Students Give Native Perspective

A small crowd of students gathered in Kemper Auditorium for the “Empowering Communities” panel discussion last Friday. Four Harvard University graduate students of Native American descent came to campus for a question and answer session. Topics included issues the students face as minorities and the changes they hope to make in their community. Hillary Abe, Admissions Counselor, along with Bruce Curwick, a guest host, led the panel. Curwick prompted the panelists with questions regarding their past, present, and future endeavors. Through these questions, the panelists addressed how they will use their education from Harvard to empower Indian country, a term that the panelists used to describe rural Native American villages scattered across North America that comprised their community, in a greater way. The panelists said they hoped the event would prompt young students to reconnect with their culture. The four featured students, Tanner Amdur-Clark, Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Adrienne Keene and Kendri Cesar expected a larger audience, but the four agreed that the smaller turnout helped to create a more intimate atmosphere for discourse. Keene, a doctorate student, said, “Native American students are commonly sent to government boarding schools where they are stripped of their native history. These schools teach them to leave behind their culture for an American way of living.” Amdur-Clark said, “Everyone is trying to take [our heritage] away from us, but we need to hold on to it because it will always be a part of who we are. Instead of pushing our background away, we should all embrace it in order to affirm our identities.” Briggs-Cloud, who studies liberation theology at the Divinity School at Harvard, said, “This is in no means an effort to minimize common education.” Cloud said Native Americans must find a happy medium between the two views. According to Keene, education is an extremely relevant issue in the lives of Native American villagers. The high school drop out rate for Native Americans is high, and 0% to 0.1% of Natives graduate from high school to proceed on to college. “Indians didn’t go to black schools and they didn’t go to white schools. They didn’t go to any schools. Most Native Americans denied western cultural education in an effort to communicate with the sacred,” said Briggs-Cloud. Cesar said that Native Americans should pursue more education while standing firm in their cultural identity. The first step, however is to “go home, find your roots” and then continue to pursue a higher education. Keene said, “Native students are lumped in with other minority students, and more importantly, the history of Native American education is unclear. Students do not know what it means to be a Native student because all these years there has been a history of educational assimilation.” Keene said it is important for students to connect with their cultural roots because, “we are not talking about something everlasting. Our culture is on the brink of extinction, and all of us owe it to our grandparents who have worked so hard to maintain the remnants of our heritage so that our cultural generation won’t perish.” Briggs-Cloud encouraged students to separate from “a rubric of homogeneous globalization.” “As educated students, we hold paradigm positions where we lead by example. Because we have more of an influence on society than the uneducated, we need to reject capitalization and the exploitation of the earth in order that others might try a more sustainable way of living,” he said. Briggs-Cloud is also organizing a grassroots project focused on delivering food and other necessities to indigenous villages and hopes to bring “a language revitalization, better health and ceremony renewal.” The first step of this process, Briggs-Cloud said, is to focus on the children in order to create a generation of fluent speakers. “Language acquisition is the first and most important measure to decolonization. This can be done by an anthropologic, asymmetrical, bottom-up method,” said Briggs-Cloud. Cesar, an Alaskan native, is taking a slightly different approach. She is attempting to aid the rural communities that depend solely off of the land with little to no help from the government. “I want to bring Alaska Natives their deserved rights for hunting and fishing because their ability to live off the land is decreasing. In the future I would like to see more assistance for native local enterprises and better family health for the indigenous peoples,” said Cesar. Briggs-Cloud said, “Hopefully in ten years, indigenous natives will have higher salaries, be able to reject false allusions of success in their communities, and be able to affirm their native cultural identities. This will lead to individuality and better harmony and balance within these communities.”