A mother. A wife. A Chicagoan. A Native American.
Identity is important to Lisa Bernal, and the soft-spoken and poised 42-year-old woman knows her roots.
“I think because I’ve been culturally grounded, I know my identity, I’m strong minded, urban raised, I have thick skin. I’ve dealt with racism and prejudice.”
Bernal, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe, is the program manager for the Title VII Indian Education Formula Grant Program for Chicago Public Schools. Her heritage has been a central part of her life since she can remember.
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, to a Mexican father, Raymond Bernal, and a Native American mother, Norma Robertson, Bernal’s childhood community had a large Native population. Still, she began noticing flaws in the educational practices surrounding Native American history as early as middle school, when she returned to Chicago.
Bernal remembers reading American history textbooks with “really small” accounts of important battles between Native Nations and the U.S. military. “It was a matter of feeling invisible,” she said.
Bernal recalls feeling “misrepresented” into her high school years, after she moved to Chicago to live with her father. She felt compelled to give presentations to her classmates on her Native culture, and has since viewed the most important people in her life as those who have educated her in Native American customs.
According to Bernal, her “dad was the protector, he took care of me. Then at some point my mom was my cultural educator, so she encouraged me and she taught me how to dance and how to sing.”
After high school, Bernal’s parents encouraged her to leave home and “see the world,” leaving it up to her to care for herself. During this period, her grandmother, Maria Bernal, and her grandfather, George Robertson, emerged as major influences on her life.
“I had two grandparents. I only had one grandmother on my father’s side and I had one grandfather alive on my mom’s side,” said Bernal. “Those were my elders that I was learning stories from.”
According to Bernal, respect for elders is a strong current within the Native community.
“We have this more intense way of respecting others, especially others that are older than us, especially someone who is a grandparent or close to retirement age. They’ve had a long life of experiences and challenges that I shouldn’t say anything against.”
Bernal has turned to her mother for advice when struggling to maintain this respect. She recalled a time in her twenties she disagreed with an elder and did not know how to approach the situation.
According to Bernal, “You can…have a dialogue with somebody even if you don’t have the same point of view, and as long as you maintain respect in that dialogue then you’re not doing anything to go against what you’ve been raised in.”