Native American Heritage Month reclaims its roots

By TylerRaikar

November was the month of celebrating Native American heritage, and on Nov. 18, Project Beacon Coordinator of NUIHC (Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition) Lestina Saul-Merdassi shared the authenticity and beauties of Native American culture in the cafeteria. 

Infographic by TylerRaikar

This took place during the Doughnuts for Diversity meeting, which aspired to educate all students on how to appreciate and celebrate different cultures. Director of Diversity and Inclusion Ms. Devin Owens commemted that “hearing from speakers like Saul-Merdassi reminds us all of the resilience of those who are indigenous to the land.”

A member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate (and a lineal descendant of the Yankton and Santee Dakota Oyate nations), Saul-Merdassi advocates and coordinates projects in the American Indian and Native populations. 

She is also named the Shining Light Wind Woman, or as she says, “Tateojanojanwin.” Saul-Merdassi is actively working on her master’s degree in professional psychology from Bellevue University and helps the Native communities in recovery from alcohol and drugs.

According to USA.gov, 574 tribes are federally recognized; however, 200 of them fail to hold recognition, meaning they get zero federal aid from the Indian Health Service. Moreover, before 1492, an estimated 54 million American Indians scattered the lands of the U.S. Ever since, the numbers have tapered down to only 3.7 million. In fact, according to the Institute of Northwestern University, one in three Native Americans live in poverty.

Numerous stories unfold within American history of what happened to Native American tribes. But what they all share is that each one of them is a survivor of genocides, forced assimilation and oppression. “We can learn so much from their way of life, tradition and relationship with the earth,” Ms. Owens said. 

The Dakota exile from Minnesota is a prime example that demonstrates Native Americans forced out from their ancestral lands. Before their land was stolen, it belonged to the Umonhon peoples. This land was hence named Omaha following colonization, and its true origin dissipated into buried history that is “rarely spoken about.”  

Oppression was an everyday occurrence brought upon the Native Americans around the 1800s. Recognition of this oppression still being in effect today fails to reach to many people, however. Native Americans are deprived of their true names in replacement of Americanized names. 

Saul-Merdassi shared how she doesn’t “understand why people think it is okay.” They also are stripped of their family systems, and what is left are the memories and tales that can only be orally passed. But amidst this, Saul-Merdassi said, “We are empowered to regain our traditions and ethics back.”

Because Americanization caused a loss of language, traditional use of herbal remedies and medicines, traditions, dances and far more cultural identities, many Native Americans feel robbed of their trueness. Even though the Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978 (an act that gave Native Americans the right to exercise their religions), many heirlooms and languages are remains of history for Native Americans to hold onto. Only so much is left for them to cherish, and this generation can help cherish them, too.

Native American appreciation celebrates the beauty of the traditions and practices of the peoples, but more importantly, helps the Natives feel represented and heard. 

Stopping the spread of misinformation helps immensely, as well as supporting Native American businesses. For example, it is crucial to understand that Disney’s “Pocahontas” is not all fairy tales and butterflies; the real story illustrates an 11-year-old girl who was taken away from her family and sexually abused by the so-called “Disney Prince” in efforts to brainwash her. 

Despite a tragic past, Native Americans, and women in particular, are leading the charge for the reclamation of their languages, traditions and ceremonies.

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