Native American Heritage Month 2020 by Yvette Alex-Assensoh, Vice President for Equity and Inclusion

2020 has been a year of clarity. One of the most important examples of clarity, specifically in regards to ignoring lessons from history, was the spread of wildfires up and down the west coast of the United States. This trend of both the fires growing every year and our collective society choosing to accept this reality seemed to have no end in sight. Then something both surprising and predictable happened. The fires got so bad and became so widespread no one could ignore them anywhere. For days, parts of Oregon recorded the worst air quality of any cities on Earth.

Then something surprising and far less predictable happened. Those in charge of fighting fires began turning to the Oregon Tribal Nations for help. In the past couple of months, there have been no shortage of stories of local firefighters working with Indigenous land stewards to implement controlled burns as a means of preventing larger fires. These controlled burns have long been a practice of tribes throughout the country but unfortunately, in places like Oregon, governments largely ignored these practices until faced with the desperation and literally deadly air caused by this year’s wildfire season. As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, this shouldn’t just serve as a metaphor for the importance of the observation, but as an impetus to honor, embrace, and engage with indigenous history and culture all year long.

NAHM is a national celebration that we observe throughout the month of November. The observation originated in 1915 as American Indian Day. It was celebrated on the second day of May. Then, in 1990, President George H.W. Bush expanded the celebration and moved the observation to November. NAHM provides us with the opportunity to recognize and honor the rich history, culture, and contributions of indigenous communities. During this month (and all year long) it is also an opportunity to take a critical look at the challenges Indigenous communities face, how history affects the present, and how we can tackle these issues as a campus community.

This past year has been particularly unique in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the disease itself doesn’t discriminate, the data certainly indicates that it has disproportionately affected communities of color and indigenous communities especially. According to a recent study by the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, American Indians and Alaska Natives are 3.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than their white counterparts. On one hand, these circumstances have presented a new host of challenges. However, they have also highlighted the resilience of members of UO’s indigenous community. Lauded celebrations like the annual Mother’s Day Powwow moved online but managed to not just maintain their energy and enthusiasm, but also take advantage of the new opportunities presented by virtual organizing. Likewise, organizations like the Native American Student Union and Native American Law Student Association continue to persist while programs like the Native Duck Fund and Sapsik'ʷałá Native Teacher Education Program have all but slowed down in mobilizing and fundraising to address the economic disparities specifically facing indigenous students and faculty.

While we are extremely proud of the great work being done by students and faculty, as an institution, the UO has a lot of work to do to better support these efforts and the Indigenous campus community as a whole. Enrollment and representation numbers have steadily declined over the last decade across the board. The population of American Indian and Alaska Native students has declined from 1.7 percent during the 2009-10 school year to 1.2 percent in 2019-20. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, meanwhile, have declined from 0.6 percent in 2010-11 to 0.4 percent in 2019-20. When we parse the data for undergraduate statistics, American Indian and Alaska Native enrollment dropped from 1.1 percent in 2009-10 to 0.5 percent in 2019-20 while Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander enrollment went from 0.7 percent in 2010-11 to 0.5 percent in 2019-20.

One positive in these bleak statistics is that graduate student enrollment increased over the last several years for both student groups. American Indian and Alaska Native graduate student enrollment hit 1.5 percent in 2019-20, which is a high since sitting at 1.7 percent in 2009-10. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander graduate student enrollment doubled from 0.1 percent to 0.2 percent in the same time frame.

Obviously, these data indicate the UO has a long way to go to better serve Indigenous members of the campus community and create the empowering environment that signifies a top research institution. However, we believe we are up for the challenge and there are no shortage of student and faculty change agents already leading the way!

During NAHM 2020, we honor them, with a special note of thanks to Native Strategies, and all those who came before. We hope you will do the same!