Portland State University communications professor Cindy Coleman is a member of the Osage tribe.

Portland State University communications professor Cindy Coleman is a member of the Osage tribe.

Allison Frost/OPB

What do we mean when we talk about achieving the “American Dream”? We’re exploring that question with listeners in the weeks leading up to the November 2016 election. Oregonians have been filling out our survey and we’ve been been talking one-on-one with them on Think Out Loud.

Cindy Coleman is a member of the Osage tribe, a tribe based in the Great Plains. She told Think Out Loud host Dave Miller that she comes at the idea of what it means to be an American from a variety of perspectives — first and foremost from a a tribal perspective. Her mother was raised on the Osage reservation in the Midwest.

“So you ask yourself the question: Well, is American the same thing as being an American citizen? And I think what happens with American Indians is that we get a little bit, um, cross, when citizenship comes up because we didn’t become citizens until the 1920s,” Coleman said.

Coleman said she spent the first 10 years of her life in the U.S. but then moved to the Middle East, and later to Great Britain and Europe. She came back to this country for college. But she said she appreciates the way she was forced to see her own country — both as a citizen and an outside observer.

“When I lived in England during the 1960s, people would ask me why I voted for Nixon and why I started the Vietnamese war,” she said. “And I felt defensive, ‘Well I didn’t do that.’ But they hold you responsible for the actions of your country” 

Coleman now teaches communication at Portland State University. She said the notion of the American Dream has a deep resonance for people in this country, especially for people who came of age in 1950s.

“One of the things that was happening in the ‘50s,” she said, “is that a lot of Indian communities were removed to urban territories.”

And Coleman said this happened all over, in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle. Those cities, she said, “became huge places where American Indian communities came and they were sold on the American Dream. They were told if you move to a community like Chicago, you can have a refrigerator, you can have an apartment, and you can carve out your life through work, and that’s a sense of freedom.”

In many ways, Coleman says, the American Dream was more like advertising.

“It really was created as a message, in terms of a message saying, ‘You know, in order for you to be liberated and free and be able to participate in this American Dream, we need to move you to an urban community.”

Nonetheless, despite the historical baggage and the complicated notions of identity that the “American Dream” brings up for her, Coleman said the American Dream today serves a purpose — one that’s aspirational and optimistic. 

“I think there’s value in optimism. I think part of the American dream is to be optimistic that we can be better as a country, but as individuals as well.”