Native American Heritage Month and this critical moment in time

Native American Heritage Month (NAHM) is always an important time at the University of Oregon. It is an opportunity to celebrate and educate others on the rich history, culture, and contributions of American Indians and Alaska Natives. The observation is also a chance for us to examine current challenges, how they relate to this history, and what we can do as a campus community to help overcome them.

Originally observed in 1915 as American Indian Day on the second Saturday of each May, the celebration expanded to a month under President George H.W. Bush in 1990. NAHM takes on special significance this year as the largest Native American demonstration in over 100 years continues to unfold in Standing Rock. Right now, brave men and women are being beaten, tear gassed, and arrested for standing up for their humanity; for preserving something as simple as clean water for their families.

This should have particular resonance in this state, considering we just watched members of a white, rightwing militia walk free despite committing an armed seizure of government land with the entire country watching. These parallel realities are, unfortunately, par for the course in this country’s history of Native American genocide, broken treaties, and ongoing marginalization.

However, while the long history of injustice tends to dominate mainstream discussions of Native Americans, it is a disservice to limit the conversation to that narrative. NAHM is as good an opportunity as any to explore the entirety of Native American history and examine the history being made right now.

There is no shortage of great work happening on the UO campus. For example, the Many Nations Longhouse is the Northwest’s oldest continuously operating longhouse on a college campus. The Native Strategies Group is the UO’s oldest Employee Resource Group and provides staff, faculty and students with opportunities to strategize and advocate for issues and resources that benefit Native communities. The UO’s Native American Student Union is also very active on campus, conducting a number of activities and events, including the annual Mother’s Day celebration and pow-wow.  The UO also specific leadership focused on Native American issues with the appointment of Dr. Jason Younker, an Assistant Vice President and Advisor to the President on Sovereignty and Government to Government Relations.

All the work being done by these dedicated students, staff, and faculty, however, coincides with the fact that the number of Native American students at the UO has decreased significantly in recent years. According to data compiled by the UO Office of Institute Research, the percentage of Native American students decreased from 1.17-0.65% between 2004 and 2014. Meanwhile, between 2005 and 2015, the percentage of Native American faculty remained at 1% of placements.

What this illustrates is that there are a number of opportunities for the UO to better serve the Native American community on campus. The university offers a plethora of resources, including the Northwest Indian Languages Institute, the Diversity Excellence Scholarship, internships and job opportunities through the Pacific Northwest Tribal Climate Change Project, and culturally specific, professional teacher development through the Sapsik'walá Project. We also offer early campus engagement opportunities for high school students through both UO Connections, a half day advocacy program, and the Bridge of the Gods Summer Academy.

The UO will be offering a number of fun, as well as educational, events and activities all November long for Native American Heritage Month. We hope you can join us during this pivotal moment in history!