Native American spirituality, connection to nature, tolerance and tradition: For Drs. Basavlinga Amarkumar (Amar) and Mangala Kumar, the list of reasons they admire the Native world is long and sincere. They’re reasons they’ve studied and explored since coming to the United States over 45 years ago. And they’re reasons for the couple’s long-time support of Native American causes and First Nations Development Institute (First Nations).
An Indian Perspective
Amar came to America from India at the age of 24 to do his surgical residency at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. He says inside the medical community, Indians like him were a common sight. But when he would explain to people outside the hospital that he was Indian, he’d immediately hear references to cowboys. He soon learned about the plight of Indians – Native Americans – in America and the stereotypes behind those confused references. From there, he grew curious.
“I have always believed in social justice,” Amar says. “And I learned there is a common thread among the Indigenous in America and in India.”
In both countries, Indigenous people are deeply spiritual. They are attached to animals and the land, and they do not put man above nature. And in both countries, there is exploitation and discrimination surrounding Indigenous people. Yet, only in America is that exploitation and discrimination also rooted in genocide.
“The historical trauma – my heart breaks for them,” he says.
Amar’s wife, Mangala, shares his sentiments.
“This is a group of people who have been subjected to so much injustice – for hundreds of years,” Mangala says. “But they are angry in such a small way. They’re so tolerant, yet they are the ones who deserve all the help.”
Amar and Mangala’s careers in health care have put them in a position to help give Native Americans this deserved support. After his residency in Chicago, Amar went on to practice at Cook County Hospital, then at the Veterans’ Hospital in South Dakota. He ultimately worked in Virginia before retiring in 2012. Mangala did her residency at John H. Stroger Hospital of Cook County and Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago, and is now a board-certified anesthesiologist with a veterans’ hospital in Virginia.
Their background in medicine has also increased their appreciation of Native ways.
In coming to America, Amar says he saw drug addiction, shootings on the streets of Chicago, and the poor decisions that came from stress and work expectations. Then, throughout his medical career, he continued to see sickness, disease and death, often as a result of poor nutrition, lifestyle, living alone, and the European work ethic. “It doesn’t kill you outright,” he says. “But it does.”
He says the problem lies in the way medicine in America is practiced. With capitalism, there is no money to gain from preventing health problems. There is only revenue from waiting for someone to have a disease and then treating it.
As a result: 19% of the GNP is spent on health care. Life spans are down. There is too much work, and too little rest, he says.
This doesn’t happen in the Native world, he says. And he says he wishes people would go back to Native ways, where food is natural, rich in nutrition and not loaded with toxins and sugar. Stress is mitigated through a harmonious relationship with nature.
Mangala concurs. “Native Americans don’t waste. They don’t destroy,” she says. “People today are fighting the earth, thinking they can do whatever they want.”
Key to the couple’s insights and their approach to Native American issues is the role of education. Both doctors completed school in India and came to America for advanced degrees. Since then, they’ve continued to seek opportunities to further their knowledge through schooling, reading and traveling.
Amar went on an excursion to Wounded Knee and the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota. The couple together attended the First Nations Southwest Tour to learn about Native communities and cultures throughout New Mexico.
In India, they continue to help run a charitable school, and now they’re intrigued by opportunities to teach kids in America directly about different cultures through travel and interaction.
Education, Amar says, is more than books and grades. It’s the ability to critically think and to analyze, and ultimately it’s the pathway to success. The extent to which a country will ensure education is available to marginalized populations is a testament to its enlightenment. “In enlightened countries, more money will be spent on kids who don’t do well. In America, it is just the opposite.”
Further, when it comes to the historic trauma of Native populations, we also have to rethink what we’re teaching, Amar asserts.
“We have to change our books, our stories, and create a sense of awareness. But it’s like building a building. You have to do it brick by brick.”
A More Aware Future
This international awareness, appreciation for education, and respect for the plight of Native Americans is evident in Amar and Mangala’s travels, their philanthropy, and the way they’ve raised their children.
Their oldest son graduated from Yale University and is now an activist and public figure in India. Their second son has a Ph.D. from Oxford University and now teaches in London.
In reflecting on both boys’ achievements, Amar tells a story of when their youngest was growing up. The son came home from school one day and talked about how the classroom would be celebrating Columbus Day. Knowing the real story of who “discovered” America, the boy was enraged.
“So what are you going to do about it?” Amar asked.
Incensed, the boy wrote a letter expressing his insights to the Chicago Tribune. The paper and later the school published the letter and the boy felt empowered. Seven years later, in his role as the County Board Supervisor while working in Madison, Wisconsin, the first thing the grown son did was change the city’s celebration of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.
Change like this happens slowly, but with the support of people like Amar and Mangala, it is indeed happening. And the couple believes it is their responsibility to continue raising this awareness.
“I owe a debt of gratitude to Native people,” Amar says. “It is their land that we have taken. As a beneficiary, my small part is the least I can do.”
“I want to help,” concurs Mangala. “For me, if we would all follow the Native American ways, the world would be a better place than it is right now.”
By Amy Jakober