Ethics professor shares culture through teaching, traditional powwow

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Behind a desk in room 123 Carnegie Building sits John Sanchez, a soft-spoken associate professor in Penn State's College of Communications who spends his time teaching aspiring journalists the importance of news media ethics. Aside from his willingness to help them discern the difference between what may be ethically right and wrong, one thing is evident: his great love for his rich heritage and culture.

Sanchez is an American Indian and a member of the Apache Nation who grew up visiting his "Grampo" on the reservation. Now, many miles and years removed, he remains immersed in his culture and works to carry on the traditions of his ancestors.

"I practice the art of our language, pray and cook traditional foods such as fry bread on a regular basis," Sanchez said. "I also perform traditional ceremonies. We are preparing an honoring ceremony for my youngest son, who is graduating high school this year. Our ceremonies are kept humble and will include our spiritual aspect. This is a time for us to thank the creator in our own language."

Despite some difficulties he has faced throughout his life resulting from being an American Indian, Sanchez says his heritage has shaped him in every way and has formed some of his strongest characteristics.

"American Indians are great listeners," he said. "I try to be like my father and grandfather in that sense. I try to listen no matter what. My parents and grandparents were excellent at the art of listening and hearing. These characteristics fit very well into being an ethics professor.

"My work ethic comes from my culture," he added. "We believe in doing our best, but we share. We would never do anything to embarrass a person. Why would you intentionally make someone look or feel bad?"

Sanchez is passionate about many aspects of his culture, but specifically mentioned two of his favorite characteristics and traditions.

"Many American Indians see the beauty inside of people," he said. "The way they listen -- they see the warmth of a person really come through."

He also holds American Indians' spirituality in high regard, explaining, "We don’t need to go to church to pray or need someone else in-between to talk to God. I can be in my 20-year-old Dodge pickup truck driving along, passing all the beautiful things outside, and I’ll just start praying. I’ll be driving along talking to God. And often, in quiet moments, I’ll think I’m lucky to be alive."

Though very proud and passionate about his American Indian roots, Sanchez admits he has faced many struggles.

"It often feels like I’m the only one," he said. "In my schools I was the only American Indian in class. I was the first and only American Indian professor when I taught at American University and Ohio State. This past fall I took a sabbatical to teach at the University of Pennsylvania, the oldest university in the country, and I was the first American Indian professor it ever had on the faculty."

In addition to feeling like and being a minority, Sanchez also has had to deal with stereotypes and misconceptions that have formed around his culture over the years.

"A lot of people don’t understand who American Indians are," Sanchez said. "I’ve met professionals, adults and students who think because I’m American Indian, I wear feathers, beads and buckskins, or that I live in a tepee and ride a horse."

Although it remains difficult at times, Sanchez has found and continues to find ways to educate individuals on the often-misunderstood American Indian culture. Just a few weeks ago, his book, "American Indians in the Mass Media" -- co-authored with Meta G. Carstarphen of the University of Oklahoma -- was published by the University of Oklahoma Press. Within the first week, it sold out on Amazon. Sanchez also is working to create an American Indian minor at Penn State that will focus on aspects such as literature, cinema, multicultural communications, history and education.

Aside from his desire to educate people about the American Indian culture, Sanchez believes it’s very important to continue practicing the traditions of his ancestors. He is able to do this each year through the annual "New Faces of an Ancient People Traditional American Indian Powwow," which he and his wife, Victoria, oversee.

In its ninth year, the New Faces of an Ancient People Powwow, hosted by Penn State and the State College Area School District, will be held from noon to 10 p.m. on Saturday, April 14, and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, April 15, at Mount Nittany Middle School. Spectators will have the opportunity to view traditional American Indian drum music and songs, dance and foods and visit a marketplace of American Indian vendors showing and selling their arts and crafts.

"For the people who attend the event, this will be a chance for them to see and hear American Indians as a people they know very little about," Sanchez said. "They’ll see us speak our language and practice traditions from as far back as pre-European contact. The powwow helps people dismiss the prejudice and stereotypes they have of American Indians.

"Although there is a lot for people to learn at the Powwow each year, that is not our main goal for the event," he added. "The Powwow is a way for us to maintain our culture, especially for American Indians who are away from our home cultures. It’s a way for us to hold on to our traditions for ourselves and for our children. It gives us a few days out of the year when we get to be who we are as a people."

Of everything that will be heard and seen at the powwow, Sanchez believes the drum is the best connection to the American Indian culture.

"The drum is the true heartbeat of our people, the heartbeat of Mother Earth," Sanchez said. "The drums are what make us feel connected."

More information about this year's powwow is at http://live.psu.edu/story/58994 and at http://powwow.psu.edu.

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Last Updated April 01, 2013