NSU  celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day, hosts panel on identity, heritage 

On Oct. 2, the Native Student Union (NSU) hosted a panel discussion featuring speakers from the Indigenous communities of the greater Portland area. This was the first event in a series celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

This event series is in partnership with the Center for Social Change and Community Engagement, the Office of Equity and Inclusion and the Office of Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement at Lewis & Clark.

Jarrette Werk of the Aanilih and Nakoda of the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana was the first of three speakers. He works as a reporter for Underscore News, an organization that reports on Indigenous and tribal issues in the Pacific Northwest. 

The second speaker was Annabelle Rousseau ’23 of the Mnicoujou band of the Cheyenne River Sioux, who spent the summer working as an Equity, Climate and Energy Intern for Multnomah County. During her time at LC, Rousseau majored in Environmental Studies with a minor in English. 

The third speaker was Yesenia Morales Santos of the Mixtec tribe in Oaxaca, Mexico. Morales Santos is a Project Associate at Upstream Public Health where she works to promote health equity and accessibility.

The panel was moderated by Jamie Cale who is an Ojibwe and Cree program manager for the OEI. The panel began with a question about the speakers’ childhoods and how they were connected to their cultures in their youth.

“Growing up, I went to powwows. Since I wasn’t born on a reservation, that’s how I would connect with my culture,” Rousseau said. 

Rousseau explained that her father was born on a reservation in New Mexico. She grew up hearing about her family’s “life on the rez.” She emphasized the role of family in passing down tribal traditions, particularly through her relationship with her grandfather.

“My grandfather is still around and was able to teach me how to do beadwork,” Rousseau said.  

She emphasized that her multiracial background was often subject to criticism.

 “Today I still am proud of being Native, but for folks who are mixed, it’s hard to stand your ground. People antagonize me for it,” Rousseau said.

Werk spoke about the effect of colonization on his family’s culture.

 “When my grandma went to boarding school she didn’t speak a word of English, but when she came back she couldn’t speak our Native language,” Werk said.

During his life, the Catholic Church became a major force on his reservation, but tribal traditions remained important among his people. He said that in spite of the racism prevalent throughout Montana, he never questioned his identity.

Morales Santos had a different experience. She explained how she is grouped in with other Latin American people despite the fact that she identifies as part of the Mixtec tribe. Her language is an ancient language unrelated to Spanish.  

“Identifying as Indigenous was different because I was exposed to my parents’ language, but I was a part of a Spanish community. I was never asked about being Indigenous until I got into higher ed,” Morales Santos said.

Moderator Cale then asked about the panelists’ opinions on blood quantum and tribal enrollment criteria. Blood quantum laws are the rules that define Native American racial status based on the fraction of one’s ancestry that is Indigenous.

Werk spoke of conversations he had had with his partner about the strategies they would have to use to have children that qualify as tribal members. 

Werk discussed the issues that would arise if he and his partner wanted to have a child, as they are in a same-sex relationship. For their biological child to qualify for membership in Werk’s tribe, Werk would have to use a surrogate mother who was also from his tribe.

 Ultimately, Werk and his partner concluded that their child would be Native no matter what, since their father is Native.

“Blood quantum is specifically meant for limiting tribal membership,” Rousseau said. Rousseau, who identifies as mixed, notes that race identifiers on some forms are often not useful for people of multiracial backgrounds.

 “I’ve run into the situation where I wasn’t allowed to check ‘of hispanic origin’ and ‘of two or more races,’” she said. “Why would I pull apart my identities like that?”

Morales Santos shared another view. 

“On a census, it’s different because there’s affiliate tribes,” she said. “I didn’t know that someone from Mexico could be affiliated.”

The discussion then shifted toward the topic of preserving Native identity in the face of colonization and white supremacy. 

“I grew up both immersed in my culture and away from my culture. I always wanted to learn our language and speak our language,” Werk said. 

Although Werk hasn’t become fluent yet, he believes that the effects of the pandemic increase the urgency of promoting Indigenous language learning. 

“It is now or never. We need to have a full-blown daycare for immersion,” Werk said.

Morales Santos said that her parents were integral to her connection with her culture. 

“My parents migrated from Oaxaca to Oregon,” she said. “There’s nothing I know more than here.” 

She noted that growing up in a community that was primarily Hispanic strengthened her relationship with her culture. 

Rousseau said that she had the opportunity to meet other Indigenous people in Portland, particularly as it has the ninth largest urban Native population in the United States. However, attending LC had its drawbacks. 

“I attended an institution called Lewis and Clark College and our mascot is the Pioneers which is weird. It showed the dichotomy of what the Pacific Northwest chooses to glorify,” Rousseau said.

Werk said that involvement with the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) was integral to him in connecting with the Native community in Portland.

Rousseau found community through attending Native farmers markets. 

“There are vendors of all types of Indigeneity there. It’s not specific to the continental balance of the U.S.,” she said. “Also, whenever I can connect with another young person who’s Native, I consider that a form of community.”

Morales Santos has struggled with finding a community where she belongs.

 “I don’t think I’ve found a place where I feel like my Indigenous culture is being celebrated in the way I want it to be celebrated,” she said. “But we can use social media in a very meaningful and precious way.”

Cale asked about the significance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day to the panel of speakers.

“Indigenous Peoples’ Day is one of those days where you can see a change in the movement,” Morales Santos said. “There’s so many Indigenous people who built a legacy who get to see it on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

“It’s really cool just to celebrate all the work Indigenous people have done,” Rosseau agreed. 

For allies to the Indigenous community, Rousseau had suggestions. 

“One of the ways allies can connect and celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day is to look into opportunities for continued learning about Indigenous People,” she said. “Whether that be following Indigenous activists and their work, or purchasing something from an Indigenous artist.”

For Werk, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is about “reframing the way we think. It’s a day to be unapologetically yourself.” In addition to NAYA, Werk promoted the Native Wellness Institute, a nonprofit organization that hosts programs to “embrace the traditions and teachings of our ancestors.”

Then, the panel asked for audience questions. A question from the audience asked if it was okay for them to identify as Indigenous even though they have a very limited connection to their ancestors’ now extinct culture.

“A lot of the time, people are scared to say they’re reclaiming a part of their culture. You have every right to do so,” Rousseau said in response. “If somebody tries to be aggressive towards you, you’ll come across that regardless. It’s none of their business.”

Another audience question asked the panelists if there was a common thread that united all Indigenous experiences.

 “Resilience is something a lot of Indigenous people have. We’re still here in spite of so many things set up to harm us,” Rousseau said.

The final question was if land acknowledgments are effective.

“By doing land acknowledgment, you’re decolonizing the ways we see our land,” Morales Santos said. “The Columbia River was known as the Big River by the tribes who used it for trading. Calling it the Big River decolonizes it.” 

Morales Santos then referenced Columbus Day, the federal holiday that the newly adopted Indigenous People’s Day is observed alongside.

 “We can continue to decolonize a lot of things we use, like Columbus Day,” Morales Santos said.

Morales Santos ended by emphasizing the importance of education on Indigenous peoples.

“Know the land you’re on and who was there before. It helps us to remember who we were before,” she said.

The NSU has another upcoming event in this series, which is a workshop for Indigenous allies. The event will  take place on Oct. 10 at 3:45 p.m. in Miller 207. The NSU will celebrate Indigenous People’s Day on Oct. 9 with a community mixer at 5 p.m. at Gregg Pavillion. This event is exclusively for Indigenous identifying individuals.

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