What’s in a name?


Indigenous Peoples Day: moniker or migraine?

By Amanda Dee

“Native Americans are still under a shadow,” 18-year-old Amber Ankrom says about her heritage, at least 25 percent of it. Ankrom can go from class to class at Wright State University and no one would ever ask about her heritage. And they haven’t. She says it’s, in part, because of her pale complexion—“a chance of a little over three percent.” But once she tells people about it, they notice. Her almond eyes. Her high cheekbones. And they’re “interested.”

Wright State’s Asian/Native American Center Director Mai Nguyen, who was the same age as Ankrom when she left her home of Vietnam to come to the states, says the Native population at the university totals to about 50 out of a university-reported 15,127 students enrolled. “By chance,” Ankrom says she ran into another quarter-Native, who was sitting alone on campus one day—a chance of less than 0.3 percent.

Nguyen has talked to other Ohio multicultural centers, Ohio State, University of Cincinnati, Cleveland State and she’s heard the same thing. She says at Ohio State, for example, there are about 100 out of more than 64,000 university-reported students enrolled who identify as Native, “but one of that 100 is really Native,” Nguyen explained. “The rest are pretty much like descendant, descendant, descendant because of interracial marriage.” About two percent of the American population as of 2013, according to the Census Bureau.

Nguyen is helping Ankrom connect to her culture, which Cherokee Ray Two Crows Wallen says is “astounding that it survived.” Despite the presence of that culture, Native Americans, on the soil that came to be called America in history books, they lost lives, culture and a voice.

All this tremors in the foundation of next week’s federal holiday, Columbus Day. Colorado, the first state to implement it at the state-level and one of the 14 states with more than 100,000 Census Bureau-reported Native (American and Alaskan) residents, was the second state to revoke the holiday.

Now, Colorado and California celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, also called Native American Day.

“Indigenous people started to launch a strong movement—however, it was quiet in the Midwest, where there are few federal reservations,” Nguyen explains. “California’s landscape is peppered with reservations, and was the first state to adopt an Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

Ohio, one of the quiet ones, has no reservations on its land. Two Crows Wallen says “hundreds of people in this area” identify as Native. Nguyen says the name “Ohio” is Iroquois for “beautiful river.” According to Two Crows Wallen, the man for whom Ohio’s capital is named, Christopher Columbus, “wrote in his journal, which still exists, ‘These are beautiful people. They give anything that they have. They’re generous to a fault.’ In his mind, ‘It should only take a few troops to subdue them.’”

Two Crows Wallen says the day Americans celebrate Thanksgiving is “a day of mourning, not because of the Trail of Tears, not because of the Ywahoo Falls Massacre of children and women, but because it’s a day that celebrates the invasion of our world and then the repression and then the illegalization of our culture.”

“What other group didn’t get religious freedom until the year 2000?” Two Crows Wallen asks. “Name one.”

Even today, he says, the Native ritual of the Ghost Dance is still illegal in the federal books.

Yet, Two Crows Wallen says the First Amendment freedom of religion is one principal he and other Natives preach: “Keep your culture. Keep your language. You can speak to God in the way that you want to. Our advice to our children is never put down another person’s religion.”

“We still have those open hands out.”

Two Crows Wallen works with his partner Alicia Pagan in a grassroots community development organization called Ga-Li. “Cherokee for ‘we are doing,’” he explains. “Doesn’t say what, cause that’s your decision. You can be led to the water, but you don’t have to drink it.”

Two Crows Wallen works with Mary Anne Angel, a self-described “cradle Catholic” who works at the University of Dayton on the Circle of Light Initiative and the Native Peoples of America Colloquium. She brings students to Native land to “make relatives” and do whatever their new relatives need them to do.

“I wanted to be a saint when I grew up—that’s all. Just a saint,” she explains before Two Crows Wallen intervenes, “And she is, hasn’t been canonized yet.”

Then, in her 40s while she was finishing up her Ph.D., Angel learned her “big family secret.” Her grandmother was a Cherokee. She changed her dissertation. She decided to do an ethnography—an oral histories project in the Dakotas—to learn about the history of her discovery.

But listening to these Native stories, she had an “epiphany.” She learned about the massacres. The court cases. The policies. The imposition of Catholicism, “that it had been imposed, and that it had been part of the power brokers of colonization.”

“I spent many years being very, very angry,” she says. “But I’m not anymore. There’s been a healing. This process has been a healing process. And now I’m just really grateful.”

“Another thing I ran into when I started doing my ethnography is we had a very, very serious problem with white people writing about Native people,” she explains. “White people being the voice for Native people. And they really were not, with some exceptions of course, but in general misrepresenting, misappropriating Native stories, history, voice, so I came back and I was in a dilemma because I wanted to bring visibility to this. And I knew it couldn’t come from me: I’m not an expert. I had to give them face and voice, their own face and voice. My job wasn’t to talk about them and tell their story. My job was to give them a place to tell their stories and have their face seen.”

She’s studied social movements for years and emphasizes the power of symbols in instigating change. “See, if people aren’t aware about it and they don’t think about it, then it doesn’t matter,” she says. That’s why there’s power in the “hashtag,” like #BlackLivesMatter: “It’s a visible way to say, ‘I see what happened and I stand in solidarity with those people.’”

Nguyen acknowledges that “Columbus’s role, investment, in the colonization of the Americas may seem exaggerated on both sides of the debate—on who’s remembered and who’s forgotten.” But, she emphasizes the importance of reading history, understanding and empathizing.

Ankrom’s Native grandfather, her half-Native biological father and her non-Native family have all preached the same thing to her throughout her life: “The one thing they always told me: If there’s one thing you need to value, it’s your education.”

“Because a lot of times Native Americans don’t receive education as other people, it’s unfortunate, but a lot of times they can’t afford it or they’re just not treated the same. Just kind of lesson they told me to keep with me. Value my education, get through school. Natives are just as capable as black people, Asians, Hispanics, white people. They just made sure ever since I was little, they’ve told me it doesn’t matter what race you are, you’re just as capable as anybody else.”

However, Ankrom doesn’t think changing “Columbus Day” will resolve the issues that have faced and are facing Natives.

“I think that regular people would almost be offended, maybe not offended, more like they would think it’s unnecessary just because, you know, we can still celebrate another culture without deleting any of the former culture,” she says. “I think as a society it would kind of be like, ‘We’ve always had Columbus Day, and it’s not like you’re trying to be racist by celebrating Columbus Day, it’s just that’s what we do.”

She says she thinks more people would be open to adding a holiday honoring Natives than taking one away.

For Angel, a name change is like a hashtag, a powerful symbol.

“It’s not about Columbus Day—well it is,” Angel says. “We’re now able to talk about it. We’re now able to bring this as an issue into public consciousness.”

For Two Crows Wallen, it is also a symbol. Days like “Thanksgiving,” though, are strange to him as a spiritual Cherokee when “every day you get up and you give thanks for being here.”

When Two Crows Wallen and Angel were working with local STEM schools, they met a child who witnessed his best friend get shot in the head. Two Crows Wallen said no one could get through to him, so, to make progress, he revealed that it took him two and a half years to learn to not poop his pants.

“It takes time to learn things. It takes time to change,” he says. “Some things are easy. Pooping in your pants is pretty darn easy. But not doing it changes life. It makes things better. And Columbus Day to me is America pooping in its pants.”

Reach DCP freelance writer Amanda Dee at AmandaDee@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Amanda Dee
Reach DCP Editor Amanda Dee at editor@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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