Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 28, 2022


STEPHANIE LEE / The News-Letter

The University commemorated Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday with a pow wow and a keynote lecture by Victoria O’Keefe, assistant professor in the Center for American Indian Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Indigenous Students at Hopkins (ISH) and the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) collaborated in organizing these events and shared the common goal of expanding student knowledge about Native American history and culture.

Over 55 cities across the country chose to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday instead of Columbus Day, because many believe it is wrong to honor a man who caused the genocide of entire communities.

Students, dancers, singers and drummers congregated on Keyser Quad for the pow wow. Various indigenous groups participated, including Native Circle, a group of graduate students and academics who help provide resources for indigenous people. 

President of ISH Tyra Andrews hopes that by increasing awareness about the history of indigenous communities, more people will choose not to celebrate Columbus Day. She added that although the history of Christopher Columbus is embedded in the U.S. education system, she has noticed in recent years that there has been a shift away from dedicating a day to him.

“The culture around Columbus and how Natives are viewed is slowly changing,” she said. “It’s really important, especially for the younger generations.”

Vice President of ISH Joel Espinoza helped organize the pow wow, which is a gathering to celebrate Native American culture and history. Espinoza and other organizers aimed to expose students to a culture that might not be familiar to them. It also served as a way for indigenous students to learn more about their own heritage. He emphasized that pow wows vary because each group of indigenous people is different, including having different types of dance, clothing and food.

“There isn’t one pan-native culture,” Espinoza said. “Native Americans are different across all countries.”

According to Espinoza, who is descended from the Hopi, Pima and Tarascan Indian, Indigenous Peoples Day is important because it highlights a culture that was subjected to intense institutional erasure. He cited examples of times when people were forced off their land, given Hispanic surnames and had their rights taken away from them.

He emphasized that the purpose of ISH is to bring attention to issues facing indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, including the building of a border wall across the lands of indigenous peoples in Arizona.

“Our main goal is not just to highlight issues, but also to make people aware of our culture and also to alleviate any misconceptions having to do with our culture,“ Espinoza said. 

He applauded Hopkins for not taking a Eurocentric stance in regard to this holiday. He also commended the University’s Center for American Indian Health, which is devoted to serving tribal communities and renewing the well-being of Native Americans.

At the evening lecture, O’Keefe described some of the health disparities that affect indigenous communities, including mental health. O’Keefe’s research focuses on developing suicide prevention, as well as the historical and social factors in ethnic minority communities that affect mental health. She explained that part of her research also revolves around microaggressions and how they can negatively impact mental health.

“Empirical research has shown that discrimination or racial aggressions are linked to a number of negative health outcomes, negative academic outcomes and negative mental health outcomes,” she said.

As an example, she touched on sports mascots, such as the Washington Redskins, and how racial slurs assist in perpetuating stereotypes and discrimination against indigenous people. 

She said that many of these microagressions stem from historical events such as colonization that target minority communities and are an underlying cause of mental health disparities.

“One of the reasons that it’s important to know about these events is because they’re linked to depression and current health inequities,” she said. 

She stressed the importance of remembering the historic catastrophes indigenous people faced because many of them still affect indigenous communities to this day, including the relocation and destruction to their land.

“These devastating events continue to impact natives through historical trauma,” O’Keefe said.

She also touched on more current events, like the protest at Standing Rock where indigenous people expressed their opposition to the construction of Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline because it would cross the Missouri River and threaten access to clean water. This land was also considered an ancient burial ground, which was sacred to the people living there.

In her current work, O’Keefe is still focusing on suicide prevention in terms of strength-based factors, such as hope and optimism. She is studying how hope and optimism are incorporated into indigenous culture through traditions, stories and intertribal activities such as Pow-Wows.

Although O’Keefe, who is affiliated with the Cherokee and Seminole Nations of Oklahoma, did not grow up in her native territory, her mother took her to many pow wows in Oklahoma, across the country and in Canada. She said that this was a way to help her embrace her culture and learn about her heritage. 

She assisted OMA and ISH in organizing the pow wow earlier in the day because she has previous experience with organizing this type of event.

“I’ve danced at pow wows ever since I was five-years old so I have a lot of experience with pow wows,” she said in an interview with The News-Letter. “I’m also very connected to the indigenous community here in Baltimore and D.C. I offered to help out where I can and that’s really what we do as Native People and as a community — support one another.”

In her lecture, O’Keefe emphasized the importance of Hopkins students celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day. She believes students should celebrate indigenous people every day. O’Keefe also said that on Monday, all indigenous people should be commemorated, including tribes not formally recognized by the U.S. government and individuals who do not live in the U.S. or are mixed race.

She also explained how the terms “indigenous,” “Native American” and “Native Indian” are all umbrella terms that we use to refer to a wide variety of tribes but are never used by indigenous people themselves. O’Keefe explained that this, as well as homogeneous representations in media, misrepresents the diversity and differences between tribes. 

“The media rarely or never depicts Native Peoples as contemporary individuals in mainstream public spaces,” she said. “What people see on TV, in books, in newspapers becomes their ingrained version of what a Native person is supposed to look like or supposed to act.”

O’Keefe cited a study that has shown that these images were associated with low self-esteem and low school performance. She said many of these traits further impacted individuals’ mental health, yet many of these people do not have access to mental health resources.

According to one of O’Keefe’s slides, Indian Health Service, the federal health program for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, only covers one third of the cost of what other health insurance provides.

Sophomore Benjamin Bich attended the event on Monday and he found these statistics to be alarming.

“What stood out to me, being pre-med and all, was that they talked about medicine in the Native American community, especially the impact of the historical transgressions on the medical [situation] of Native Americans today,” he said.

Bich added that he thought the event was worth attending because it helped him understand a different culture and the repercussions of discrimination toward indigenous people.

“I’m a white male so I don’t know the indigenous people and their lifestyle,” he said. “It was interesting to go and to see a different perspective on the world and how it is.”

Cyndy Vasquez, secretary of ISH, expressed that the events on Monday were particularly important because it was the first time the University planned these kinds of festivities to officially celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

“There isn’t a large presence of indigenous students at Hopkins, so we wanted to do this event to show that we’re here and to encourage other students to join,” she said.

Founder of ISH Joshua Bertalotto, who graduated just last semester in May 2018, created the student group because he felt that there was no established community for indigenous students.

In an email to The News-Letter, he explained that he created this organization so that indigenous students would have a welcome environment at Hopkins. He hopes that this group will encourage other students with tribal affiliations to attend the University.

“We were one of the few groups left out of OMA programs and had no group of our own, no culture of our own on campus,” he wrote. “How could we expect to have more indigenous students on campus without first having that infrastructure?”

O’Keefe stated that although indigenous people have suffered a long history of oppression and discrimination, their continued legacy shows the resilient nature of indigenous culture. She argued that even though people have tried for centuries to eradicate indigenous people, many traditions and communities have persevered.

“Indigenous peoples have been standing up and fighting for the right to life, land, culture, religion, spirituality, language and the future since the very beginning of contact with the Europeans,” she said. “Every Native born into this world is a victory against colonialism and attempted genocide.”

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