October 29, 2015

5 Questions for the Indigenous People's Demonstration Organizers

by Jack Brook '19, Storyteller for Good

Sierra Ed '18, Kara Roanhorse '18, and Phoebe Young '17 organized the Indigenous People’s Demonstration on Columbus Day, a protest centered around a petition to have Brown change the name of the holiday, currently known as Fall Weekend, to Indigenous People’s Day. They also held a “die-in” on the Friday before Columbus Day, in which students lay down silently for 52 minutes and 30 seconds to represent the 523 years of indigenous oppression since 1492. 

Sierra and Kara are Navajo and Phoebe is Ojibwe. They spoke with me about their motivation for the protest, their transitions to college, and their identities as Native Americans.

Photo by Marianna McMurdock '19

Jack: Why did you guys decide to organize the Indigenous People’s Demonstration?

Sierra: Our ideas behind it were to bring discussion to the reasons for changing Columbus Day [to Fall Weekend] in the first place - and also how the name of the whole weekend doesn’t offer support to Native people and contributes to the erasure of their identity. Also, [the protest] was a reflection of my personal struggles as a Native here at Brown - my first year was really tough because there wasn’t a lot of institutionalized support. One of the main things that I find lacking is that there is no Native American or Indigenous Studies program at Brown. There are only one or two actual faculty who identify as Native and we have such a small population [of Native students] that we really have to depend on each other. I really did not find any support within the institution - we had to create it ourselves.

Kara: The demonstration was about the surviving of the Native people and my identity. During the die-in, you really think about how people have actually died on this land, and how that doesn’t fit into the white narrative of society in which you can have mass genocide and still go on with your life and be happy. But having a visible representation of what happened, with students dead in front of Sayles [Hall], it really gets you thinking.

And just being around community members who feel what you are feeling, being around people who understand, it validates your feelings. The fact that we are even at Brown shows how incredible our ancestors are, how resilient Native communities can be. I am still understanding how it is going to affect people on this campus to see that we actually exist and that we have needs different than other students.

How has Brown failed to recognize and support indigenous students?

Kara: Brown has done the bare minimum in supporting students of color. But particularly as Native students, we don’t get a lot of admissions recruitment in Native communities and there aren’t enough Native people recruited from Wampanoag and Narragansett, which is the land that this university is built on. And Brown itself has never officially made a statement recognizing that it is on Native lands, in a similar way to recognizing its ties to slavery as a colonial institution. It hasn’t recognized that it has been occupying indigenous lands and how that ties to colonialism.

Phoebe: In a lot of ways, institutionalizing that support  - there are Native students' needs but also generally students of color - not feeling welcome in predominately white environments and just feeling like this institution isn’t made for us, which it wasn’t. And so, I think changing the name to Indigenous People’s Day and even coming to terms with the fact that we are on Native land - and that the foundations of this university were built on slave labor so that the sons of slave owners could go here - recognizing that is the bare minimum. Then, figuring out how you can change the university based on that is the next step.

Coming from a Native American background, how was your transition to college?

Phoebe: The obligations that I have felt to my family, to succeed in a way that they weren’t able to, and to succeed for those who came before me, who had to sacrifice for better or for worse to allow me to get here, is something that I have always been pretty acutely aware of growing up and tied to my Native identity. That isn’t something I get a lot at Brown, especially among white students. There isn’t usually a sense of obligation there. And the sense of familial history that I carry with me everywhere I go isn’t something that I see other students constantly thinking about, and that can be very hard. For me, going to college means something very different from my peers at certain times.

Do you feel that the inflammatory Brown Daily Herald column served to help the demonstration?

Phoebe: I think it certainly turned out a lot more numbers but I also don’t think that there should have to be someone posting such a wildly racially insensitive article and historically inaccurate — quite frankly bad — piece of journalism for us to get this sense of recognition. I think that people would have shown up and we would have gotten a lot of signatures anyway, but I think the institutional flair and notice, the publicity that we got, wouldn’t have come out without it. I think that, if anything, it's a testament to how dire our needs are in the sense that we have to have such racist views blatantly published against us for people to actually take notice of us. On a day-to-day basis we’re not thought of otherwise.

Was there a particular moment from the demonstration that resonated with you?

Sierra: For me, I liked the marching around campus because the energy level was high and everybody was united and saying the chants and I think a lot of people noticed us and that was really great. We usually don’t dress up on campus in our traditional clothes so it was just like a special event where we got to show our culture and who we are. We were able to get such visibility on campus, which is something that we can’t always achieve since we have such a small population of students.

Kara:  [During the die-in], when I was laying down I was laying next to Sierra and we smiled at each other a couple of times. We were on concrete and the time passed quickly. I was thinking about my family, my community and Brown, and how they have become complicit in how they have treated students of color. Thinking how awesome it is to have that many people lay down with me to have support and solidarity.

I also really liked the round-dance that we did. You join hands with the person next to you and you just dance in a circle and there is another inner circle as well. It showed the community support of Brown and how cool it is to have an indigenous song being played on the main green.

The members of Native Americans at Brown pose after the protest. Sierra Ed .fourth from left, in purple. Kara Roanhorse. on the right, in green. Phoebe Young, third from right, in red. Photo by Ann Furuyama.

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