Native American Heritage Month 2021: Moving from Performance to Policy and Practice

The summer of 2020 brought a level of consciousness to American society that many haven’t seen in decades. This included increased attention to Indigenous issues. Among other subjects that finally broke into the mainstream, we are now engaging with concepts like “land back” and Indigenous sovereignty, integrating land acknowledgements into public events, removing offensive Indian mascots and addressing other issues that have long gone ignored in the name of Indigenous erasure.

With these significant changes in our collective discussion, the natural question is, what’s next? Engaging with these ideas doesn’t just challenge us to reckon with the effects of white supremacy, it challenges us to truly enact fundamental change. For example, how can we participate in acknowledging that the University of Oregon sits on occupied land--specifically land that belongs to the Kalapuya, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Chelamela and Winefelly people -- if we don’t plan to take real action to leverage our resources towards justice? To take it a step further, how do we shift the collective mindset of the campus from looking at decolonization as a metaphor rather than an opportunity to embrace all the possibilities it can unlock? As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month 2021, it’s important that we reflect on questions like this and commit to the hard institutional work and sacrifices we need to take to make the UO all it can be.

As both a campus community and country, we observe NAHM throughout the month of November. This national observation began in 1915 as American Indian day and the country celebrated it on the second day of May. President George H.W. Bush expanded the celebration to a month in 1990 and designated we observe it during November. During this time, we put extra emphasis and provide opportunities to recognize and honor the rich history, culture and contributions of this country’s American Indian and Alaska Native nations and communities. Furthermore, it puts a spotlight on the systemic issues facing Indigenous communities and how we can support efforts to dismantle the long term effects of American colonization, both in the classroom and in the larger society.

In leadership and administration circles, we are constantly asking ourselves, how can we push our institution forward? Many of the answers to that question overlap with the actions we can take to better serve Indigenous communities and recognize and respect Indigenous sovereignty. For example, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill earlier this year to recognize Indigenous People’s Day, a simple yet significant move to accelerate needed culture change. What will it look like if every college and university in America made Indigenous People’s Day an official holiday?  Likewise, many institutions, including our own, now provide formal land acknowledgements on our digital materials and during our events to properly contextualize the spaces we occupy as a practice, not just something we only do on special occasions.

Of course, if this is where our actions stop, then our work is just performative.  We aspire to be a top research institution and we host discussions on everything from environmental racism to challenging the use of blood quantum as a means of erasing Afro-Indigenous people. Yet, we can collect even better data from developing these ideas into policies and practices.

We speak of doing the tough work to transform our campus community and using the UO’s outsized platform to model both our successes and stumbles. Where better to demonstrate this than with the land itself and in working toward the fulfillment of principles/commitments laid out in the 2017 MOU between the UO and Oregon’s Nine Federally-Recognized Tribes.

What does that look like? How are we going to tangibly get there? What actions are we going to commit to as an institution and how will we hold ourselves accountable?

We hope to tackle these questions and more throughout the month of November. The UO has a plethora of programming and activities planned for NAHM 2021 and you can find out more about them on the Division of Equity and Inclusion page.

With that said, as we celebrate the culture and contributions of indigenous communities throughout the state during NAHM (and all throughout the year), let’s use this time to materially support their work and truly build the equitable, just and transformative community we desire.