Celebrating Native American culture on campus

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In Mankato 150 years ago, 38 men of the Dakota tribe were hanged by US commanders at the culmination of the Dakota War of 1862. Several events in the Twin Cities and around Minnesota have commemorated these atrocities and the consequential expulsion of tribes from the area.

The anniversary coincided with Native American Heritage Month, November, for which several events were held on Macalester’s campus. Among them was a series of film screenings, lectures and discussions dubbed “Unearthing the Truth: Rediscovering and Honoring our Dakota History.” The series was held on Nov. 15 and aimed to raise campus awareness of the Dakota War and its legacy.

The events attracted many community members and addressed current issues surrounding the Native American community in the Twin Cities area and across the country. Speakers at the final event, “Impact of the War Today,” expressed their hopes for a discussion about the land that Macalester occupies today, which was part of the territory confiscated during the Dakota Wars.

Kate Bean, a panelist at the event, spoke of feeling lost because of the disconnection from her ancestry and her culture. After dropping out of high school, she returned to academics and began to learn not only about Native history, but also about who Native Americans are today.

“In learning my language, learning my history, learning who I was, I was given back my power,” she said. “My job [as a professor] is to teach my story, a story that was denied me.”

Bean talked about an exercise that she has conducted with students in the past, asking the class simply to name Native American people. She said students usually cite people who are deceased.

“[I want to impart] the idea that Native cultures as being present and living,” she said.

Bean and Sasha Brown spoke of hopes to incorporate studies of Native Americans into schools at every level including Macalester.

“We don’t want this to just be ‘Indian issues’,” Brown said. “This knowledge is relevant in every discipline.”

While recognizing the incalculable wrongs of the past and the inequalities that continue to haunt Native Americans to this day, she said that the past also needs to be celebrated.

“Somehow our people have remained,” Brown said. “It’s easy to get caught up in the darkness and overlook our immense resiliency and ability to adapt.”

For the Native American students at Macalester, increased visibility is a priority. This year, co-presidents of Proud Indigenous People for Education (PIPE), Brook LaFloe ’15, a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe, and Ajuawak Kapashesit ’13, of the White Earth Ojibwe tribe, are working to revive the group’s presence on campus. PIPE hosted an “In the Kitchen With” event at the Cultural House on Nov. 27. About 20 students stopped by to help prepare wild rice and Indian tacos (fried bread with taco toppings), two dishes that Abaki Beck ’15 says represent both traditional and modern Native dishes.

On Nov. 9, the Fresh Friday “Misappropriation or Appreciation” focused on representations of Native Americans in popular culture. Part of a monthly series hosted by the Cultural House, these events are aimed at engaging participants in current issues. Co-facilitators Lucy Andrews ’14 and Beck, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, used popular athletic mascots and fashion lines to spark discussion. The event was brought to national attention after Beck was quoted by the Associated Press in an article concerning the response of Victoria’s Secret to backlash after a model walked the runway at a fashion show in a Native American headdress.

Though the amount of events featuring Native Americans in November brought in strong responses from the campus community, some worry that this attention will be short-lived. As one of the most underrepresented groups in American higher education, Native Americans often face low visibility on college campuses.

Macalester is no exception. LaFloe’s mother, Janice LaFloe, graduated from Macalester in 1991, the last year a powwow was held on campus. This year, LaFloe is planning to revive the tradition with the help of a committee composed of PIPE members, Native alumni and other members of the campus community. Dancers, drummers and other participants will be invited from around the Twin Cities. The event will take place on Apr. 13 and members are expecting a large crowd.

“People are always ready for a powwow,” Kapashesit said. “They’re always down to dance.”

This year, there are four Native American students attending Macalester. In the 1970s, an all time high of about 20 Native students were enrolled at the college. Since then, numbers have remained very low.

The Twin Cities are home to one of the largest urban Native American populations in the United States, but LaFloe says that more connections need to be made in the local community and beyond.

“Macalester doesn’t have a huge Native population and it’s just not particularly welcoming,” LaFloe said. “It’s not that it’s unfriendly, you just don’t see a lot of Native American culture being represented. If there was a just a little bit of an emphasis it would make a big difference.”

Kapashesit agreed that a stronger presence must be forged on campus.

“I’ll run into a Native PF about once a year,” he said. “But they never end up coming here. There’s just a disconnect.”

By contrast, other campuses in the Cities are much more representative. Augsburg has an American Indian Studies major along with strong cultural offerings, including one of the biggest powwows in the Twin Cities. Two percent of its students identify as Native American. By contrast, half a percent of Macalester students in fall 2011 identified as Native American.

In order to address the lack of Native representation at Macalester, Chris MacDonald-Dennis, Dean of the Department of Multicultural Life, says that a commitment must be made to interact with the local Native community in a more deliberate way by seeking out students and continuing to work with college access programs and alumni in the area. MacDonald-Dennis said the difference has a lot to do with Macalester’s geographic location.

“A lot of times when you hear Minnesota, you think lily-white,” he said. “People don’t realize how urban and diverse this place is. Once we get people here, they love it.”

He also said the lack of name recognition is a problem for attracting first generation and students of color.

“For people in the know, Macalester has an excellent reputation,” he said. “It’s just that a lot of people haven’t heard about us. That’s why we’re one of the ‘hidden Ivies.’ It’s great because it keeps you guys humble but it’s frustrating because when people actually come here [after not knowing about it], they’re like, damn this place is amazing!”

MacDonald-Dennis said resources are another part of the problem. The Admissions Department concentrates on areas with past “high-yield[s]” in the hopes of attracting more students. Dennis said Macalester needs to include possible prospective students that are being overlooked. This would mean not only reaching out to the local urban Native population but also visiting reservations and other areas with high populations.

“We’re really diverse given our challenges, but we have to make inroads,” he said. “It will mean more resources but this education is best-suited for a racially diverse environment.”