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Social and Behavioral Sciences Gateway
An Indigenous Take on Native American Heritage Month

Sarah A. Whitt (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma)
Assistant Professor of Global and International Studies, UCI
Sarah Whitt
For many Indigenous people on Turtle Island, the concept of Native American Heritage Month just never seems to sit well - one month dedicated to acknowledging Indigenous contributions to the United States, when the whole country is premised upon the dispossession of our lands and territories?

Moving beyond mere recognition of Indigenous peoples and our continued existence, this Native American Heritage Month I invite our campus community to reflect upon the impact of colonial education for Native peoples in the U.S., and to examine our personal responsibilities as members of an academic community situated upon the ancestral and unceded territory of Acjachemen and Tongva peoples. Extending my Chamoru colleague Tiara Na'puti's call last month to "make good," I similarly call for dedicated actions that will help make UCI a more equitable environment for Indigenous community members. Let us ensure that Native people thrive under our "Native American Thriving" campus initiative, and in the wider community and place - Tovaangar - in which UCI is situated.

In the not-too-distant past, educational institutions were used as weapons of U.S. settler colonialism; a means by which Indigenous children, youth, and tribal nations were divested of ancestral lifeways and indoctrinated into Euro-American values and mores. As some readers may know, in the middle of the nineteenth century the U.S. government shifted away from overt military warfare against Indigenous tribes and towards a program of forcible assimilation in off-reservation boarding schools. The founding of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1879 marked a renewed governmental effort to strip Indigenous peoples of our epistemologies, and to subjugate our sovereign nations to U.S. authority. Indoctrination into rudimentary English, hard manual labor, homesickness, illness, punishment, and death were routinized features of many Indigenous boarding schools; it is not difficult to understand how these facilities were not places of learning. Alongside a process of systematic land expropriation (referred to as allotment) that resulted in the dispossession of millions of acres of Indigenous lands, dozens of federally-funded boarding schools promised to "educate" and "civilize" generations of Indian people. History tells us that this period of federal Indian policy - known as the Allotment and Assimilation era (1879-1934) - was a failure in more ways than one; our survival today, as Indigenous peoples, is proof that our ancestors courageously negotiated and resisted these devastating policies with varying degrees of success.

The legacy of the boarding schools is a difficult one to measure. Tribal nations continue to feel the tremendous losses of this era, while working assiduously to further truth, justice, and healing for our communities. Of course, there is much more to this story than the intergenerational effects of forced assimilation. There is also incredible genius that today emanates from our languages, ceremonies, stories, and songs; there is power in our collective efforts to ensure the passage of ancestral wisdom and ingenuity from one generation to the next. Contrary to what the Western academy has led many to believe, Indigenous peoples have always valued education. Yet, today, Native people often comprise less than 1% of any campus community and are one of the most underrepresented and marginalized groups in higher education.

UCI boasts a robust Native American and Indigenous student population; our Indigenous faculty members and staff work tirelessly on behalf of these and all students, teaching, conducting research, facilitating community events, and contributing to the enrichment of our academic environment. In my own department, the Department of Global and International Studies, our faculty members make available course offerings, campus events, training opportunities, and community partnerships that center Indigenous viewpoints and knowledges, while transcending disciplinary boundaries. There is much good work happening here on campus, much of it student-led; there is much good work happening in local Indigenous communities.

But this Native American Heritage Month, as we slide toward a "holiday" that sanitizes, mythologizes, and valorizes settler invasion, I invite us all to reflect upon the work that has yet to be done, and to consider our personal roles in shaping a campus community that could center, respect, and work with local tribes to understand their priorities. Learning about the history of Indigenous education and assimilation, engaging with the hard truths of the U.S. settler-national past and present, invites us also to consider the ways in which the Ivory tower - ours, perhaps - continues to exclude or marginalize Indigenous voices and perspectives, making it difficult for Indigenous students, staff, faculty, and community members to flourish.

In the language of my ancestors, the Choctaw language - and the position from which I write - the transitive verb ahlichi means to make true; to fulfill a promise. This Native American Heritage Month (and every month) I am reminded of my obligation as a Choctaw scholar and educator to fulfill a promise: to tell truthful stories that will help uplift our tribal nations, and to take determined action that will help strengthen our collective efforts. As we reflect upon the purpose of such endeavors, I am hopeful that our academic community will continue to express a strong interest in Indigenous studies; include Indigenous speakers in campus and community events; and adopt a campus-wide "land acknowledgement." But I also call upon our academic community to go further: to support Indigenous-led organizations that assist in the rematriation of Indigenous lands and territories; to read and assign Indigenous thinkers and scholars in our classrooms; to examine individual complicity in upholding settler structures of power, academic or otherwise; and to educate yourself, and your family, friends, and loved ones about the Indigenous past, present and future of Turtle Island—from the standpoint of Indigenous people.

Let us "make good" on our aspirations this Hochvffo Chito Hvshi, or Big Hunger Month. Let us make it true that UC Irvine is a place where Native peoples thrive.
Sarah A. Whitt (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma) is an assistant professor of global and international studies with an affiliation in history at UCI. Her book – Bad Medicine – examines American Indian experiences of institutionalization in facilities such as the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, and her writing has appeared in publications such as the Western Historical Quarterly and American Indian Culture and Research Journal. Whitt earned her master's and Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. Her research has been supported by generous fellowships and grants from organizations including the American Council of Learned Societies.