PEOPLE: Helen Maynor Scheirbeck (1935-2010)
Washington, D.C.—Dr. Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, longtime champion of American Indian civil rights, pioneer for Indian control of their own education, and passionate advocate for the sovereignty of her Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, died Sunday night, Dec. 19, 2010. She was 75 years old. In May of 2009, just weeks before the debilitating stroke that led to her death, Scheirbeck’s 40 plus-year odyssey fighting for Indian Self-determination was recognized by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. By her side also receiving an honorary degree was anti-apartheid campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmund Tutu.
Scheirbeck was a member of the first Board of Trustees of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. She served as the Secretary to the Board for two terms and joined the staff at the museum, where she served from 2000-2007 as Senior Advisor for Museum Programs and Scholarly Research and earlier as the Assistant Director for Public Programs.
Prior to joining the museum, Dr. Helen Scheirbeck had a long career working for the development of Indian tribal governments and communities, Indian control of educational institutions, and on issues related to Indian children and families.
She began her career as a staff member of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights chaired by former Senator Sam Ervin (D-North Carolina). She helped organize a Capitol Conference on Poverty in 1962, where Indian leaders advocated for Indian participation in the War on Poverty. On her recommendation, Ervin held hearings that culminated in the 1968 Indian Bill of Rights.
That same year she was named director of the Office of Indian Education in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, where she led efforts to pass the Indian Education Act of 1975. As a member of the American Indian Policy Review Commission, she worked to craft reforms that led to the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978.
“She had a hand in every major initiative in Indian education for the last 40 years,” remarked Kevin Gover, director of the museum. “Her passing is a great loss, and a reminder of what we can achieve when we believe deeply in our cause.”
As Assistant Director in the years immediately before and after the museum’s opening on the National Mall, Dr. Helen Scheirbeck established and set the course for Office of Education and its program in Cultural Arts. “Helen’s vision for education at the museum went beyond providing new perspectives on American history or correcting misconceptions about Native cultures,” says her colleague Clare Cuddy, director of the museum’s education office since 2004. “She deeply believed that the knowledge held by Native peoples, and especially the ways in which communities traditionally pass knowledge on to succeeding generations, can inform teaching models used by educators everywhere. The museum’s National Education Initiative, being launched in collaboration with Native communities, carries on her vision and will reach millions of students.”
Scheirbeck was a graduate of Berea College, Kentucky, with a B.A. in History and Political Science. She also attended Columbia University’s School of International Relations, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of California at Berkeley. She received her Doctorate of Educational Administration with a Public Policy emphasis from VPI-State University at Blacksburg, VA.
She was the first Indian intern to serve with the National Congress of American Indians.
In the area of children’s rights, Scheirbeck served as the program director for the National Commission on the Rights of the Child and the White House Conference on Children, Youth and Families. She also worked in the private sector for the Save the Children Federation as their American Indian Nations Director. Prior to becoming the head of the Indian Head Start Program in 1991, Scheirbeck worked in North Carolina as the founding director of the North Carolina Indian Cultural Center in Lumberton.
She published and spoke extensively throughout the United States relating to American Indian rights issues, language and culture. Helen had a deep interest in cultural regeneration and enhancement and extensive knowledge of Indian cultural institutions, artists and craftsmen as well as spiritual leaders and their practices. As Senior Advisor for the office of Museum Programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., Dr. Helen Scheirbeck developed the subject matter which was used to plan museum exhibitions, cultural arts programs and educational materials.
Over her long career, Scheirbeck organized cultural festivals and powwows. She curated museum exhibits, conducted cultural symposia with traditional Indian leaders and scholars and organized arts and crafts cooperatives. She encouraged and developed marketing outlets for Indian artists and craftsmen. “Helen’s legacy lives on at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian,” said Howard Bass, director of the Cultural Arts Program at the museum since 2002. “She was an inspiring leader who mixed tough love and compassion. She questioned everything and listened closely, urging us to do our best to serve the interests of Indian Country and our visitors. She knew that with hard work everything was possible.”
What Scheirbeck most enjoyed was visiting Indian people and communities that she got to know through her decades of service. In Alaska she slept on the floor of Head Start centers, met with tribal leaders in their offices trying to solve one challenge or another, and spent hours working with people to found a tribal school, a Head Start program, a relief effort for Indian families stranded by floods on the Navajo Nation, and to help unrecognized tribes in Virginia and throughout the south become recognized. She not only met the movers and shakers in Washington, D.C. and in state capitals, but she worked with everyday people, building one program at a time to create Indian controlled institutions that improved the lives for all Indians.
Scheirbeck’s family is planning a memorial service for a later time and will be establishing a scholarship fund in her name.
Established in 1989, through an Act of Congress, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is an institution of living cultures dedicated to advancing knowledge and understanding of the life, languages, literature, history and arts of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. The museum includes the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall, the George Gustav Heye Center, a permanent exhibition and education facility in New York City, and the Cultural Resources Center, a research and collections facility in Suitland, Md. For more information about the museum, visit www.AmericanIndian.si.edu.
American Indian News Service