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Students Honor Native American Heritage Month

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Students Honor Native American Heritage Month

Harvard affiliates and members of the public gathered in front of Matthews Hall to celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day in 2019.
Harvard affiliates and members of the public gathered in front of Matthews Hall to celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day in 2019. By Pei Chao Zhuo
By Jessica Lee and Christina T. Pham, Crimson Staff Writers

Student organizations hosted virtual panels and discussion groups to honor Native American Heritage Month throughout November.

Programming for Native American Heritage Month at the Institute of Politics began in October, forming part of a year-long initiative to mark a host of heritage months including Asian American Heritage Month, Black Heritage Month, and Latinx Heritage Month.

The IOP invited guest speakers — first delegate of a tribal nation to Congress Kimberly Teehee and Andrew Lee, who serves on the Board of Governors of the Honoring Nations awards at the Harvard Kennedy School — to its Nov. 18 panel “Fulfilling the Promise of a Treaty: Native Americans Claiming their Rights in the 21st Century.”

Teehee and Lee discussed Native American involvement in public service, self-governance, and the importance of alliance in alleviating issues facing Native American groups in the 21st century.

The Institute also hosted U.S. Rep. Debra A. Haaland (D-N.M.) Monday evening, who addressed issues of climate change, the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Native Americans, and her experience as one of the first two Native American women serving in Congress.

IOP Director of Diversity and Outreach Araoluwa Omotowa ’22 said organizers intended for the event to broaden representation in the Institute.

“Something that a lot of people have always felt was that they don't really see themselves reflected in the programming, or they’re like, ‘what about information about my community?’” Omotowa said. “So, in a lot of ways that kind of validation through representation has been one of the biggest objectives of this, and showing people again that who you are matters in this discussion as well.”

Alongside these events — each of which had roughly 200 attendees — the IOP also released email statements each Sunday last month to recognize land sovereignty and distribute resources on how people can help.

“We want to show people at the very basics like, ‘these people still exist, they still deserve to be heard, and they still deserve to have their problems cared about as much as anybody else’s, if not more because they’re suffering even more than others,” Omotowa said. “That draws back to the theme that this democracy is a project we all have to pitch into if we really care about equality in America.”

Jaidyn J. Probst ’23, Vice President of Natives at Harvard College, a student group on campus, said the Month marked a chance to underscore the importance of listening to Native voices, as well as individuals’ responsibility to educate themselves.

“Nobody should be forced to educate people on their historical trauma and past genocide,” Probst said. “In November, and all year round, you should be willing to listen to Native folks if they're willing to offer up information, but also take it into your own hands.”

The primary event for members of Natives at Harvard College was the “Indigenous Inspires Panel,” held on November 23. The group co-hosted the event with the College Events Board, Harvard University’s Native American Program, and the Harvard Political Union. It featured Native American advocates who spoke about Thanksgiving history and other contemporary issues in Indigenous communities.

Probst said events like these constitute an opportunity for non-Native people to learn about Native history.

“It's important for non-Native folks to recognize the history of Thanksgiving. It wasn't what many people are taught in school — it's a weighted holiday for a lot of Native folks,” Probst said.

Probst also noted her view that Harvard has unfinished work with regard to these issues. Citing the College’s acknowledgment of both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day, she said the College should “make racial diversity visible, but also not in a way that seems performative, and also in a way that's not being counteracted with a colonial structure.”

Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an email that as a federal research institution, the University recognizes both the “Federal and City and State calendar.”

“The Federal government recognizes Columbus Day, which is why our calendar reflects both,” wrote Dane.

Probst, Omotowa, and IOP President Maria L. “Mari” Jones ‘21 all said they hope the University will establish an Indigenous Studies or Ethnic Studies Program.

“Especially for undergrad, I think what’s important is just expanding our understanding of what it means to incorporate race, race theory, and race relations into academic study, where it's not something that has to be tokenized,” Jones said. “I think Harvard should really lead the charge in kind of reconciling what that looks like in an academic space.”

Dane referenced the Ethnic Studies cluster hire in response, noting the emphasis that Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay has “placed on the importance of this issue.”

—Staff writer Jessica Lee can be reached at jessica.lee@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Christina T. Pham can be reached at christina.pham@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Christina_TPham.

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