“Should I smile, or should I be serious? How do you want me to look for the photo?”
“Whatever feels most comfortable.”
“This piece was inspired by Indigenous People’s Day, right?”
“Well, then I’ll smile.”
SaNoah S. LaRocque ’19 is a traveler. Before arriving at Harvard last fall, she had attended 13 different schools and lived in towns, cities, and Native-American reservations across the United States. When I ask why, she jokes: “My mom was always a bit of a rebel, you could say.”
Despite her nomadic background, LaRocque has always feel connected to her roots, even while away from the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota that she now calls home. “My Native-American heritage is an important part of me wherever I am, no matter what I’m doing,” LaRocque says. “In my culture, we call this continent Turtle Island, and everywhere on Turtle Island has always been our home. I don’t need to be in a particular place to feel Native or indigenous.” As part of her desire to stay connected to her home, LaRocque got a tattoo of North Dakota prairie flowers on her forearm. They’re a common sight on the reservation where she lives.
At the same time, LaRocque describes a significant cultural disconnect between her experience growing up and her experiences thus far at Harvard and on the East Coast.
“Back home, there are a lot of Native people around, a lot of Native culture is represented,” she says. “You see a lot less of that here, which is sad. Not in and of itself, but because the reason that we see a lot less of Native-American culture here is because it was forcibly assimilated or destroyed.”
But, LaRocque says, that has been a “motivator for the Native community as well—there are a lot of Native students here doing so many great, inspiring things, in spite of and to counter that cultural erasure.”
LaRocque herself has never shied away from fighting on behalf of Native American culture and identity. In high school, she wanted to wear an eagle feather on her graduation cap, but school regulations barred students from decorating their caps or gowns. LaRocque appealed, explaining that the feather wasn’t simply a decoration, but an important symbol of her cultural beliefs. She won, and during the summer that followed, First Lady Michelle Obama shared LaRocque’s story at the Tribal Youth Gathering at the White House.
When I ask LaRocque why she thinks that the movement to recognize Indigenous People’s Day—both at Harvard and more broadly—is important, she pauses for a moment. “A lot of people criticize the movement in support of Indigenous People’s Day, and say it’s a change for change’s sake. That’s not the case. Indigenous People’s Day is about promoting awareness, promoting context, for a history that has for so long been so one-sided.”
For LaRocque, who participated and performed as a dancer in the Indigenous People’s Day celebration at Harvard last year and will do so again next week, the celebration is not just a historical observation, but an expression of the identity of Native culture that lives on today:
“Indigenous People’s Day brings Native issues to the forefront, and tells everyone, tells ourselves, that we are still here and that we’re not going anywhere.”