Content Warning: This article mentions kidnapping, murder and suicide.
The OU American Indian Programs and Services opened its weeklong Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration with events including a tribal flag march and student speeches this morning.
Miss and Mr. Indian OU, SGA Congress Chair Crispin South, leaders from the OU Native fraternity and sorority Sigma Nu Alpha Gamma and Gamma Delta Pi, and the OU American Indian Student Association president spoke at the ceremony. The day’s events also included a cedaring ceremony, which is a prayer of reflection and blessings, by OU tribal liaison Warren Queton.
AISA President Phoenix Burrow said in her speech that one of her first memories of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in school was “anything but fond,” as she was asked “Do you want to be a pilgrim or Indian?” At the time, she said she didn’t understand what was being asked of her, but, looking back, she can recall many times like this when Native American perspectives were “completely ignored.”
When she came to OU, she said she finally felt heard.
“I was able to find a community here that consisted of Native students with interests in various programs (and) Native staff that not only made you feel a sense of belonging, but also validated the knowledge that we come here knowing as Indigenous students,” Burrow said.
Despite the day’s celebration, Burrow said Indigenous people still face various struggles, including the kidnapping and murdering of Native women and high suicide rates in Native men in the 10-34 age group.
“To those who are listening outside of our Native community and want to help, I can only advise (you) to educate yourself, your friends and find resources for your Native friends so you can be ready when they are going through these issues,” Burrow said.
Burrow recalled a piece by internationally recognized multidisciplinary artist and Lac Seul First Nation member Rebecca Belmore titled ‘Fringe’ that depicts a Native American woman facing away from a camera with a large scar across her back. She said it represents the healed but lasting scar left upon Native American people.
“As we try to heal from generational trauma, the scars are reopened from these issues that are still prevalent within our community,” Burrow said. “In Indigenous fashion, however, we are resilient, and we continue to heal and work toward being able to reduce the effects that trauma has had for future generations.”
Burrow said she is excited for the future of Native American representation, as she views her and her peers as “change-makers” who can make a lasting impact on campus and their communities.
SGA Chair Crispin South echoed this statement, saying in his speech that the day’s celebration was “inspiring.” When South was younger, he said the holiday honored Christopher Columbus, who he referred to as “the colonizer.”
President Joe Biden issued a proclamation recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Oct. 8, 2021, becoming the first U.S. president to do so. OU administrators first recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2015 after pressure from Indigenize OU, a student group and other campus leaders.
Although South said the university, state and country still have work to do, he still sees this day as one worth celebrating, as it offers Native American people a way to be who they are “to the fullest extent” through their heritage, culture, languages and dress.
“Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a day of reclamation. This is a day when we can celebrate our cultures and where we can take it back,” South said. “I don’t speak Choctaw — that’s something that my family has lost over the years through colonization. I’m trying to learn it again. I’m trying to reclaim that. I’m trying to bring that back into our family and our heritage.”
Tsali Smith, chairman of Sigma Nu Alpha Gamma, OU’s only Native American fraternity, said he is honored he gets to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a federally recognized holiday. He said, 10 years ago, he wouldn’t have believed “such a small minority” would receive nationwide recognition.
“(Gamma Delta Pi and Sigma Nu Alpha Gamma) just make you realize there are so few of us. This is the heart of Indian country, yet we’re (the) only Native sorority and fraternity. We only have a handful of American Indian student organizations yet we’re in the heart of Native community,” Smith said. “(It) just makes you wonder what happens outside of Oklahoma.”
One thousand fourteen students, or 3.6 percent of all students, on the OU-Norman campus identify as American Indian/Alaska Native, according to the Fall 2020 OU Factbook.
Growing up, Smith said he always had long hair, which is an important aspect of Native American culture. He remembers being bullied for “not being masculine” and having his hair forcibly cut by white students when he lived in the Northern U.S. Historically, Native American men were often forced to cut their hair to appear more “civilized,” or white, as evidenced in a 1902 letter from the commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Smith said he is “grateful” for the support he found in Oklahoma and the positive progress society has made in recognizing Native culture.
American Indian Programs & Services Coordinator Antonia Belindo said in an interview with the Daily that extending the festivities to a weeklong event was needed because Native American sovereignty “should be celebrated every single minute.”
“It’s every single day that we consider Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” Belindo said. “The way that we carry ourselves and our identities and our authentic form of being Native people and associated with our tribe. So, I think that’s what really pushed us to extend it where we’re not just stuck on a Monday.”
The week’s full schedule can be found on the OU American Indian Programs & Services Facebook.