Are we Native, American, or Native American? These are some of the questions raised by the theme for November’s Native American Heritage Month—“Native [or] American: Being Indigenous in America in 2012.” It allows us to consider our identities—as Indians, as members of first nations, as citizens, and as students—at a University whose mission statement includes a commitment “to advance knowledge and learning at the highest level and to convey the products of its efforts to the world.”
We can begin by taking stock of our numbers. As Indians we comprise a mere 1.6 percent of the population of the United States—too few to achieve political relevance. At Columbia we are but 3 percent of the class of 2016—a number that has grown from 1 percent of the class of 2013—but again, perhaps too few to be relevant. However, numbers do not define our relevance. These numbers are living evidence that the Indian question remains. We would not be a minority on our own soil if foreign diseases had not killed our ancestors, if government policies had not removed them, and if the government had not persecuted them when they resisted as a testimony to our history and our prior and rightful claim to this continent. No issue or question in this nation or on this campus should proceed without considering the people whose land we stand upon—the Indians and their descendants who gave it up so that the founding fathers could build a nation. After all, this campus was once Manna-hata—a Lenape word—before it was King’s College, and this country was red before it was red, white, and blue.
As Indians we do not always feel at home in these United States. Feelings of unease and antipathy have obvious historical roots. Even before this country was founded there was an “Indian question,” which some professors mention in CC, but it remains an under-studied part of our education. Yet, for many generations, Indians have considered and answered the Indian question themselves with defiant statements of, “The Black Hills are not for sale,” “You’re on Indian Land!” and “Custer died for your sins,” to remind America that this land is ours, that it was swindled and stolen from us through a series of unjust acts that simultaneously served to belittle our humanity, but that we are still here.
Despite this history, Indians have wholeheartedly joined the American experiment. We serve in the military at the highest rate per capita of any minority group. At many of our traditional gatherings we begin with a flag song, a national anthem composed in our own languages to honor our traditions, soldiers, and country. We have also contributed intellectually. When Benjamin Franklin first proposed a union of the 13 colonies, he used the six council fires of the Haudenosaunee as an exemplar of unity and strength. Ironically enough, after the 13 colonies rose up against their British oppressors, the New York State Legislature renamed this university “Columbia.” In so doing it honored a lucky explorer and ignored the contributions of many people who were already here, who had given generously to the first settlers (Thanksgiving), and who in any account sacrificed more for this nation than those who settled it. It is in this spirit that we claim the Ghost Dance to be as legitimate an articulation of the American Dream as Cesar Chavez’s “Sí se puede,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” Far from existing before or underneath this nation, we are every bit a part of it, and have given so that it might succeed.
On campus, we continue in this tradition of giving. Every year we work to provide Columbians with the opportunity to engage with our cultures with events throughout Native American Heritage Month, Indigenous People’s Day, and powwows—and we hope that our contributions at the campus level do not go unrecognized. But we are concerned that the University does not provide us with adequate support, although the University has spoken of its commitment to serving the needs of our community in terms of recruitment and resources. We are mindful of this school’s mission to “convey the products of its efforts to the world,” and we insist that world should extend to our world as well—Indian Country, right here on this continent. Indeed, other Ivy League institutions provide indigenous students with spaces, residences, and administrators dedicated specifically to their communities—support systems we do not have at Columbia.
This fits into a larger narrative of inadequate consideration of indigenous peoples, who have given much but whose generosity has not been reciprocated. Last Tuesday, we heard Barack Obama speak fervently in his victory speech about progress, but as Indian people we know all too well that progress is often an empty promise that means abuse as often as it means education; obesity as often as it means health care; the destruction of our environment as often as it means conservation. And so we are weary people, suspicious of promises and mindful of reality.
Thus as Indians and Columbia students, we have an American question on our hands: What does progress mean this time around, and who might progress forget? Will same-sex couples be denied their basic human rights, just as Indians were denied their rights for far too long? Will we continue to hunt down “terrorists,” killing women, children, and noncombatants just as we did Crazy Horse, Black Kettle, Little Crow, and their families? Will we continue to ignore global climate change just as we poisoned California in the Gold Rush? And right here at our beloved alma mater, we are looking for signs of commitment. Are we an important voice in this university? Will we be provided with the resources we need to succeed? Will the University fulfill its mission, and help us to convey the products of our efforts to our world?
As we reflect on our identity in this month of November, we inevitably think about what our experience as Indians, Americans, and Columbia University students means and what it can lend to others. And so we invite all of you to join us in dialogue so that we may learn from one another, share in fellowship, and understand how we are all related.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore and the treasurer of the Native American Council.
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