SULPHUR — Since he was very young, Yoshitaka "Yoshi" Iwasaki had a fascination with Native American culture.
As a young boy in Japan, he was enamored by Native American portrayal in American western films, but wasn't convinced they were shown in their true character. As a result, he dedicated his life's studies to understanding and teaching about their culture.
At only 5 or 6 years old, Yoshi got his first exposure to Native Americans.
"I saw 'Stagecoach' and 'Broken Arrow' as a young child and always wanted to know more about these 'savages' being shown, always as the bad guys," he said.
But Yoshi always felt they were the cool guys of the movies, "Never the bad guys."
When he would play "western fight" with his friends, Yoshi always chose to be the Indian, saying he was a "lonely guy" in that department.
As he grew older, his fascination and studies continued and eventually, it became the basis for his collegiate and professional studies.
Then he took his first trip to the United States and into the Indian Territories.
"I went to the University of Oklahoma for study and thought I would meet many Native Americans on my trip," he said.
But he soon discovered that most of the students and teachers were not of Indian descent, and the ones that were lived just as everyone else did.
"It was not what I expected, but it did go with what I knew about the Native Americans — that they have prospered and live just like everyone else," he said.
When Yoshi did meet his first Native American, he said the gentleman was happy to help and talk about anything.
"He knew my intentions, knew I wanted to educate people on the real Native American culture," he said. "It let me know that what I was studying was correct."
In his continued studies, Yoshi has begun focusing specifically on the Chickasaw tribe. He wanted to break the Native American stereotypes in Japan, and show the prosperous side of Indians.
"We know the poverty and the bad stuff about the Native Americans from the newspapers, documents, things like that, but nobody in Japan understands the prosperous side of these people," Yoshi said. "The Chickasaw tribe, even though it is one of the smallest tribes (in population), it is probably the most prosperous in my opinion."
Most importantly to Yoshi, he wants his students and the local citizens in Japan to know that Native Americans no longer live in teepees, dance around half-naked, ride horses and wear war paint. But he also wants to show that despite the changes they've made, they still take pride in their culture.
"When my students leave my class enlightened, it is a glorious feeling to know they understand that it isn't like that," he said.
Yoshi has made several trips back to the U.S. since that first trip, and brings back a bit of knowledge with him each time.
"I like to find manuscripts, books, things written by my Native American friends that we can use to study with in Japan," he said. "As you can imagine, we don't have good archives of Native American material to study, so when I come, I mail back new things to have."
His most recent trip involved a lecture at the Chickasaw Cultural Center on Tuesday, where he conveyed how foreign countries — particularly Japan — view the Native Americans. Many Chickasaw in attendance found it humorous that they are still viewed as the "villains" from old western films, and many Japanese still think they act like the "savages" portrayed so many times in old films.
"When I tell them I am going to Indian Territory, they want to know if it is safe for me to do that," he said. "But they are not like that at all, and that is what I want to teach them."
From the day he learned of the Native Americans' existence, Yoshi knew they weren't as they were perceived. From his days of voluntarily being the Indian in Japanese "Cowboys and Indian" games, to continuing his efforts to abolish Japanese stereotypes associated with the Native Americans, Yoshi has done all he can to learn and respect a people he has come to know and love.
"I'm a wannabe Indian in Japan," he said. "It was my dream to become a member of an Indian tribe, to be one of the cool guys from the movies. I never knew I would have the opportunity to really be a part of Native American culture.
"This is something I will always treasure."