on this page at POV.

Review: ‘Up Heartbreak Hill’
Rare Journey Inside Indian Families

Reviewed by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

ReadTheSpirit encourages all of us to learn more about the lives of Native Amerians.
We published a profile of a traditional Indian healer in our American Journey series. We are promoting the remembrance of Jim Thorpe during this year’s centennial of the decathlon at the Olympics. We’ve covered the Twilight-related tribe, the Quilete, in their quest for greater recognition. Earlier this month, we reported from Ocmulgee in Georgia. And we are covering the progress of Bl. Kateri toward canonization as the first Native American saint in the Catholic church. (We also publish the book-length memoir of Odawa teacher Warren Petoskey, Dancing My Dream.)

As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I come from decades as a senior religion news writer for major newspapers and know how difficult it is to report honestly and intimately from Indian communities. From the Native American perspective, almost no good can come from outsiders wanting to invade their lives—and a host of bad things can result. It’s not paranoia—it’s the Indian wisdom from centuries of tragedy.

That’s the important context behind this week’s delightful video postcard sent to us from the heart of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico—courtesy of several high-school students who dared to spend a year with fillmmaker Erica Scharf. Our appreciation also should extend to these students’ teachers, athletic coaches, families and friends. This level of access to dinner tables, classrooms and private moments with the kids is stunning for anyone who understands the huge barriers that normally prevent such projects.

This is perfect timing for PBS’s POV series. Both of the prominently featured teen-agers are athletes—so, as the 2012 Olympics also are roaring into prime time we can switch to PBS for this hour-long documentary and see what athletic competition really means to teenagers running against steep odds. We are hoping that the Olympics also will include a salute to Native American athlete Jim Thorpe, the first gold medalist in the decathlon 100 years ago. It’s wonderful to see Scharf’s scenes of young Indian track stars in the centennial year of Thorpe’s global success.

There are enough unguarded moments here with the teens that we are able to hear their voices loud and clear. Tamara Hardy is both an athlete and a top student in her high school. Listen for her graduation speech at the very end of the program for a memorable reflection on her life. Thomas Martinez is a distinctively mohawk-groomed kid who may look a bit odd, but is loveable in a sort of Jimmy Stewart way. Early in the film, he tries to describe his tangled feelings about being Indian, life on the reservation and his hope for a future outside the restraints of his troubled family.

Thomas says: “I hear it from people: What’s wrong with our Navajo Nation? But this is where I live. I just love the mountains and the trees. I love the idea of being free here.”

IMPORTANT NEWS LOOKING AHEAD: My one complaint about the PBS broadcast is that POV’s 60-minute time slot requires the original 84-minute documentary to shrink. Few Americans will have seen the original film in its brief 2011 tour of the country, so most won’t recognize what happened: Scharf cut the film to broadcast length by eliminating a third teen-ager in the original production. We’ve lost “Gabby,” an aspiring photographer and a very thoughtful addition to this film. Here’s the good news: Scharf plans to release the full version later this year on DVD and ReadTheSpirit will tell you how to order that film. So, stay tuned. Think of the PBS broadcast as a first taste of this story—with more coming later.

What’s best about this movie as it will air on PBS? Tamara and Thomas are ideal poster kids for the best in Indian communities. Despite all their hard luck in life, they are proud of their heritage, they love their families and they both seem destined for success by anyone’s standards.

Please help us to reach a wider audience

We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. 
You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed.
Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

We’re connecting readers with Native American stories

We’re serious about connecting readers with Native American stories, especially because there are some news events this year that can help raise awareness of Indian culture. (Yes, Indian leaders and writers tell us both terms are appropriate—“Native American” and “Indian.”)

The photos, today, come from the Ocmulgee National Monument near Macon, Georgia, which we highly recommend if you are traveling along the I-75 corridor this summer. The park is a very short drive from the main freeway. ReadTheSpirit editors David Crumm and Celeste Dykas were in Macon to attend the wedding of mutual friends and, as always this year, looked for nearby Indian culture we could highlight. Top Photo today was taken on the soaring wooden walkway that leads to the 55-foot-tall Great Temple Mound at the site, which historians say was for ceremonial and not burial purposes. The Great Temple Mound is unique because of its original winding ramp that led people to the top for ancient ceremonies. The second photo shows the park’s famously reconstructed Earthlodge. Historians believe that tribal leaders used this particular lodge. The pit lit with red lamps once was the lodge’s fire pit.

The Great Temple Mound was never used as a burial site, so it is appropriate to hike to the top and spend some time walking around this grassy plateau that spans American history at a glance. In one direction is a nature preserve where water, green growth and teeming wildlife show Georgia’s distant past. But, 180 degrees to the other side of the mound is the skyline of Macon, today, complete with church steeples and the Mercer University medical center. The experience is stirring as a real-life viewpoint on millennia of change across North America.

The entire site is a reminder of some of the first well-intentioned efforts to preserve Native American culture—after centuries of systematically destroying Indian populations. The people who once inhabited this remarkably sophisticated town were forced to march West like other Eastern Indians by soldiers who wound up killing a lot of the people through the brutality of slogging across thousands of miles on foot. Nevertheless, this entire site was reconstructed in heart of the deep South in the period before World War II and long before the civil rights movement. Historians, architects and builders elaborately reconstructed the central earth lodge. To this day, there’s an other-worldly aura as adults must crouch low and walk slowly down the sloping entryway into the lodge.

Note, if you plan to go: The National Park Service museum and introductory films can take up to an hour. Simply walking to all of the main mounds and ancient sites in the park can take a couple of hours—but the access points to the major mounds also are reachable by car, if you’re more interested in briefly stretching your legs at the key sites. Extensive nature trails, including a long walk along a swampy area (a portion of that lush and water landscape is behind us in the photo at top), are great choices for bird watchers.


Kateri Tekakwitha, first Native American recognized as a Roman Catholic saint:
In April, we reported on the life of “Bl. Kateri” Tekakwitha (the Catholic way of designating “Blessed Kateri,” the current Vatican designation of her worthiness to be remembered and venerated). That same story in April reported on the Vatican’s progress toward canonizing her later this year as St. Kateri.

Jim Thorpe and the Centennial of the Decathlon:
In June, we reported on the upcoming Centennial of the Decathlon, already marked by some athletic groups and certainly a part of the 2012 summer Olympics. We urged people not to forget the famous Indian at the dawn of the decathlon—the world-famous athlete Jim Thorpe.


ReadTheSpirit publishes the memoir of Native American elder and teacher Warren Petoskey, called Dancing My Dream. Warren is nationally known as an advocate and lecturer about the traumas suffered across the U.S. when federal policy removed Indian children from their families and forcibly placed them in abusive boarding schools. “Dancing My Dream” includes a section about this important chapter in Indian history that affects huge numbers of Indian families to this day.

Interested in discussing a Native American book in your church group? A large number of Native American people, today, are Christian and Warren talks about how his own Christianity meshes with his Indian culture. This makes his book, Dancing My Dream, an inspiring choice for small groups to discuss in their congregations.

Also, our very popular American Journey series in 2010 included some Native American stories.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.