Inaugural Indigenous Students' Summit


The first ever Indigenous Students’ Summit gathered students and non­students in the PUB
dining hall on Saturday to identify and address the problems faced by native students and
discuss potential solutions.
Though the event was originally intended for students with tribal affiliations, it attracted people of
varied cultural backgrounds. Almost everyone contributed a story that provided their own
perspective on the question “what is your medicine?”
This question essentially asks what makes a person strong and the answer was meant to be a
reflection of who they were and how they withstood oppression.
“The summit is a result of the needs that haven’t been met for the native student community,”
Howie Echo­Hawk said. “For example, 50 percent of American Indian students don’t graduate
from high school and for those that actually do, only 8.5 percent graduate from college. These
numbers are ridiculous.”
Echo­Hawk is a part of the First Nations Club, and though he made sure to remove the need for
a president in the club’s constitution last year, he is a major driving force behind the club’s
recent activity. “(The summit was) done in a talking circle, where everyone is on a level playingfield.” Echo-
Hawk said. “None of us are meant to be the specific leader with all the knowledge. All of us are
coming with knowledge.”
The event got off to a slow start: 60 people, mostly native, were on the RSVP list, but only about
a third actually showed up.
“The idea in the future is that it might be a statewide thing,” Echo­Hawk said. “But since we
decided to do this at the beginning of November, we chose not to reach out to every college in
the state.”
Despite the lackluster attendance, the mood in the room and the response of the participants
indicated that it was a successful experiment.
Roger Fernandes, a well­known indigenous storyteller, kicked­off the event with a story about a
group of animals holding a talking circle that kept getting interrupted by a noisy rabbit. They
repeatedly silenced him to no avail, until they realized that they should have been listening to
him all along.
“When I tell a story, I’m not giving you the answer,” Fernandes said. “I’m giving you the way to
find your own answer.”
Fernandes’ story set the tone for the rest of the afternoon as each participant took turns telling
their own stories. For example, one student talked about how her ancestor’s walk from
Bellingham to Pendleton, Oregon while pregnant gave her strength. Another told a story about
how the statistical improbability of his existence gave him resilience because his tribe was
reduced to 696 people only 100 years ago.
Though the Rabbit’s story can be interpreted many ways, Fernandes suggested one meaning
which made sense in the context of the summit: the Rabbit represents the non­dominant culture
whose needs aren’t getting met, while the animals represent the dominant culture.
“If something comes from the heart, nobody should do anything to silence it,” Fernandes said.
Some members of the circle found their own meaning in the story: one likened the rabbit to the
two Black Lives Matter protestors who interrupted the rally at Westlake Center for Bernie
Sanders.
Another member, Andrea Fast, was compared to the rabbit by others for speaking up on her
experience of surviving domestic violence.
“I don’t really open up a lot about this,” Fast said. “But talking about the issue, and the fact that it
has gotten bigger than myself, gives me strength.”
Another student who identified with the emotion of Fast’s story shared her own, and though it
wasn’t related to domestic violence, the two students developed a personal connection over a
common feeling.
“I feel that, by my pening up, it helps other people,” Fast said. “I’m glad that I’m able to connect
with other students.”
Like many Indigenous students Fast felt invisible when she started attending college. It wasn’t
until she discovered First Nations Club that she was able to join a community with other native
students.
When Rebekah Thorne joined the club, it gave her the opportunity to begin exploring her native
identity. She identifies as biracial, having grown up white, with only a notion of her indigenous
heritage.
“About 1 percent of the student population at SCC is native,” Thorne said. “There’s something
like 130 registered native students here but we don’t know where they are.”
“For the longest time this club was just me and Howie,” Thorne said. “This is the best it’s ever
been, since we have all these people and this community.”
The First Nations Club meets weekly on Tuesdays at 2 p.m. and is run in a similar way to the
summit, in that the students participate in a talking circle by sharing jokes, telling stories and
making plans for future events.
“I feel like the club is already accomplishing more than what I ever wished for,” Thorne said. “I
hope that it stays like this and I know sometimes that’s not the reality. Students come and go
and it’s had a lot of ups and downs.”
Echo­Hawk hopes that the club’s activities and future summits will represent a positive step
towards institutional change for native students. Despite belonging to sovereign nations,
indigenous people are a part of the United States and must interact with its systems.
“We recognize that we live in a country called America,” Echo­Hawk said. “We’re citizens of it
and there are a lot of things in this world that we have to deal with that are not readily changing.”
For non­native students, the main thing Echo­Hawk asks is that they become educated. With
567 federally recognized Native American tribes, all with different cultures and languages, the
classic idea of the “American Indian” taught in many schools is an outdated concept.
“I wish people would know that I’m Pawnee and Athabascan,” Echo­Hawk said. “That’s not
realistic but I’m definitely not Cherokee, Sioux, or Ojibwe and to some people I may not look like
an Indian, but then again, most people don’t know what an Indian looks like. People don’t learn
that we were scholars and studied the stars – that we were sophisticated and fiercely intelligent
people and not just savages.”

_ Randy Hatfield

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