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  • Ashley Torkornoo

Breaking the Silence: A Look into Indigenous People and the Mount Part 2

In honor of November being Native American Heritage Month, The Mountain Echo would like to shed light on issues affecting Indigenous people. Part one highlighted major issues affecting Indigenous communities and the environment. These international issues can be seen on a local level here at Mount St. Mary’s University. As an institution built on land that is now called America, the biggest question people who want to reprimand the past may ask is who was here before?

Dr. Rosie Bolen, the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Training and Development explained, “The idea of land ownership is different for Indigenous people. They were in a relationship with the land rather than owning it which makes it difficult to know who was there before us.”

Many universities and institutions have written land acknowledgments. These are "Statements that will acknowledge who was here before us. It is specific and acknowledges the exact tribe," Dr. Michelle Patterson, Associate Professor of Native American History explained.

The problem with land acknowledgments are they can be seen as performative. It is great to acknowledge the caretakers of the land before colonials but that is only the beginning of reparations, not the end. To write a proper land acknowledgment the person has to get the approval of the Indigenous community there. That can in turn put the labor on Indigenous communities when it is our responsibility to educate ourselves, not theirs.

“At my last institution I knew I was on Wabanaki land. The institution wanted to have a land acknowledgment and wanted me to approve of one. I am Cherokee & Semano, not Wabanaki,” explained Erica Rousseau, the Director of the Center of Student Diversity and who is Afro-Indigenous. “Even though I am an Indigenous person, I am not of that tribe or nation.”

Rousseau stressed, "We need to first reconcile then say something. Because without doing the work what is the point of making a statement."

If a land acknowledgment comes after reparations, what are some ways to reconcile now? One way is through education. Universities across the U.S. are starting to offer full-ride scholarships to Native American students. The first Native American student to graduate from the Mount was Karl Little Owl (C’10) and the first Native American woman to graduate from this institution was Hunter Old Elk (C’16). The Mount also has a Native American scholars program.

“The Native American Scholars Program is a formal Agreement between St. Labre Indian Catholic High School in Ashland, Montana, and the Mount for scholarships for a couple of students each year,” Dr. Paula Whetsel-Ribeau, Associate Provost for Student Engagement & Success stated.

The Native American Scholars Program is a great start; however, there is a large part of reparations that needs to be taken to account.

"I think it's important as a Catholic institution to reorganize what happened in these residential schools,” Patterson emphasized.

Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania was the first government-run boarding school for Native American children. Opened in 1879, the goal was to force the assimilation of Native children into White American society under the belief of “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” The gravestones of 186 children who attended the school are recognized at its cemetery. It is only an hour’s drive from the Mount.

When asked what her goal is as the Director of DEITD to improve the Mount's initiative to recognize Indigenous people, Bolen stated, "The process of building a land acknowledgment in consultation with tribal elders will involve many members of the Mount community and will increase our knowledge and awareness of the Indigenous peoples who were in a relationship with this land before we occupied it.” She continued. “It is important for the Mount to understand the historical relationship between the Catholic Church and minoritized populations and specifically with Indigenous peoples. These topics are addressed in our curriculum, such as in Dr. Bill Collinge’s Catholic Social Teaching course, but I hope to provide additional opportunities for these discussions."

But what can we do about these issues in the meantime? It is easy to respond in the most politically correct way which would be amplifying Indigenous voices. But that puts the emotional work on a group of people already dealing with the emotional baggage of everything explained above.

The first step to reconcile is the past and present to educate ourselves. Education can begin decolonizing our mindset and reimagine our relationship with the land. Native American History is being taught by Patterson during Spring 2022 and it is not too late to register.

“We need to start being honest,” Rousseau urged. This is the second step to reconcile. Having honest discourse about what happened and what continues to happen to Indigenous people is the only way we can begin to make effective change.

The third step is to listen to Native voices and support them in their causes. Many activists have made their work accessible through social media. Water protects like Giiwedinidizhinikaaz and activists like Cheyenne Faulkner, Ugrunna and Lance Tsosie who have utilized their social media platforms to shed light on issues that have not been getting enough press.

The fourth step is to take care of the land. “When you're not being proper stewards of the land you stole there's an issue,” Rousseau emphasized. Does the Mount have an active recycling program and an active to shrink our carbon footprint?

“There are many things we can learn from Native American communities including valuing community and the land over profit,” Patterson explained.

We cannot change the past but we can determine how we deal with it moving forward to make a better tomorrow.


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