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Monday, February 26, 2024

UC Davis community members discuss the importance of Native American Heritage Month

Native campus leaders weigh in on what this month means to them, how students can be better allies to Native communities and the work that still needs to be done

By SIMRAN KALKAT — features@theaggie.org

November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate and honor the rich and diverse cultures of Native and Indigenous peoples. It is also a time to reflect and, for many, begin to learn and understand Native history. Members of the UC Davis community reflected on the importance of this month and what it means for Native and Indigenous students and the community at large.

 Deserea Langley, the associate director of the Native American Academic Student Success Center (Native Nest) and Paiute and Shoshone enrolled member of the Susanville Indian Rancheria, shared what honoring Native history and heritage this month can look like, specifically for members of the UC Davis community, as the campus was built on unceded Patwin land. 

“It’s good to think about the way we are supporting Native people and Native nations,” Langley said. “Maybe people can learn more about the native communities in these spaces. [People can] learn more specifically at Davis about the Patwin people and who those communities are. More than just reading a statement, what are they doing for their people? What are they doing for the university? They provide a lot for the university. But thinking about how [students] could support them and how they could be good guests on their land.”

The Native Nest hosts important programming for students, not just during Native American Heritage Month, but throughout the year. They provide various forms of academic support to Native students on campus, such as career or writing services. They’ve also hosted a meet and greet with Dr. Kathleen Whiteley from the Department of Native American Studies, who is a descendant of the Wiyot tribe and the only individual in the Native American Studies Department who identifies as a California Indian. 

Other events have been planned on campus to commemorate the month as well. The UC Davis Cross Cultural Center hosted a poetry lounge on Nov. 18 with Tanaya Winder, a poet, writer, speaker and educator who is a member of the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe. Also on Nov. 18, the Mondavi Center hosted Pamuya, a group that showcases indigenous Inuit culture through “Inuit Soul Music.” The Native Nest will be holding beading circles and a community feast for Native and Indigenous students throughout November as well. 

Although some of this programming is specifically aimed at supporting Native and Indigenous students, most of these events are open for all. Langley said that Native American Heritage Month is a time for students and allies to support the work of Native community members and leaders and learn about Native culture. 

“Native American History Month is a good time to learn more about Native people and our histories and what we’re doing today and trying to figure out ways how they could support us,” Langley said. “Whether it’s showing up to our events or learning our histories or maybe participating in protests or calling representatives to support certain bills [that affect] Native people. I think for allies, it’s a really good time for them to learn and grow with us.”

Although Native American Heritage Month is an important step toward better honoring and understanding Native history, it also has a complicated history that cannot be overlooked. Veronica Passalacqua, the curator for the C.N. Gorman Museum at UC Davis, explained why the history of this month is complicated.

“It seems to always come around in relation to Thanksgiving [as well as in schools] and so it is complex, to say the least,” Passalacqua said.

Passalacqua acknowledged the significance of Native American Heritage Month and the shift many communities are making to not honor Columbus Day and instead to commemorate Indigenous People’s Day, but she also points out that naming one month or one day for acknowledging Native heritage isn’t enough. 

“It is important [that] things have changed,” Passalacqua said. “[But] my thing is always about, ‘Well, how does this benefit communities?’ My community is the world of Native artists. How does it benefit Native artists [that] it’s Native American Heritage Month? What does that mean for us and for our community of people?”

Understanding centuries of Native history and the diverse and unique cultures of Indigenous people can’t happen within one month every year but requires a sustained commitment. As students at UC Davis, a good place to start is with courses taught in the Native American Studies Department.

“If students show up [for Native communities] and the university administration sees that, I think that’s really an important step to be a good ally and to understand that we need to make transformative change for Native people and Indigenous people,” Langley said. 

For students who are looking to be better allies to Native students and educate themselves on Native history and heritage, there are places on campus where they can start, such as the Society of Native American Poets and Storytellers (SNAPS). Rae Whiteman, a third-year communications major and the president of SNAPS, said that their meetings are open to all people and shared how their mission and work promotes Native communities. 

“During our meetings, we usually read poetry, songs, creative writing, talk about writers and styles of writing, play games and have workshops for us to practice our creative writing as well,” Whiteman said via email. “SNAPS is open to all students regardless of major, age, or background [or] identity! You don’t have to identify as Native American or Indigenous to join, we just center a lot of our conversations around Native events and writers.”

SNAPS is just one of many organizations on campus where students can learn more about Native and Indigenous history. Whiteman said that while many Native groups on campus welcome students outside of their communities, it is students’ responsibility to support them when invited and work on unlearning a lot of the misrepresentation of Native history that has been historically taught in American schools and portrayed in the media

“It is not the responsibility of Native and Indigenous people to teach you,” Whiteman said via email. “Do the work yourself, don’t expect someone to drop everything to educate you on areas where you failed to educate yourself.”

Written by: Simran Kalkat — features@theaggie.org


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