The people of the United States live on stolen lands. Since 1990, November has been recognized as National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month to commemorate indigenous peoples of the United States and to raise awareness of their past and present circumstances that are too often overlooked or unknown.
“In terms of Native studies specifically, I think it’s absolutely vital that folks who live in the United States have some sense of the role that Native people have played in the history of what this landscape has been like for thousands of years," said Christina Gish Hill, associate professor of world languages and cultures and co-chair of the American Indian Faculty and Staff Association. "But also the role that they played historically, in what eventually [...] became the United States. And honestly, you really can’t understand the history of the United States without Native people — you just can’t."
At Iowa State, Native American Heritage Month has traditionally not been a big deal, according to Sebastian Braun, associate professor in world languages and cultures and director of the American Indian Studies program.
There are only about 75 Native students at Iowa State, and the heritage month comes at a very busy time when a lot of other events and conferences are happening. Some faculty members have said they also felt uncomfortable with recognizing the month.
“Some Native faculty feel that Native American Heritage Month is kind of an excuse, so we have this heritage month that we care about Native people, and then we can forget about them, but we’ve done something," Braun said. "So historically, I think there has been some resistance to putting the spotlight on Native Heritage Month. If this is something that the university does and then afterwards it’s business as usual, it’s like some people feel like this is a little bit of an exercise in messaging that doesn’t have too much substance."
Native American studies at Iowa State is a program, not a department, so it does not have much space or strong administrative support for things like updating websites or organizing events.
“It basically falls on the directors to do all of that," Braun said. "It’s too much."
The United Native American Student Association (UNASA) is as old as the American Indian studies program itself. Braun said the student organization is a great help in supporting and organizing events such as the Thompson Lecture in the springtime, which brings in major Native figures to speak to students. Next semester’s lecture will showcase Debbie Reese, educator and founder of the organization American Indians in Children’s Literature. Reese will be speaking on the presentation of Native peoples in children’s literature.
The full-time students in UNASA, however, also feel many of the same pressures of organizing work as the faculty.
Blair Flammond, senior in nutritional science, is the president of UNASA. She said the group is an American Indian and Alaska Native club open to all students and faculty. They meet every other week to talk, bond and discuss future events. UNASA gets involved in the community to educate people about being Native American and also serves as a leadership opportunity and connection to other Native American students.
“It [has] allowed me to meet other Natives because it’s such a small population," Flammond said. "Without the student org, I would have never have seen other Natives on campus. At Clubfest, a lot of times [...] Native students here at Iowa State come up and [say], ‘We didn’t know this club existed.’ We’re trying to make it bigger so other Native students are aware of it."
Flammond also explained why the heritage month is still important to recognize at Iowa State and detailed some of her experience with stereotyping on campus.
“It’s important because not many people realize Native Americans still exist; I feel like [...] it helps create more of an awareness that we’re still out there," Flammond said. "There’s a stereotype of not looking Native enough […]. Like, I have to prove I’m a [member], I have a tribal ID."
Hill explained that another issue in creating events for Native American Heritage Month is the trouble of knowing the right message to put forth.
“Because at a school like Iowa State, where the majority of students, and maybe faculty and staff too, don’t really have Native issues on their radar, figuring out what kind of message you want to put forward is really challenging," Hill said. "So finding a really good balance between something that’s educational that’s going to draw in folks who have very little experience and something that is powerful, engaging and [valuable] for Native folks themselves who are here on campus — that’s hard."
Hill started at Iowa State in 2009. She said she is very dedicated to the program and has seen many changes over her ten years there, including the expansion of course offerings. The program is now better able to bring in students from all different disciplines, with classes ranging from Native Health to Federal Indian Law and Policy. Several courses are either new or are now being offered regularly. Hill said no matter what major a student is in, there is a connection to Native studies.
“It allows us in the program to really present students with a much more holistic perspective than we were able to before," Hill said. "We have offerings so students can get that perspective that’s more tailored to their career goals and the goals that are associated with their major. There’s so much to be gained from learning about Native cultures and the way that Native people navigate their relationship with the United States. And I think those perspectives bring something kind of essential to really understanding diversity in the United States and the multiple experiences that people from different backgrounds and different heritages have had historically.”
An advisory board associated with the Native studies program is made up of Native people with expertise and college-level education help to advise the program. The board helps Iowa State reach out to tribal colleges and work to build more solid relationships with tribal nations connected to Iowa. However, the process is slow-going, and Iowa State has not prioritized the maintenance of these relationships, according to Hill. The process can be difficult due to the different agendas and needs of the university and the people associated with the land, but it is an important relationship nonetheless.
“Iowa State, as a land-grant institution, has a responsibility to Native people who are connected to the state of Iowa,” Hill said.
There is difficulty concerning Native issues in the news. According to Braun, there are several reasons for this: very few news outlets exist in Native country, there are issues with tribal governments who have the power to shut down media and investigations and most Native people don’t read a lot. It is also a challenge to provide an overall perspective on the happenings of Native people due to the fact that all tribal politics are local. What is going on in one tribe may be completely different from the next tribe one state over. There is also simply not enough interest in Native politics. Only when something bad happens does it hit major news, and even then, there is not enough background to truly understand the situation and why it happened.
One of the most well-known incidents in recent history regarding Native Americans is the Dakota Access Pipeline and its subsequent protests. That pipeline has since been built, and while there are still debates raging over the newer Keystone XL Pipeline project, much of the public still does not understand the consequences of what exactly went on at Standing Rock, especially for Native people.
"What all these things come down to is that local people are then torn apart,” Braun said. "And then, the more these outside forces start to dominate the discourse, the more they’re torn apart by different allegiance; I think that’s what happened on Standing Rock, but it was not visible because the way it was reported was either you’re on this side or you’re on that side. I think there was a total lack of understanding, and there was a total lack of curiosity, in terms of figuring that out; the story was the conflict. The story was not, ‘let’s go and see what people who live in Cannon Ball actually want,’ or ‘let’s go see and ask the Tribal Council what their position actually is.’”
One organization working on disseminating current conditions and news of indigenous people around the world is the International Work Group on Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). They were founded in the 1970s by anthropologists and publish a book each year with chapters pertaining to each country’s indigenous groups. The organization is based in Copenhagen, Denmark, and operates through chapters at universities, often run by students in the anthropology departments. Braun has been writing the chapter on United States groups for 15 years. More information can be found on their website at iwgia.org.
American Indian and Alaska Native National Heritage Month seeks to initiate and cultivate curiosity, open-mindedness and understanding from the majority toward the minority. This month is a time to recognize the struggles of Native people and search for a deeper sense of respect toward the land and the people who have been here the longest.
“First of all, Native folks are people just like the rest of us who have the same goals that we all have, who are working to take care of their families and be treated fairly and live good lives,” Hill said. “Second of all, Native nations and Native peoples have been here on this landscape for thousands of years, so they have a really intimate, profound relationship with what we call the United States, and that’s something that really deserves respect from each of us.”