In honor of Native American and Indigenous History Month, Cal State Fullerton hosted a panel of Native American speakers to discuss issues that face this community and stories of how they have navigated the pandemic.
Panelists were Rheanna Lipari ’14 ’20 (B.A. English, M.S. secondary education), a teacher at Madera Technical Exploration Center; Nicole Merton ’21 (B.F.A. art-creative photography), a photographer; and Tracy Stanhoff, president of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of California and leader of the American Indian National Chamber of Commerce. The event was moderated by Tonantzin Oseguera, vice president for student affairs.
CSUF President Fram Virjee welcomed the panelists and talked about America’s history of not only discriminating against Native Americans but also of committing genocide. When Virjee and his wife, Julie, were visiting the Camp Kigali Memorial in Rwanda (where ten Belgian U.N. peacekeepers were murdered, clearing the way for the Rwandan genocide), he saw a plaque listing all the known genocides in human history by order of death toll: Armenian genocide (1 million people), Cambodian genocide (2 million people), Holocaust (6 million people). But at the top of that list was the genocide of the estimated tens of millions of Native American and Indigenous peoples of North America who were systematically murdered from 1492 on.
“My shock was not only that America, a nation that the world looks to as a beacon of social justice and opportunity, was on the list … but at the top. It was only matched by my shame in not realizing that until that moment,” he admitted.
“There is a myth that the imperialism our nation is founded upon was somehow consensual rather than violent,” he continued. “History books portray the wiping out of native tribes as an accidental consequence of western settlement rather than government-sponsored killing campaigns … and with that is the denial of America’s role in perpetuating one of the deadliest genocides in human history.
“At Cal State Fullerton, we want to be more intentional and consistent in our acknowledgement that we are occupants of land that belongs to the Tongva and Acjachemen peoples. While the past cannot be erased, the university has recently created new partnerships with tribal community colleges and established a CSUF Native and Indigenous Student Success Advisory Board.”
The panelists were then asked to share their stories.
How was your story shaped by the work you do?
Stanhoff: I was raised by a strong family. My grandfather was Choctaw and he was sent to a boarding school where he couldn’t speak his own language. It was hard but he always told us to make our own way. My grandmother was Prairie Band Potawatomi. We have to be resilient. COVID-19 put a focus on the lack of infrastructure on reservations and for native people. Yet those of us who had ancestors who walked the Trail of Tears, we continue to emerge as a strong people. The past can’t define our future. I come from a long line of people who have tried to improve our families and people. As a chairwoman of our tribe, we are supporting people and the theme of resiliency really resonates in my life. A lot of basic needs aren’t being met on reservations — water, sewers, electricity, internet. We still face those trying times.
Merton: I am Apache on my father’s side. I chose to do my senior photography project by focusing on issues facing our community. I focused on the murder and abuse of Indigenous women. Different people told me I couldn’t do that. I should stop — but as I communicated with survivors, we built bonds. I felt more of a connection — I didn’t care what others were saying — I just wanted to get their voices out and I saw that I could make a difference.
Lipari: My family is from the Karuk people in Northern California near Oregon. As an educator, I work with Native American students from Mexico. They have different experiences and come from a much harsher environment. There are hardships in leaving their towns, they have experienced crime — they’re going through pressure that no child should have to face. And they don’t have the resources. Many of these tribes speak different languages, not Spanish. I let them know they are valued.
In my childhood, many people made it clear that they didn’t like Native Americans. I heard that we were drunks or on welfare. The other fourth graders at my school didn’t like me. I lived in Native American housing. My students still experience this discrimination. Some start working at age 14 to help provide for their families. My job is to remind my students that regardless of where you come from, there’s a way out.
What do you want Native Americans to know about the power of resiliency within the community? How can those who don’t work with these communities make a difference?
Merton: I believe you can work with Indigenous communities, research the crises they face, and come up with a way to offer help. I can’t do many things, but through my photography I can be an ally. Try to make a difference. We need others from outside to come and stand with us. Help us. Read about our issues.
Lipari: For those working with Native American communities, be real with yourself. Understand your biases and the reality of stereotyping — address those biases first. People also think Native Americans are just within the boundaries of the U.S. Native American tribes can be found throughout the Americas. Also, don’t deny the reality of what we’ve faced. Where are you living? Whose lands are you on now? There are ways to give back to Indigenous communities — advocacy, write letters, make people realize why pipelines are awful for native communities. We all need to do our part.
Stanhoff: I advocate for treaty rights and about how they affect lands we’re on. Indigenous families being separated at our southern border is horrific. We need to support efforts to help people. My tribe has 50-plus treaties and that makes a difference — we cannot forget that. We have to fight to keep our native lands. Resiliency means getting back to the basics of having our land, culture, people and respect. We don’t receive “free” health care, education, subsidies — it’s in exchange for treaty rights. We are the first people of this land. It’s been Native American land for thousands of years. We were forcibly removed.
How does history impact the Native American resiliency story?
Lipari: My mom was adopted and she didn’t know her history until she was in her thirties. I met my birth family at age four. I quickly gained a grandfather, aunts and uncles.
As a child, I learned that many people didn’t like me because I was Native American. I denied my heritage. My father was Italian so I claimed that side. I knew children and teachers would treat me differently. When I was living in Yreka, a male teacher told me, “Pocahontas was a whore.” When my mother called the school to complain, she was asked if “I had a problem with male teachers.” That created a hard place for me to exist. I lost my culture.
It wasn’t until I got to CSUF that I looked at trauma. I was a single mother, often not knowing if I’d be homeless. I was constantly worried. I want my students to make sure they know I am there for them, for who they are.
Stanhoff: I’ve been blessed to have been raised in my culture. I know how we got here and I try to focus on the positive. We have always faced adversity from those who want to keep us at the bottom. I continue to focus on treaties, the respect provided to our people, helping other Native Americans. We also need to see native people on boards, in government, in schools. We need native people in places of power. CSUF is doing amazing work to educate the next generation of students.
Merton: I didn’t know about my history until I was about 30. I wasn’t aware of my father’s heritage. Since then, I’ve connected with my uncle and I’m still researching, engulfing myself with history/stories. I want to pass along this information to my two sons. My children were one of the reasons I pushed to work on this project. It’s emotional for me. Women tell me their stories and it’s incredible how they go through these things and are still standing strong. I’m working on a book now, too. I want to continue to share these voices and make a difference.
What messages you would like readers to walk away with?
Stanhoff: We need to respect each other. We can have differences and values but be human. Be kind. I’ll listen and treat you with respect and I ask the same in return. Often Native Americans get patronized. People will say things like, “Come out of your teepees.” Remember no one is an island — you need partners, compassion, respect. We may not agree but I’ll work to make sure you have a chicken in your pot and a roof over your head. And don’t forget that education is so important.
Merton: We need more compassion and understanding and empathy. If you want to make a difference, have an open mind. Listen to the elders. Share their knowledge. We all need to come in with an open mind.
Lipari: We need unity, not institutionalized ideologies such as blood quotas to “prove” you’re Native American. We don’t have enough time for this. Value each other as a people — we are a whole people. We still experience discrimination. Pipelines are still being built despite treaties. There are reservations without power. People are still taking our land away … we need support.