Guest column by Jessica McCool
Indigenous People’s Heritage Month has finally made its debut at Chapman. However, I can’t ignore the fact that our cultures and identities have been oppressed for years, that people still celebrate “Columbus Day,” some wear headdresses as accessories and others still recognize Thanksgiving as a joyful gathering between the pilgrims and American Indians. But I am thankful for the small stride that Chapman has made to celebrate indigenous cultures and amplify our voices on campus.
Coming to Chapman was hard for me because, growing up in the Chumash culture, I was always surrounded by family and a comfortable community. At Chapman, I lacked this sense of community, so I decided not to return after my first semester of my freshman year. Instead, I went home and continued working in the environmental department on my reservation in Santa Ynez, California. In that time, I learned different aspects of my culture, language and skills, like installing solar panels and restoring traditional plant-gathering sites. I realized that self-education and keeping my culture alive was important for myself, my community and future generations.
I knew that I could transfer to another school where I would feel more comfortable, or I could return to Chapman to be a part of much-needed change on the campus. After that one semester off, I decided to come back. I heard that there was going to be a Cross-Cultural Center opening on campus and I knew that I had come back for a reason: to be involved in this project. Just the mere words “cross-cultural center” gave me a new hope for this campus and the type of community I was looking for.
Now, Chapman is celebrating Indigenous People’s Heritage Month and I have a much better sense of belonging. Talking about these issues is the first step toward solving them. It might seem patronizing that we are given just a month to be recognized and to celebrate our people’s resilience when the government should have been recognizing indigenous people from the beginning. But when a culture is so oppressed and tucked into society, small months of remembrance are our foot in the door. It is a time to cultivate dialogue and education.
My elders were reluctant to tell stories about growing up because their generation was removed from the reservation. They felt that, in order to have a better life and provide for their families, they would need to leave. Since then, during my childhood, our tribe, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, has made huge strides in development. We now have running water, electricity, a casino, our own tribal law enforcement and fire department, a health clinic, an education department offering after-school programs for our youth, a language program revitalizing the Samala language into our everyday lives and an environmental department — my personal favorite.
Some tribes are not as fortunate. At native youth conferences I attend, I hear stories about how children and adults were placed in separate cemeteries in their communities and that there are no programs to help members who become victims to drugs and alcohol. They’re losing their languages, they live in unhealthy communities and poor environmental conditions, and most of them do not thrive in higher education. I am not sharing this information to get sympathy for the Native American communities, but, in order to see a group in society as equal, we must recognize the struggles and oppression they have gone through and continue to face.