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Celebrating American Indian Heritage Month

This year marks the 30th anniversary of our country celebrating American Indian Heritage Month by presidential proclamation and indeed marks several significant anniversaries impacting Native American communities. 

Sather Gate
UC Berkeley's Sather Gate (Photo by Peg Skorpinski)

UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Equity & Inclusion Oscar Dubón, The Indigenous Native Coalition, Native American Student Development, American Indian Graduate Program, Native American Advisory Council, Native American Staff Council, Native American Faculty Members, The Joseph Myers Center for Research on Native American Issues, The American Indian Graduate Student Association, and The Native American Law Student Association shared this message with the Berkeley staff Monday:

This year marks the 30th anniversary of our country celebrating American Indian Heritage Month by presidential proclamation and indeed marks several significant anniversaries impacting Native American communities.

While 2020 has been a year of deep, extraordinary challenges and unrest in this country, we also observe progress towards a greater understanding, acknowledgment, and eventually reconciliation for past harm. A year after issuing an apology for the California genocide, Governor Newsom signed legislation for further support of Native American communities, including strengthening the rights of lineal descendants and California Indian tribes to request repatriation. After years of petitions and activism calling for change, the Washington D.C. NFL football team chose to stop using a racial epithet as their mascot and team name, and the District of Columbia adopted Indigenous People’s Day (replacing Columbus Day), a growing trend nationally. Finally, the Supreme Court’s decision on the McGirt v. Oklahoma case reaffirmed sovereignty and the importance of treaties for Native American tribes in this country.

At Berkeley, as we build a more inclusive campus, it is important to acknowledge the rich heritage of Native communities in this country, both historically and today. In the last year, our campus has worked to make Native issues more visible and to endeavor to understand the responsibilities that the institution has to Native communities.

The UC Berkeley NAGPRA Advisory Committee was reconstituted with a commitment to repatriation made in conjunction with meaningful consultation with Indigenous Peoples. In the past year, the advisory committee has made direct meaningful consultation with 16 tribes and has reviewed and made a recommendation for repatriation for six claims thus far. Additionally, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research hired the university’s first NAGPRA liaison, Tom Torma, Ph.D.

The Native American Legal Assistance Project (NALA) at Berkeley Law was started in 2019. NALA works in partnership with California Indian Legal Services (CILS) to address legal problems faced by Native Americans. Students work on a diverse set of projects across many fields of law, including criminal law and criminal procedure, environmental law, religious freedom, and voting rights.

The Blum Center for Developing Economies partnered with the UC Berkeley American Indian Graduate Program, the University of Arizona Indige-FEWSS Program, University of South Florida Stong Coasts and Diné College to lead an Indigenous Co-Innovation at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems (Co-InFEWS) conference in June and is continuing with a series of workshops, with one upcoming November 13.

There has been a growing number of conversations about land acknowledgments as a way of recognizing the history of the land on which our institution is built and the ways in which we benefit every day from Indigenous land dispossession. Native American Student Development (NASD) launched a website for their land acknowledgment, co-created with the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. NASD and the Native American Law Student Association and the American Indian Graduate Student Association hosted panels and discussions about the development and use of land acknowledgments.

The campus is fortunate to welcome new faculty:

  • Dr. Andrea Gomez (Laguna Pueblo) joined the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. Andrea is the first Native person in MCB and is affiliated with the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute
  • Dr. Elizabeth Hoover (Micmac/Mohawk) joined the Department of Environmental Science Policy & Management
  • Dr. Peter Nelson (Coast Miwok) will begin a joint position in January with the Department of Environmental Science Policy & Management and the Department of Ethnic Studies, the first of six positions in a cluster hire effort

Searches continue in the remaining five areas as part of the cluster hire announced last fall. These three hires double the number of Native American faculty. We are fortunate to have Native scholars join our campus, and we have deep gratitude for the faculty who have been so few, doing the work of many for far too long.

New Native staff with critical positions also joined us this year:

  • Onaleece Colegrove (Hoopa) –  an Assistant Director and Native American Outreach Coordinator, Office of Undergraduate Admissions
  • Nazune Menka (Koyukon Athabascan/Lumbee) – Policy Fellow, Berkeley Law’s Tribal Cultural Resources Project

While we are in difficult times as a nation, this time provides us with the opportunity to heal from difficult and damaging history. Working to learn and understand histories that have been largely invisible is one way to help all communities move forward. An example of creating these opportunities for learning is The UC Land Grab series. This Berkeley-hosted collaboration with UC Riverside and UC Davis examined the extensive dispossession of Native land through the Morrill Act which funded land grant institutions (see videos).

Instead of canceling the pow wow, the Indigenous and Native Coalition (INC) has partnered with the Social Distance Powwow on Facebook so that UC Berkeley’s virtual pow wow in November will reach over 100 countries and thousands of people, supporting cultural celebration despite a global pandemic.

While there are many things to celebrate, we are far from where we need to be for our Native community, and challenges continue. While we recognize Native heritage this month, all year long we should see and acknowledge the existence of these thriving communities and work to redress injustices and reduce disparities. To find out about events being held this month, please go to the Native Council Calendar. You can also learn more about Native issues, research, culture, and history on this webpage.