Indigenous students share stories of cultural connection

November is Native American Heritage Month and Indigenous students at Temple are sharing how they connect with their cultures and educate others about their backgrounds.

Henry Lynett, a senior political science major, sits for a photo inside Charles Library. | GRACIE HEIM / TEMPLE NEWS

When Davi Ulloa-Estrada learned about the colonization of Africa while taking Africology classes at Temple University last year, the things he discovered pushed him to start exploring his Indigenous identity.

“It is important now more than ever to really connect with that Indigenous ancestry and also be like, ‘Wait, no, I am Indigenous,’” said Ulloa-Estrada, a sophomore film and media arts major and vice president of Native American and Indigenous Studies at Temple.

Indigenous students at Temple University are joyous and proud while connecting with their cultures and educating others during Native American Heritage Month, which is from Nov. 1 to Nov. 30. Through events and personal exploration, Indigenous students have also used the month for advocacy to combat misrepresentations within their communities.

For Ulloa-Estrada, learning about the colonization of Africa, especially how Black people were forced to adopt European customs and beliefs, helped him contextualize what happened to his Indigenous ancestors from the Yaqui, Pima, Nahua and Maya tribes. Spanish settlers forced his ancestors to assimilate to their culture, and they were also all forced to assimilate when the U.S. annexed what is now Arizona, he said.

“They had to mix into the Spanish communities so that they could be safe, but they had to give up their community and their culture to fit in with the rest of that society,” Ulloa-Estrada said.

Understanding the layers to assimilation has allowed Ulloa-Estrada to start connecting with his roots from the Yaqui, Pima, Nahua and Maya tribes, he said. He’s also exploring his background by talking to Indigenous family members about their history, learning Nahuatl, the language of the Nahua people, and educating himself about issues affecting Indigenous communities, he said.

For Adam DePaul, being a member of the Lenape community means being an active participant in the community’s struggles and combating erasure of the tribe and misinformation. Native American Heritage Month is an opportunity to do that.

“It’s unfortunate, but we need specific occasions,” said DePaul, a sixth-year graduate student. “We need things like Native American History Month or Indigenous Peoples Day to specifically combat the erasure that has happened and have a chance to correct misinformation.”

Before coming to Temple, DePaul kept his Lenni-Lenape heritage separate from his academic life, but two of his professors encouraged him to incorporate his identity into his world mythology studies by studying Lenni-Lenape mythology specifically.

After deciding to study Lenape mythology, DePaul connected with two other students interested in Native American studies, and they created NAISAT as a resource for other students interested in learning about Indigenous peoples, DePaul said.

Connecting with other Indigenous people and learning about their history is the best part of being Indigenous, Ulloa-Estrada said.

Henry Lynett initially was not aware November is Native American Heritage Month but believes Temple should sponsor more events celebrating Native American cultures and acknowledging past wrongdoings.

“I would definitely love to hear from somebody from a tribe who’s come to spread awareness or something like that,” said Lynett, a senior political science major. “I think that would be very cool.”

The Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, Advocacy and Leadership hosted Empty Acknowledgments: Accountability on Stolen Land, a talk about land acknowledgements, the practice of acknowledging the U.S. was built on land stolen from Indigenous people, and their role in activism on Nov. 16, according to their Instagram profile.

In 2019, NAISAT hosted a “poster conference” for Native American Heritage Month where undergraduate students created posters depicting what they learned about different tribes and displayed them at the Bell Tower for other students to read, DePaul said.

Although NAISAT could not get a room in time to hold an event for Native American Heritage Month, the organization is planning an event in early December to educate students about Indigenous people from around the world, Ulloa-Estrada said.

“We make it for cultural communication and connection for Indigenous people, but it’s also for non-Indigenous people to really learn more about what being indigenous really means,” he added.

Even though Native American Heritage Month ends on Nov. 30, non-Native people should still learn about and be aware of Native American cultures year-round, Ulloa-Estrada said.

“Indigenous Heritage Month doesn’t stop when December starts,” he added.

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