Each November, the University of Nebraska Inter-Tribal Exchange club hosts events celebrating Native American Indian Heritage Month to build community and bring awareness to one of the university’s smallest populations: Native American students, members said.
Since Thanksgiving also falls during November, UNITE secretary and senior French major Kendall Dawson said it offers a way to look beyond common misconceptions of the history of Thanksgiving.
Although many imagine peace and friendship between Native Americans and English settlers, their relationship included bloodshed, and calculated efforts were made to wipe out the Native American populations, Dawson said. Despite the violent background, she believes the holiday has taken on a new meaning today.
“I think it has evolved from such a misguided reason to celebrate to simply a time to spend with family,” she said in an online message. “As long as we all keep that in mind, we can shift the perceived meaning of the holiday to perhaps something less sinister.”
Since President George H. W. Bush declared November as Native American Indian Heritage Month in 1990, Dawson said the month has widened the narrative surrounding Native Americans.
“Because Thanksgiving is the same month, natives get brought up a lot, and a lot of people tend to have questions,” she said. “Which works out, because a lot of education on native history goes on this month as well, so the questions and answers coincide.”
The club kicked off the awareness month with a “Dish it Up” event where students shared their experiences as Native American students, and a Native craft night was also hosted earlier in the month, UNITE faculty adviser Moises Padilla said. A day of service on Nov. 30 will conclude the month’s events.
It can be hard for UNL’s Native American students to find a place at a university with a Native American population of less than 70 students, Padilla said. UNITE hopes to bridge the gap by providing a tight-knit community with the overarching goal of empowering Native American students.
“When you are one of less than 70 people on campus, you can feel very isolated,” he said. “So the club is like, ‘Hey, we are your support group, we get you, you don’t have to explain who you are to us because we know who you are, and what your culture is and your customs, your traditions.’”
Dawson said the club has helped her understand her cultural background.
“It has deepened my cultural understanding and also gave me so many new friends and amazing opportunities,” she said. “UNITE is like a family for me, and I’m glad I found them.”
Although there’s a lot of focus on Native American heritage during the month of November, UNITE works year round to support and highlight Native American students at UNL.
The group’s biggest event is its spring powwow where it honors graduating Native American seniors and attracts dancers from several states to perform in front of a crowd of hundreds, Padilla said.
The club also hopes to change the perception of Native American students by hosting events that focus on what they bring to the table rather than what they lack, Padilla said.
“When people look at Native American students on campus they always think of them through a deficit lense: ‘They don’t have this, they don’t have that,’” he said.
He said this perspective undermines the assets Native American students bring to the university, like their emphasis on family and use of the 7th Generation Principle, or the idea that everything one does should benefit the next seven generations to come.
Even with only a small population of Native American students on campus today, Padilla said the UNL community should always remember its history and think about positive change.
“This university was built on land that once belonged to indigenous populations,” he said. “Yes in the history of the U.S., we’ve done some pretty nasty stuff to Native American indigenous people…[but] despite everything that's happened, there are students here at Nebraska that are doing really awesome things, are proud Huskers.”