Native American Indian Heritage Month at CU Denver

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Photo courtesy: Sofia Shappell

The exposure most people receive about Native American Indian culture or media presence is limited to the occasional political protest, such as DAPL (the infamous Dakota Access Pipeline that violated tribal lands in favor of oil companies) or a trickle of heritage in a museum or national park visitor center. It is unfortunate that such a longstanding culture in the United States is overlooked due to the legacy of colonialism and modernization. There have been some efforts to improve advocacy and visibility for Native American Indians; the nationwide movement to change holidays like Christopher Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day has gained attention as more people begin to recognize the presence of native and indigenous people nationally. Recognition for Native American Indian tribes and individuals is important because of how overlooked this minority population is.

At the University of Colorado Denver, according to the 2016-17 Diversity Report, 0.4 percent of students enrolled at the undergraduate level identify as Native American Indian or Alaskan Native. Despite the low percentage, the community of individuals who identify as Native American Indian/Alaskan Native is supported by campus resources. One of the most prominent resources for Native American Indian/Alaskan Native students on campus is American Indian Student Services (AISS), which welcomes students of all American Indian and Alaska Native heritage, in addition to providing support to student of all tribal affiliations.

As a campus located in a modern, progressive city, it is important to consider what it means to be a Native American Indian in 2017. The support from the Director of American Indian Student Services, Gracie RedShirt Tyon, a Lakota of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, helps many students find identity in a nation where native heritage is at constant threat of being wiped away.

When asked what it means to be Native American in 2017, RedShirt Tyon responded, “I think about all the things—the struggles that my ancestor faced in order for us to be here today, I think how fortunate I am since many US policies were aimed at getting rid of us.” Additionally, she referenced the complex relationship that Native Americans share with the United States government. Unlike other ethnic minority groups, the United States government signed over 500 treaties with Native American Nations. The United States government has a legal trust relationship with Native Tribal Nations in the US.

When asked about what it means to be native in 2017, Brandon Tabaha, a Navajo and the Treasurer of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society of CU Denver, says he aims to “make his mark” as an individual who is Native American. He remembers his experiences before college as limited, saying, “high school was mostly upper-middle class white kids and I just couldn’t relate. There was no one there like me, it was very difficult at times.”

Services and communities like American Indian Student Services and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society have expanded vital resources available for native and indigenous students on the CU Denver campus. With November bringing Native American Indian Heritage month and amazing performances by Native American Indian artists such as Lyla June to campus, Gracie RedShirt Tyon emphasizes the importance of education for minority groups: “Higher education is the tool we need as Native Nations to better serve and represent our tribal people and to fight for our treaty rights and our human rights.”

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