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An education on education: Ways to take action with the Native American House

You may have read the recent news that the student government at the U of I has made a step in the right direction by renewing the push to find a new mascot after anti-Chief activists spoke out against the University’s official approval to use the image of the“Chief” in the Homecoming parade last month. Students and community members are demanding from the U of I Board of Trustees to fully implement the March 2007 decision to rid the campus of the “Chief” mascot. As the University of Illinois is pressed to regulate indigenous cultural misappropriations that the Chief represents, find a new mascot, and educate the public about the decision, The Native American House on campus, who represents and supports the Indigenous student body and their families, encourages that they be sought out for advice and counsel.

The Native American House operates on constrained budget to facilitate a better understanding amongst students, faculty, staff, and community members of the histories of American Indian peoples and their cultures, both past and present. I sat down with Beverly Smith, the Associate Director of the Native American House (NAH) to talk about their work with the intention to highlight some of this programming. After meeting with Beverly, I can tell you that this article is no longer an overview of NAH programming, but about the racist process of demanding more labor, more energy from People of Color in the pursuit of research or allyship, and concludes with steps we can take to take action with the Native American House for meaningful change.

Every day, Smith is meeting with students to provide mentorship and support, educating the public on Indigenous culture and issues, and encouraging non-indigenous people seek out education to increase their ability “to critique and set aside images that confine the perception of an entire people to a limited and narrow existence.” All of this amidst a steady stream of asks by students, members of the press, and organizations to be interviewed about the issue of the “Chief” or other cultural misappropriations of Indigenous cultures that occur on campus and in the community. And because Smith cares deeply about community education, she often takes time out of her work and her life to talk to non-indigenous people, often white people, about said occurrence.

“You are lucky that you are here right now interviewing me,” Smith said to me. I replied emphatically, wide-eyed, “Yes, I am lucky.” If you know that people of color are expected to accomplish the same tasks but are expected to work twice as hard to accomplish them in respect to their white counterparts, then you know that people of color have less time in the day than white people. Smith taking time out of her day away from immediately supporting her students and attending to Native American House programming, and the interview process, is a source of stress. 

“When I take time to talk to a someone, often a student, will ask me how I feel in response to a racist occurrence, practice, or policy,” said Smith. “How do I feel? Please don’t ask me that question. You are invading my personal space.” I admittedly asked a lazy question that was set up to elicit some historical information about the Native American House, not Smith’s ideas, opinions, or history of the work of NAH since she started the position six years ago. Is Smith a web-browser? No, she is a human being who expresses frustration when people don’t do their homework or at least not well. This prompted her to talk about the racist process of being demanded by non-indigenous/white people to further expend energy/health that is left from fighting/negotiating a racist system to elicit emotions or information.

When you ask how a person of color “feels” about a racist occurrence in interviews, in research, in the classroom, in whatever context, you are asking that person to make their psyche and their emotions, accessible to you which, in the context asking people about racism, those emotions and information come from a trauma-informed space of having to experience racism everyday. Being very invisible or too visible to white people is exhausting already. The added line of questioning one’s experiences is also added energy that people of color are demanded to expend. Here’s a quick read that outlines examples of this process carried out by white people most often seeking allyship. If you have other readings to share, please share in the comments (so I can read them) and with your friends.

“If you are in this position of questioning I need you to listen to what I have to say and not ask me how I feel or provide you information that you can research,” Smith said. “The students when they come to the University of Illinois are not trained and many students graduating without this training.”

Beverly added that, hopefully, with the addition of a course on U.S. minority culture to the core curriculum, students will be better prepared to live in an increasingly diverse society. She encourages students to take the American Indian Studies course and also to also seek out learning opportunities outside of the classroom. In addition to recruiting, supporting and advocating for Indigenous students to have a fulfilling academic and social life at the University of Illinois, Native American House’s programming also focuses on community education, such as educational talks, community forums and cultural events that are completely free and open to the public.

What has surprised Smith the most after taking on this position is the fact that she has had to repeat the same work over and over again. It’s frustrating to see many students, faculty, and staff enter and leave the University without being educated about the culture and lived, daily experiences of Indigenous people or trained to appropriately interact with and support Indigenous people. Beverly encourages non-indigenous people to personally seek out education and dialogue and to encourage educational institutions to adopt agreements to not only retire and replace racist mascots but to train the University and surrounding communities in Indigenous issues. Here are few things you can do to support the education and advocacy work of Native American House and to promote self-directed education and action that doesn’t impose a relationship but is consented upon by Indigenous communities:

Donate to Native American House: They are on a limited budget and need your help to expand their work to educate the community and to strengthen support programming for indigenous students and their families. By giving you will help support the retention of American Indian and Native Alaskan students; create a better understanding of the different cultural experiences and issues Indigenous people encounter; and help students remain connected to their tribal communities and their heritage. You can support their critical work here on their website.

Write a letter to the Board of Trustees to “fully support the March 2007 decision made by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees to retire the University’s former mascot in name, performance, and symbol.”: Write a letter demanding that the Board of Trustees “implement the work of educating students, staff, and faculty about how and why this decision was reached; aggressively enforce its trademark rights to the retired mascot, and promptly facilitating the adoption of a new mascot for our campus.” (November, 2008)

To communicate with the Trustees, please send mail in care of:

Board of Trustees Office
352 Henry Administration Building
506 South Wright Street
Urbana, IL 61801
Email: [email protected]

Read works by Indigenous writers: November is Indigenous Heritage Month; why not use this time to start, reinvigorate, or increase our reading of literature by Indigenous writers. Most of us have only experienced a chapter on Indigenous people in U.S. history books in grade school or college that is a distorted history of Indigenous people told through a lens of white supremacy.

Here’s a list of Indigenous authors and some of their best known works to get started. If you know of some great reading lists of works by Indigenous writers or want to create some, please do and share widely!

Seek out community education and training opportunities: Native American House works with numerous units and departments at Illinois along with regional organizations and agencies to bring you culturally relevant and informative programs to the University of Illinois year-round.

The Native American House has just finished hosting Indigenous Heritage Month at the U of I which occurs during the month of November each year. You can take a look at this year’s calendar of events here to see what they hosted and make plans to attend next year.

Attend a Chat ‘n Chew lunchtime presentation hosted by the Native American House at the Asian American Cultural Center for free lunch and discussions over the noon hour: You can attend the last Chat ’n Chew of the Fall 2017 semester on December 1st at 12 p.m. at the Asian American Cultural Center at 1210 W. Nevada Street, Urbana, Illinois. Antonio Franklin, Associate Director of Field Operations, Office of Extension and Outreach, will be giving a talk titled Cultural Awakening: Lessons Learned Working on the “Rez.” Chat ’n Chews are part of the Lunch On Us series, which is coordinated by the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations on the U of I campus. The Lunch on Us series hosts public forums and talks happening everyday at various Cultural Houses on campus during the spring and fall semesters.

On the topic of NAH community education, I learned from Beverly that an Indigenous graduate student working with NAH created the Lunch on Us series as a space for dialogue. The student started the series at the Native American House on Fridays over the noon hour using the Student Cultural Programming Fee, which is a campus funding source that provides direction and allocation of resources for culture-specific programming for African American, Asian American, Latinx, Native American, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and women’s programs and activities. The goal is to advance further cultural awareness, encourage diversity, educate the University of Illinois community as a whole, and provide a forum for the development, exploration, and improvement of cultural programs. Recognizing the importance of this work to educate the campus and the community on the people and the issues that the Cultural Houses represent, the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations stepped in help coordinate and lift up the important work of community education and fostering dialogue.

You can read more about ways you can take action on the Native American House website and learn more about the work of the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations (OIIR), which is the part of Student Affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, dedicated to recruiting and retaining underrepresented students, diversity education, civic engagement, and fostering the leadership skills necessary to develop global citizens. You can check out the full OIIR calendar and other news here.

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