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OU Center for Social Justice hosted 'A Conversation With Activist-in-Residence Sarah Adams-Cornell' to discuss legislation, Native American communities

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Sarah Adams-Cornell

The OU Center for Social Justice hosted a forum with Activist-in-Residence Sarah Adams-Cornell on March 23. 

The OU Center for Social Justice hosted “A Conversation With Activist-in-Residence Sarah Adams-Cornell” on March 23, which discussed Adams-Cornell’s legislative work and division between Native American communities.

The panel featured Adams-Cornell being interviewed by senior anthropology and women and gender studies major Aly Cherry.

Adams-Cornell is a member of the Choctaw Nation, the co-founder of Matriarch —a Native American-led program benefiting Native communities — and serves on the board of directors for Sovereign Community School — an educational institution for Native American students looking to fulfill leadership opportunities — and as a member of The Auntie Project —a non-profit supporting Native American children. Adams-Cornell is also involved with the  ACLU of Oklahoma, Not Your Mascot, Live Indigenous OK and Central Oklahoma Two Spirit Society.

Cherry is from Ada, Oklahoma and is a member of the Chickasaw Nation. After graduation, she plans on working with the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska to be a caseworker for Native American trafficking victims, women and gender studies department chair Traci Brynne Voyles said.

Adams-Cornell said her favorite way to describe her various projects is by calling it “kitchen table work."

“I think we can all relate to a space, maybe it's on a kitchen table, maybe it's something (or) another place, but if you can think of a space where you've just been really safe,” Adams-Cornell said. “And for me, that was a kitchen table with relatives, with sisters, with friends, with food and laughter, and a lot of stories and a lot of kidding around, but also where problems get solved.”

Adams-Cornell said it’s important to her to be an ally to all communities and not just siloed with Native American work. 

“I want to be a good relative to our Black and Latinx (communities), LGBTQ+ (communities) and undocumented relatives in that work because there is so much crossover, there's so much,” Adams-Cornell said.  “There's so many things that we battle together.”

Adams-Cornell said she was reluctant to dive into legislation, but did so because she recognized that many laws being passed were in response to racism against Native American communities, rather than trying to prevent it.

“That really changed how I was doing my work as well, is that, you know we can't always band-aid situations. We can't always be the triage,” Adams-Cornell said. “We have to get ahead of it, we have to find out what the roots are and we have to start there.”

As long as someone has experienced living through issues and is passionate about change, they should get involved in legislative work, Adams-Cornell said.

Adams-Cornell said getting a bill through legislature isn’t easy, as there are many processes and approvals needed that often takes a long time to get through, and the risk of the bill “dying” is always prevalent.

Adams-Cornell expressed frustration over the Kasey Alert Act, formerly named the Aubrey Alert Act, which passed through committee but was never heard on the House floor. 

“There was a lot of pushback on that. Certain legislators came straight out and said, unless you rename this bill, we will not vote for it, because it was named after a trans relative,” Adams-Cornell said. “And that to me was just like ... you’re here sir to protect all Oklahomans, and you don't get to decide who is worthy of and not worthy of protection.”

Adams-Cornell spoke on her organization Matriarch, co-founded with Choctaw citizen Kendra Wilson-Clements to provide Native women with various resources and have open-ended conversations addressing issues within Native communities, including MMIW.

Adams-Cornell discussed the harmful consequences Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood cards have on tribes that use them, saying it was a Western concept based on skin color and used to further divide Native American  citizens. 

CDIB cards are allotted through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, showing a blood-quantum and tribal affiliation, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Certain tribes have varying criteria for who can apply for tribal membership based upon the number and affiliation. Some tribes do not factor in CDIB cards, while others require it.

Adams-Cornell said that when the cards were first created, they were used to belittle those who were darker skinned, but in recent years, has been a source of pride for some Native Americans. 

“Some people are very proud of being full-blood, you know, and some people feel like that is another mechanism to divide us to be like who's more Indian, who's the most legit, who's the keenest you know,” Adams-Cornell said. 

Cherry said the blood-quantum number on CDIB cards mean different things to different people, and it’s been “frustrating” to see the divide it has caused.

“I think it is just a way to push us farther apart, and push us farther into that westernization,” Cherry said.

Adams-Cornell said what was also frustrating was tribes not allowing dual-enrollment —possessing membership with multiple tribes— despite what a person’s CDIB card may list. Adams-Cornell says it limits those who wish to learn about their other tribal beliefs and cultures, as some people are not willing to share with non-citizens of a tribe.

“I think that that's a disservice,” Adams-Cornell said. “I think we should be able to claim space where all of our identities lie.”

The panel ended with Adams-Cornell discussing the importance of grassroots work, and encouraging the audience to call  legislators to support bills they’re passionate about. She also encouraged audience members to work toward decolonizing education, cultural reclamation and resiliency. 

Adams-Cornell said growing up as a child, she always felt something was “missing” within her, later realizing it was her culture.

“Our culture provides this base of understanding about the way the world works and how we move within the world, and our relationships to the earth and to each other that provides a stability,” Adams-Cornell said. “It teaches about ways (a) long time ago, and the values of those stories help kind of infuse your identity. It also gives you the truthful narrative to who our people are, as opposed to Western education that gives you this incredibly wrong story.”

Katie Hallum is a journalism and international area studies double major who joined The Daily's news desk in spring 2021. Katie is a Tahlequah, Oklahoma native and citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

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