Utilizing Native American Heritage Month as a Tool for Culture Change By Yvette Alex-Assensoh, Vice President, Division of Equity and Inclusion, November 2019

As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, history is an especially pertinent subject for Oregonians. This is the first year that Oregon schools will be required to teach tribal history and life experiences as a result of 2017’s Senate Bill 13. As schools work with Oregon tribes to create curriculum, it’s important for institutions like the University of Oregon to use our platform to support these efforts towards positive culture change, both by promoting tribal history throughout the year and utilizing celebrations like NAHM in particular.

Throughout the country, we officially observe NAHM during the month of November. The celebration originated in 1915 as American Indian Day and was celebrated on the second day of May. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush expanded the celebration to a month.

Utilizing this spotlight, NAHM is an opportunity to recognize and honor the rich history, culture, and contributions of American Indians and Alaska Natives. It is also provides us with a chance to examine the challenges indigenous communities face today, how history factors into these conditions, and how we can tackle these issues as a campus community.

One lesson from the past that is particularly potent today is that compromising your heritage should never be the price for inclusion, especially when institutions like these sit on top of tribal land. Consider the story of Kalliah Tumulth, a Cascade Chinook woman who was also known as “Indian Mary.” Born in 1854, Tumulth suffered through the hanging of her father Chief Tumulth, as well as eight other Cascade leaders, at a very young age. As an adult, she fought a number of legal battles with settlers looking to file claims on her land. Eventually, she used a federal mail delivery contract to leverage the U.S. government into signing a proclamation that gave her ownership, a landmark achievement in its own right. Tumulth also successfully organized with other Cascade members to attain the fishing rights in traditional lands on Oregon’s north shore. These legal battles would go on have generational impact while her family’s refusal to adopt Christian names and insistence on remaining fixtures in the community in the face of widespread racism would go on to provide a model for empowerment that resonates to this day.

Tumulth’s story is especially relevant now because, while the conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion is gaining steam, many are unfortunately conflating tolerance with welcome. Resistance movements like the ongoing protests at the Mauna Kea volcano are framed as a “bridge too far” by some in power who want to improve their diversity statistics but don’t necessarily want to hear what people in these non-white communities actually have to say.

As a top research institution, the UO has an obligation to reject this notion that inclusion somehow doesn’t include encouraging students to bring their whole selves. Empowering students to challenge the inequities we have long taken for granted is what helps us grow both academically and as a community. Furthermore, we don’t have to wait for students to challenge us to investigate how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

For example, the UO is on par with 2016 US Census Bureau statistics when it comes to the representation of indigenous students compared to national population numbers. In fact, according to the UO Office of Institutional Research, American Indian and Alaska Native students are technically overrepresented in the university’s graduate school program. However, that overrepresentation sits at a mere 1.3 percent and is down from a high of 1.7 percent during the 2009-10 school year. Meanwhile, undergraduate representation has dropped from 1.1 percent to 0.6 percent for this group between the 2008-09 and 2018-19 school years. The numbers are similarly bleak for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, who sit at 0.4 percent of all students, down from a high of 0.6 percent in 2010-11.

Simply put, if we want to be a model for empowering campus communities and demonstrating what a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive university looks like, then we have to do better. What does that look like? There are many answers, but we can start by identifying and lifting up those who are already doing great work on campus, such as the Many Nations Longhouse, Native American Strategies Group, NILI, the UO Native American Student Union, the Native American Law Student Association and the Sapsik'ʷałá Education Program through the College of Education, which provides a pathway for Indigenous people to become teachers within their communities. The space these groups provide for students, faculty and community members to organize, get support, and thrive on campus is crucial. As an institution, it’s our obligation to explore how we can better support these groups’ efforts.

We hope NAHM 2019 can be one platform to continue that conversation. Throughout the month, the UO will be hosting films, lectures, panels, workshops, theater performances, and much more to engage the community including a book talk with Leilani Sabzalian on Indigenous Survivance/Public Schools; the 2019 Western Humanities Conference, “Engaged Humanities: Partnerships Between Academia and Tribal Communities”; the 13th Annual Rennard Strickland Lecture: “Tribal Sovereignty: The True Origins of Environmental Law,” with Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee Nation); BE Process: “Phenomenally Indigenous and Urban Native Fashion” with Joey Montoya (Lipan Apache); Dinner, Culture and Community Nights at the Many Nations Longhouse; and a film screening of “Native Wisdom: The Peoples of Western Oregon.”

We hope to see you at these and other events throughout the month and throughout the year.