Native America: Celebrating Our Communities On and Off Campus
So who and what exactly is a Native American, an American Indian, or an Indigenous person? There may not be very many of us here on campus, but we have brought our cultures to school with us and we consider our tribal affiliations to be the foundations of our identities as Natives at Harvard. In Native Americans at Harvard College, Harvard’s only undergraduate Native students’ organization, we often consider ourselves to be cut from the same cloth. We are familiar with powwows, Indian tacos, and the issues that Indian Country faces every day. We are interested, curious, and connected.
For as much as we have in common though, we’re all very different from one another. Think of the identifier “Latino.” This term allows peoples with many different Latin American heritages to come together and celebrate their similarities, but it cannot account for the individualities of cultures rooted in Peru, Ecuador, Honduras, or any other country. Latino is to Native American as Peruvian is to Jemez Pueblo. All tribal communities are different from one another, and each individual identifies with his or her specific tribe within the Native American aggregate. While the media (in its perpetual search for politically correct language) generally refers to our communities as “Native American Tribes,” we more often refer to our homes and peoples as “Indian nations.” We are all quite different; an Oneida Indian cannot describe the heritage and customs of the Mohegan or Shoshone Tribes and while we identify with one another as Natives, we come from so many different cultures. NAHC constantly celebrates the diversity of its members and the Indian nations that we represent by sharing the customs and norms of our individual communities. Our dances, stories, regalia, and foods are different and the purpose of NAHC is to share and celebrate all of this.
And when a Native person makes it big, we all celebrate because, no matter what tribe, reservation, or state we come from, indigenous pride is strong. When Patricia Michaels, a Native fashion designer from the Taos Pueblo nation was announced as a contestant on the 11th season of Project Runway, Native peoples everywhere smiled and turned on their televisions because our designs, traditional and contemporary, are beautiful. When Nelly Furtado featured Tony and Kevin Duncan, award winning hoop dancers from the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, and San Carlos Apache nations and Violet Duncan, a fancy shawl dancer from the Cree and Taino nations, in her “Big Hoops (Bigger the Better)” music video, we were ecstatic to have the opportunity to share our dances. When news sources began to talk about Shoni and Jude Schimmel, sisters from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation who propelled Louisville University’s women’s basketball team to the NCAA finals, we all cheered… and when we heard that the championship game would be preceded by a documentary on the girls titled Off the Rez, we cheered even louder, knowing that the Schimmel sisters have become national icons.
And what about John Herrington, the Chickasaw astronaut who was the first Native American to fly into space? Or Denise Juneau, of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, the first Native woman elected to a statewide executive office? Or Winona LaDuke, the Anishinaabeg activist and writer who ran for Vice President in 2000 on Ralph Nader’s Green Party ticket? These figures are well known by all American Indian peoples for their leadership and accomplishments.
As Native peoples, we celebrate our differences and our similarities on a daily basis. Each one of us will only ever be experts in our own Tribes’ histories, customs, and cultures, but at the same time, we love being Native Americans.
We want to share our culture with the Harvard Community. Please visit us at our annual powwow this spring for traditional dancing, food, crafting, and an all-around good time. Stop by the Radcliffe Admissions Quad on April 27. We’ll be there all day and we would love for the Harvard community to come celebrate with us.
April A. Sperry ’13, an English concentrator, lives in Winthrop House. She is the Secretary of Native Americans at Harvard College.