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Indigenous Representation Is Critical to Cultural Diversity
Diversity Equity and Inclusion | HIVE Insiders

Indigenous Representation Is Critical to Cultural Diversity

HIVE Insider Saxon Stahl on Indigenous representation, combating the ivory tower of higher education, and a basic toolkit on appreciating and advocating for Indigenous culture.

April 08, 2021

“Oh my god! Zendaya is so relatable, she’s like my spirit animal!”

“For rush week, we’re going to have a pow-wow to get to know each other better.”

“I’m 1/16th Native because of my great (x4) grandmother, so I totally qualify for this scholarship.”

These are just some of the many phrases I’ve heard during my time as an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Cruz — a predominantly white institution with a 1.3% Indigenous student population, often regarded as ‘other’ in the survey questionnaire on diversity at UCSC. Whether it was in class, walking through quarry plaza during rush week, or even in the extracurriculars I participated in, I was surrounded by a culture of tone-deaf rhetoric that trivialized sacred vernacular held by Indigenous people around the world.

That was when I knew things had to change, as I was often the only Indigenous student in these spaces. However, I was at a loss of where to even begin advocating, not only for myself but for other Indigenous people. I was barely 18 when I found out I was Indigenous through a DNA test. I only knew 1⁄4 of my biological grandparents so I don’t have certainty in who my ancestors are, but I began making an effort to get a better picture of the culture they were likely a part of.

 

“That was when I knew things had to change, as I was often the only Indigenous student in these spaces.”

 

La Frontera/Borderlands: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldua empowered me to realize that it’s normal to find out you’re Indigenous later on because of the damage colonialism has done to Indigenous lineages. This was when I began to see things differently in my surrounding environment, where colonialism persists even in the most subtle ways.

When I first entered as an alternate representative for the 2019-2020 Student Union Assembly (SUA), the University’s student government, I noticed that I was the only present member of the Assembly with Indigenous descent. And by the second Assembly meeting, a resolution was presented by a student group advocating for deregulation on drug restrictions for the UCSC campus and the city of Santa Cruz. Due to the University’s arbitrary no smoking policy, I would have personally supported this resolution, in fact, most of the Assembly was ready to pass this resolution.

However, amongst the list of drugs that they sought to deregulate, ayahuasca and white sage were included. In several Indigenous cultures, these plant-based substances are sacred for healing practices, and due to the recent popularity of recreational use for these plants, both have recently been placed on the watchlist for endangered species. This puts a strain on the resources available to Indigenous nations everywhere that depend on these plants for medicine.

With this in mind, I asked the student group if they had been in contact with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band (the people whose land that UCSC was built on) about the approval of this resolution since the list included substances the Tribal Band likely depended on. Their answer was no and this left several members of the Assembly visibly uncomfortable, realizing that this was a question they overlooked until I had asked.

I then advised the student group to get the Amah Mutsun’s approval for this resolution first before the SUA passed it. By the time deliberation came the following week for approval of the resolution, the student group had no comment as they had not reached out to the Amah Mutsun for their approval. Upon reflecting this, I urged the Assembly in a five-minute declamation to not let this resolution pass as it doesn’t reflect the sensitivity of tackling Indigenous’ peoples access to healing resources. The resolution failed by the majority consensus of the Assembly.

And while this was a victory, I couldn’t help but think what would’ve happened had I not been present in the SUA space.

I’m a first-generation college student who went into higher academia with the goal to open doors for others in the first-generation community. However, I expanded my intent of being at UCSC to open doors for not only first-gen students but now for Indigenous students, as I’ve realized that my existence in these spaces affects the Indigenous community’s well-being.

 

“I’m a first-generation college student who went into higher academia with the goal to open doors for others in the first-generation community.”

 

There is an overwhelming likelihood that this is a similar case for other Indigenous students in higher academia across the United States, as we’re often the only ones in the room or fully excluded outright. This causes an inordinate amount of emotional labor put onto us as we’re left with the uncertainty of whether or not non-Indigenous people are knowledgeable of how to represent us in these exclusive spaces, thus becoming an exhausting hassle.

So, here’s a basic toolkit of how to Indigenize yourself and be an ally when we’re not in the room:

(1) Get Searching

  • Do you know whose land you’re on? If you don’t know, then it’s best to get familiar with https://native-land.ca/, a map made by Native Land Digital that showcases the Indigenous territories around the world. Just enter your place of residence and bam, you’ll get a small tidbit of info about the land you’re in!
  •  If you become aware of whose land you’re on then it may be the time that your company, university, or club enforces a land acknowledgment! This is usually something you can get from the Indigenous tribes’ website so when you’re repeating the land acknowledgment at the beginning of meetings or events, it’s coming directly from the tribe. Don’t repeat it too often though, as it could potentially just become an agenda item rather than proclaiming the sacred meaning it was intended to have.
  • Another good way to advocate for Indigenous people is to know the population of Indigenous people at your university or company. Maybe even explore why there potentially is such a low number and connect with either the American Indian Resource Center (nearly every University should have one) or Human Resources to figure out what could be done to increase the presence of Indigenous people in your space.

(2) Get Sacred

  • Remember those phrases I started off this post with? All of those phrases in italics signify parts of Indigenous culture that is sacred. By trivializing those terms into everyday vernacular without knowing their meaning, it becomes an attack on the sacredness of Indigenous culture. Try and correct others around you if they use similar dialogue in casual conversations. Language correction is key.
  • If you’re wishing to use sage to ward off negative energy, then make it a point to purchase from actual Indigenous nations that sell sage! The same goes for crystals and other tools for healing since this will allow Indigenous nations autonomy in how they wish to utilize their resources!

(3) Get Social

  • Support Indigenous-owned businesses! Head here to see a list of Indigenous-owned businesses that include industries like fashion, beauty, food, and art: http://www.beyondbuckskin.com/p/buy-native.
  • Follow social media accounts like @illuminatives or @indigenouspeoplesmovement on Instagram, or even look through the Indigenous tag on TikTok to follow famous Indigenous TikTokers like @notoriouscree!
  •  Follow Indigenous activists like Autumn Peltier to be aware of how our climate crisis is disproportionately affecting Indigenous people the most, this will get you connected to other activist accounts so you eventually have an information network of Indigenous activism that tackles a wide variety of issues.
  • Watch modern movies or TV shows with a big Indigenous cast and/or production presence, some of these could include, but not limited to Chambers (Netflix), Reservation Dogs (FX on Hulu), Rutherford Falls (Peacock Original), Resident Alien (Syfy), Smoke Signals ($2.99 to rent on Youtube), and Blood Quantum (Netflix).
  • We just had our first-ever Indigenous Cabinet Secretary confirmed in March 2021. Deb Haaland, who is now the Secretary of the Interior, heads a department that works on relations with Indian Country in the United States amongst a wide variety of other issues. It’s best to follow what the Interior Department is doing throughout the Biden-Harris Administration as it can showcase how to advocate for Indigenous people in congressional lawmaking and company policy.

It is crucial for me to state that I am only one of many Indigenous people around the world and do not represent the insight of my entire community. However, these recommendations come from a place of what I’ve learned and unlearned while living as an Indigenous person in my surrounding environment. If there is someone you know that’s Indigenous, then listen, hear their story, and learn, as those stories often reflect the struggles Indigenous people go through daily.

We are still here.

HIVE Insider Saxon Stahl (Pascua Yaqui, Hopi, and Diné [Navajo]) is a fourth-year student from UC Santa Cruz studying Environmental Studies (Global Environmental Justice Concentration) and Political Science. Stahl is also the undergraduate body’s Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion for the 2020-2021 academic year, serving as a liaison between the 18,000 undergraduate community and campus administration. In addition, Stahl is a member of the NAACP UCSC Chapter and a former intern at the Santa Cruz Climate Action Network.