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Native American Heritage Month to raise awareness and celebrate native identities

November is National Native American Heritage Month. 

In 1990, Native American Heritage Month was, according to Ohio University’s Multicultural Center webpage, established in order to “showcase the rich culture of the native people of this land and to honor those American Indians that have suffered injustice.” Although the month is an opportunity for native and non-native people to celebrate the native identity, some believe that there is still progress to be made.

“I see the month as an opportunity to … celebrate the achievements of those specific populations as well as highlight the challenges that the populations are struggling with” Winsome Chunnu, strategic director for diversity and inclusion and multicultural programs and initiatives, said.

Caitlin Hunt, a sophomore studying communication studies and journalism, is from the North Carolina Lumbee Tribe. Hunt believes that a main reason the month is so beneficial is because it helps people recognize that Native people are much more than how they are portrayed on television.

“It’s important to Native Americans because it’s a month celebrating our culture,” Hunt said. “A lot of the time, it’s put into the past, as if it’s something old, like cowboys and Indians, so it’s important that we have this month that recognizes that we’re still here.”

Hunt feels like when most people speak with her about her Native American identity, they mostly ask questions based off of things they’ve seen in movies.

“The number one question is, ‘Well, why aren’t you on a reservation?’ when, only about 30 percent of (us) live on reservations,” Hunt said. “And when we are represented, we have a white savior coming, saving us. You don’t see a lot of people that look like you … on television or in journalism or sports.”

In the past, OU has celebrated this month by having various special events, such as native speakers or dreamcatcher and drum making.

Learning about native culture isn’t just a way to honor Native Americans throughout the designated month, it’s essential in order for others to be open-minded and knowledgeable about their own identities. One way for non-native people to educate themselves on indigenous cultures is through visiting local history or art museums that have exhibits which cover different aspects of different native cultures. At OU, the Kennedy Museum of Art has a southwest Native American artwork collection. The collection contains weavings, artwork and jewelry made by Navajo, Zuni and Hopi people.

“There’s nearly 700 weavings and there is … more than 1,700 pieces of jewelry in that collection,” Jeff Carr, the Kennedy Museum’s exhibitions and collections manager, said.

This year, the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) is co-hosting an event with OU, the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, the Scripps College of Communication, and the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics. Keynote speaker Mary Annette Pember of the Wisconsin Ojibwe tribe will be covering sexual assault in Indian Country on Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m. in room 145 of Schoonover Center.

However, the conversation about National Native American Heritage Month isn’t as simple as it seems. To some, history months denoted to minority groups are problematic. 

“I get frustrated when we have months for groups. Every day should be an inclusive day where we consider everyone as people,” Assistant Professor of Journalism and Vice President of NAJA Victoria LaPoe said. “When we categorize groups in months, it means that we’re operating from a white perspective the rest of the year, or a non-native or non-Hispanic or non-African American perspective.”

LaPoe is a member of the Cherokee tribe. She believes the best way to honor people throughout not just the month, but also the entirety of the year, is respect.

“That means you respect tribal sovereignty, which means respecting tribes’ rights to governance, and respect people as people,” LaPoe, who is a member of The Post Publishing Board, said. 

LaPoe said from the Standing Rock incident to voter suppression in North Dakota, native people are constantly facing instances where the American government is attempting to take their rights away.

Halloween tends to bring about instances where people dress as indigenous people, as if their cultures are costumes. Even worse, people might sexualize the cultures of Native Americans.

Mascots also harshly contribute to discrimination against native people. In 2005, the American Psychological Association found that mascots are harmful to both native and non-native people.

“Any time you take a group or a community and turn it into a product to be sold, you’re taking away their human rights. That is not rocket science.” LaPoe said. “And for people to say, ‘Oh, y’know, they’re nostalgic,’ a non-biased group like the APA has clearly said it’s harmful to people.” 

Native American Heritage Month can also give those who aren’t normally connected to native culture an opportunity to recognize that this group of people is commonly silenced and ignored and that, in itself, is a form of discrimination.

NAJA recently tweeted, “Invisibility is the modern form of racism against Native Americans.” The organization is driving to fight this through the hashtag #WeAreStillHere and through protests across the nation.

In the next few years, LaPoe hopes that more research and respect is involved when speaking about Native Americans.

“I would just like for people to be seen as people, and for people to have human rights and to be able to be who they are,” she said. “We treat people as people.”


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