Groups work Toward Change during Native American Heritage Month

By Kaleena Dwyer
For Unwind magazine

November is National Native American Heritage Month, and there are plenty of events happening at the University of Maryland where students can learn about and celebrate Native American culture.

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NPS Photo by Erin Whittaker.

The American Indian Student Union of this university hosts several events throughout the year, but especially in the month of November.

Karla Casique, a junior multiplatform journalism major and president of the AISU, said the theme of this Native American Heritage Month is “environmental racism.”

This month first occurred in 1990, when President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November as National Native American Indian Heritage Month. Prior to that, some states recognized Native American Heritage on just one day.

Though this month has been dedicated to Native American heritage for over two decades, some students said they had never known of it until they came to this university.

Casique, who has indigenous origins from Venezuela, said that she had never even heard of Native American Heritage Month before college.

“Where I lived in a small country town, there was no emphasis on indigenous communities or indigenous cultures,” she said. She first learned about the month at the Native Roots Monologue, an event on campus featuring student performances and a guest performance or speaker from the Native American community.

This year’s Native Roots Monologue will be held on Nov. 1 and will feature Tara Houska, the Native American advisor for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. The Native Roots Monologue is just one of the six events in November that are intended for celebrating this month.

Autumn Thompson, a junior American studies major, admires her Native American heritage because “my family has experienced such struggle but still has overcome it.”

According to the most recent United States census, Native Americans make up about two percent of the total population.

“We are here, we are alive, and we have interests.” — Kimberly Dutcher.

“There’s such a lack of representation in every part of life,” said Lilia Hinojosa, a senior theater major and the AISU’s treasurer. This month was never recognized in her community growing up, either.

Outside of this university, The Association on American Indian Affairs, an organization dedicated to promoting the well-being of Native Americans and Alaska Natives, is trying to sustain the culture through many measures. These include the International Repatriation Project, an initiative committed to the return of ancestral remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to Native communities.

“Through various circumstances non-native people came to this country [and] various sacred objects have been taken from Native America,” Kimberly Dutcher, executive director of the association, said. The association has a full-time staff dedicated to recovering these cultural items, she added.

The International Repatriation Project is the primary effort by the association to sustain Native American culture.

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The AISU wants to send a similar message on campus. They are trying to start an Indigenous Studies Minor, and they have started a petition to abolish Christopher Columbus Day at the university.

In the online petition that has 134 signatures, they explain, “One cannot fully support indigenous students and communities at UMD when they are faced with an annual reminder of a “holiday” that represents the pain, genocide, and trauma of indigenous peoples.”

Indigenous people are often forgotten, but this is just another obstacle these groups are trying to overcome.

“We are here, we are alive, and we have interests,” said Dutcher.

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