Native Americans need to adopt an optimistic outlook, Bill Yellowtail, Montana State University’s chair in Native American studies, told a crowd on campus Friday.

“We American Indians must stop identifying ourselves by our tragedies and start identifying ourselves by our successes, hopes and dreams,” he said.

Yellowtail spoke to children, teachers, professors and college students on a sun-drenched Centennial Mall for the university’s American Indian Heritage Day celebration.

The event included traditional dancing, chanting, drumming and storytelling. Displays of Native American dress, crafts and history ringed the mall in front of Montana Hall.

One display highlighted famous Native Americans, including professional football and baseball player Jim Thorpe, astronaut John Bennett Herrington, New York City ballet dancer Maria Tall Chief and Montana’s current superintendent of education, Denise Juneau.

A member of the Crow Nation, former Montana state senator and former regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Yellowtail was named MSU’s second chair in Native American studies in 2006.

Yellowtail said Native Americans have the nation’s shortest life-expectancy rate, highest infant-mortality rate and highest rate of youth suicide, and some of the nation’s most troubled schools serve Native Americans.

“Who’s willing to say that’s acceptable?” he asked the crowd. “Do we make excuses or do we do something about it?”

“Do something about it,” the crowd roared back.

Yellowtail talked about “historical trauma,” imparted genetically and from generation to generation.

It’s a form of “learned helplessness,” he said. When Native Americans gather, they seem to talk about “insurmountable difficulties, and then we fall into a trap.”

The cycle needs to end, Yellowtail said.

He proposed shifting attitudes, which takes “constructive work, discipline, mindful practice and focus.”

“Can we accept learned optimism over learned helplessness?” Yellowtail asked. “Can we do that and still be Indian … by sacrificing what we’ve come to know? I don’t have the answer.”

Yellowtail ended his talk with a story about a Native American school where the students chant the same thing each day: “Integrity, respect, justice, stewardship, spirituality, excellence, no excuses, step up,” he said, quoting the students. “If that isn’t optimism, I don’t know what is.”

Jodi Hausen can be reached at jhausen@dailychronicle.com or 582-2630.

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