There are 113 Indigenous tribes represented at NAU, according to the Native American Cultural Center (NACC). At the university, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is now a celebrated holiday, but it took a long time to recognize its value. From the moment Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, these individuals has persevered through struggle and hardship.
For many tribes, lives were uprooted from that day forward, and their cultural teachings and traditions were cast away in favor of lives they did not ask for. According to Insider, 90% of the Indigenous population died from diseases that Columbus and other Europeans brought when they came to America. In 1830, per History.com, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which relocated tribes to different lands across the western United States in order for the U.S government to use their former homes. Many Indigenous lives were lost due to the act.
In 1860, Indigenous tribes were forced to send their children to boarding schools, according to The Atlantic. They had no choice but to abandon their traditional teachings and endure harsh treatment until 1978, when the last of these schools finally closed.
Despite all the struggles the Indigenous community has fought and continues to face, many youth embody the resilience, strength and power their ancestors held. Freshman Soma Freeman, who is Navajo, explained that she feels valued and empowered by her tribal membership, including its matrilineal culture. Growing up, Freeman said she learned the Navajo language by attending a tribal school, but started to forget it while continuing her education, because Navajo courses were not offered at many schools. However, Freeman continues to learn and practice her people’s traditions, along with the language.
Since she was a baby, Freeman has grown out her hair. A teaching that she explained as close to her heart is one she learned from her grandparents, which is to never cut hair because it represents one’s knowledge. Additionally, she said butchering sheep with her family one of her favorite cultural activities.
Freeman explained there is a lot of misrepresentation of Indigenous people; for instance, that they are homeless or alcoholics, which she said is inaccurate. Another misconception is that Columbus discovered the U.S.
“People say Columbus discovered America, but you can’t really say that because Indigenous people were here first,” Freeman said. “And [Indigenous tribes] were the ones who invited [Columbus and Europeans] over into this world, because we could have done something entirely different than how it was. But we didn’t; we were more friendly and Columbus was just basically like ‘Whatever, we’re just going to take over your land and make it ours.’”
Senior Massai Gonzalez, part of the Mexica tribe commonly known as Aztecs, continues to practice many cultural teachings while being away from his people, who are located in Mexico City. In order to keep his culture alive, Gonzalez said he uses the practices taught by his grandparents and parents. Cultural dances are his way of life, Gonzalez explained, and a source of guidance through everything he does. A phrase Gonzalez said he values in his language is “Mexica Taihui,” which translates into “to keep on moving forward.” Despite hard times, people can persist.
Gonzalez explained that, to him, being Indigenous means a responsibility to preserve Mother Nature. By doing so, Indigenous people are also protecting their identity. He added that one is able to survive, adapt and persist by conserving nature.
Similar to Freeman, Gonzalez noted that Columbus inflicted pain and is still causing suffering to many Indigenous communities — so he does not participate in Columbus Day. Gonzalez explained that its celebration is offensive and ignorant of Indigenous history. However, Indigenous Peoples’ Day has received recognition within the last few years, and the city passed it as an official holiday in 2018.
“I feel like it’s a good step to making these histories known,” Gonzalez said of the holiday. “[We] continue to suffer and we continue to resist colonial powers even today. We might not see it, but the governments are still after us, and they still don’t want us to succeed. Our communities have high rates of suicide, alcoholism and drug usage — these are all problems that colonialism has caused.
“[Colonialists] have driven us away from our traditional lifestyles that kept us healthy, that kept our community safe,” Gonzalez added. “And now we have to deal with all these hardships. … Slowly, we’re continuing to make that change and try[ing] to go back to our traditional lifestyle as best as we can.”
Senior Vernandria Livingston is a member of the Navajo tribe, and she explained the importance of sharing traditions through her peers and Navajo classes. However, Livingston said she did not have the opportunity to learn from her elders while growing up, which impacted her knowledge of traditions. Navajo teachings are deeply rooted in the elders, because they hold all the stories to pass on to their children and grandchildren.
Livingston shared her favorite phrase in the Navajo language — “T’áá hwó ají t’éego” —which can be translated to “only you can do it yourself.” She explained this phrase as showing responsibility for an individual’s decisions and growth, because the path they choose is up to them and no one else. The phrase is a motivator for Livingston while in college, and she explained doing good for herself can do good for others.
She also works as a peer mentor at the NACC, which includes helping Indigenous students. One of the reasons she became a peer mentor, Livingston said, was to help these students navigate their first year of college. Livingston said working at the NACC has contributed to her efforts to learn her language and culture by connecting with other Navajo staff, who help in teaching her this history.
“Being Indigenous to me personally is empowering, because it’s a reminder that through all the historical trauma and all the oppression that we face — then and now — it’s a reminder that we’re not supposed to be here, but we are,” Livingston said. ”It’s about being connected to your culture and your clan and your people. It’s having an obligation to your people to go back and help them in any way that you can, whether it is through education or work.”
The Indigenous people embrace their struggles and continue to fight for their culture through big and small measures. As they navigate a world that suppressed their ancestors, and a society that continues to stigmatize them, this group is fighting to protect and continue its traditions. The strength this community has shown through its history truly expresses how empowering it can be to be Indigenous.