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Honoring Native Americans: ‘We Are More Than Leathers and Feathers’

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At a recent Titan Table Talk, in honor of Native American/Indigenous Peoples’ Heritage Month, members of different Native American tribes; President Fram Virjee; and Jessica Stern, associate dean of student relations in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, focused on the history, representation and current challenges facing Native Americans.

Virjee recalled celebrating his first Thanksgiving as a 6-year-old immigrant with an East-London accent, short pants, a Beatles’ haircut and the name “Framroze.”

“I didn’t exactly fit in,” he said. He spoke of his grandfather inviting in strangers for the Thanksgiving meal until 30 people were squeezed around the table. But as admirable as this was, Virjee came to understand that his grandfather’s benevolence did not address America’s historical narrative about Native Americans. 

“In American schools, we were either outright denying Native Americans’ existence or changing the story to make us feel better.”

Virjee admitted that the university has not done enough to acknowledge the truth that the land we teach and learn upon was first inhabited by Indigenous people who have stewarded the region for generations. 

“We must honor these tribes with greater regularity and reverence,” he said. “And it begins with understanding and working to correct the inequities that Native Americans face. It begins right here, right now.”

In framing the discussion, Stern, who has conducted extensive research in Native American history, discussed issues dealing with Native Americans’ right to establish their own form of governments, determine membership requirements, enact legislation, and establish law enforcement and court systems. 

“This tension is heightened by the fact that Native American culture has had an intimate place in the formation of an American identity from the very beginning,” she said. “This entanglement creates a unique context for Native American activists. We have painted an idealized picture of Native Americans to shame and inspire Americans. Think of the ‘Crying Indian’ in the ‘Keep America Beautiful’ public service announcements in the early 1970s. 

“Other leaders, such as Thomas Jefferson, have invoked the image of the savage Indian to defend American independence.”

Other panelists included:

  • Jen Olivares ’12 (B.F.A. theatre arts-musical theatre), a member of the Acjachemen tribe, and an interdisciplinary artist and activist who is developing Native theater collaborations nationwide to uplift Native people and their stories;
  • Christina Snider, a member of the Pomo tribe, tribal adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom and executive secretary to the Native American Heritage Foundation;
  • Reyna Perez ’20 (B.F.A. art-graphic and interactive design), a member of the Zapotec peoples from Oaxaca, Mexico, and owner of Reyna Chabeli Designs;
  • Ray Estrella ’05, ’10 (B.A. human services and sociology, M.A. counseling-marriage and family therapy), a member of the Pasqua Yaqui tribe who serves as an outreach counselor with the Southern California Indian Center.

How does one respect and portray one’s identity and be respected as an American citizen?

Perez: As a member of a Mexican tribe, we were not recognized by the Mexican government. Our tribes still practice native religious ceremonies and speak native languages. As we migrated from our marginalized villages, we began losing our language. We left our communities because we wanted a better life. In tribes such as mine, there was often no running water or education past middle school. In Oaxaca, it was like a shift backward in time. Many of the tribes still use firewood to cook breakfast. If you wanted drinking water, you’d go to the well. It wasn’t until I was between the ages of 10 to 16 and I returned to my village that I learned how to speak my native language. Now I can communicate with my people. Language builds community.

Estrella: Today, Native Americans are spread across the state. If you look hard enough, you’ll find us all over California — we see people from five different nations in our office. But there is a lack of visibility about our history and the problems we face. 

Olivares: There has been consistent erasure beginning with the colonization by Spain, Mexico, and now, our federal government. We are reaching out to tribal communities so these issues can be brought to light. But we are not monolithic. We are not one entity. We are hundreds of sovereign nations with different languages and cultures. Tribes have specific needs and what we need is authentic, valid representation. What are some of the most impactful issues? Desecration of ancestral lands. COVID-19. Native people need visibility and outreach that is specific to our needs.

Snider: I think there is often a general laziness about figuring out the individual needs that are not just unique to tribal people. We need the dominant culture to look at diversity, to listen, to meet native people at the table. We have a drive to reclaim space and the ancestral homelands of so many nations. The people who now live on these lands are pretty ignorant of that … by choice.

How do you, in your personal and professional lives, chip away at these issues?

Olivares: I advocate as a theater professional fighting for authentic representation of Native Americans. I use my voice to avoid stereotypes. I work on projects as a cultural consultant and it’s my job to connect the production with proper tribal cultures. I also work with native creatives and strive to present native tribes outside of ‘leathers and feathers.’

Perez: While indigenous people may share some of the same practices and regalia, different communities have different cultural practices. As an example, people think of Mexican tribes as Aztecs or their equivalent. We aren’t. We’re not seen. Through my photography, I try to capture the people of Oaxaca doing ordinary things — drinking coffee, visiting with friends, being with family. People have often commented to me that my community seems so happy with so little. They don’t understand that we have to work with what we have but we do like nice things. Sometimes they’re just out of reach.

Estrella: The families we deal with are usually poor and are straight from the reservation. When they’re here, they don’t have the means to seek other help. Many are in a crisis mode — they don’t want to talk about civic engagement until there’s food on the table or the mortgage is paid. I work mostly with mothers, and they need help. A huge issue for us is the census. It isn’t true to the numbers of Native Americans. We know there are more than 300,000 Native Americans in Los Angeles County from different tribes, and they are often overlooked.

What can Cal State Fullerton do to address these issues?

Olivares: There is much we need to correct in the American schooling system. We see curriculum that glorifies the genocide of Indigenous people. It seems like Native American history stops at the missions or making acorn mush. There is little to no basic education on contemporary Native Americans within California and how we exist in a contemporary landscape. CSUF needs to understand who this land belongs to and who has cared for it over thousands of years.

Perez: Listen and support Native American students. When I was a student, there was a support group with only about seven members. We were committed students working around the clock to make the group work. But I didn’t feel supported. We had no center to support us like many other marginalized groups. There wasn’t any Native tenured faculty. In fact, we didn’t have any faculty to help us out. I’d like to see a Native American resource center. Our small group had to do the outreach to high schools with Native Americans students.

What do you wish political parties knew about Native Americans and civic engagement?

Snider: Native issues are not partisan issues. Indigenous people are voting for their lives. We are voting for people who will take COVID seriously, bring water to our communities, understand self-governance. When working with Native American communities, it matters how much you care about the people you’re supposed to be caring about. It’s not partisan. These are human issues and should be taken seriously. 

Olivares: This country’s founders tried to rob us of our cultures, poison our land, steal us from our brothers and sisters, put us in boarding schools. Our communities can organize to provide mutual aid but we need someone on our side.

Valerie Orleans