Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 29, 2020

Indigenous students unite at powwow

By EMILY MCDONALD | October 17, 2019

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Students celebrate second annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the University.
RUDY MALCOM / The News-Letter

Indigenous Students at Hopkins (ISH) hosted a powwow on Monday to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, marking the second year that Hopkins has recognized the holiday instead of Columbus Day. 

The event featured speeches, music, food and dances from multiple tribes. The Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) Assistant Director of Programming Kwame Phillips moderated the event. 

ISH Vice President Joel Espinoza, who is descended from the Hopi, Pima and Tarascan tribes, opened the powwow by explaining that recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day affirms that much of the land in the U.S. originally belonged to indigenous people and that, though he is often credited for it, Christopher Columbus did not discover the Americas. 

“Today serves as a reclamation of our history. It is to rewrite the narrative that we’ve been taught since childhood that Columbus somehow discovered the New World,” Espinoza said. “But this world is not new. It was ours to begin with.”

In an interview with The News-Letter, Espinoza reflected on why Indigenous Peoples’ Day is meaningful to him.

“As someone who identifies as Native American or indigenous, for too long you go so far through your life not interacting with many native people, and you start to feel a little alone, a little isolated,” he said. “Then when you come to a place like Hopkins, especially when it seems so predominantly white, you really hold on to your culture, and you try to find people who identify similarly to you.”

Dennis Zotigh also spoke at the event. He works with the National Museum of the American Indian and is a member of the Kiowa, San Juan Pueblo and Santee Dakota Indian tribes. Zotigh contextualized the recent history of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the U.S. 

“Today is a good day to be indigenous,” he said. “There are 14 states today in the year 2019 celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ or Native American Day. There are 144 American cities and towns celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ or Native American Day. And for the first time, our nation’s capital now recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”  

Nationally, however, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is not recognized. In light of this, sophomore Garryn Bryant, an ISH member and a member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, spoke about the significance of having the University formally acknowledge it.

“It’s very difficult and takes a long time for the government to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, so starting with the University, starting with a place of education... and hoping that it spreads out from there, is a way to get a lot of people interested,” she said.  

Andrew Larman Thompson IV, or Atak Homa, is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and a cultural board director at the Baltimore American Indian Cultural Center, which provides resources for urban indigenous people. 

Thompson said he attended the powwow because he has danced for most of his life and appreciated the event’s celebratory aspect. 

For him, this aspect is one of the reasons Columbus Day should be renamed. 

“It’s important… to at least observe something that’s actually celebrated,” he said. “Not many people, last time I checked, actually celebrate the statues of Christopher Columbus in the way that indigenous people celebrate themselves each and every day.”

Chaplain of the Interfaith Center Kathy Schnurr also spoke, reminding the audience that powwows are spiritual events. 

After these opening remarks were delivered, the dancing and music began.

Angela Gladue, one of the Nehiyaw Cree dancers who participated in the event, explained in an interview with The News-Letter that where she is from in Alberta, Canada, powwows take place every weekend and can last until 3 a.m.

Gladue added that she appreciated that indigenous peoples from South America were represented as well. 

“I love that the Bolivian dancers are here too, because they’re indigenous as well, so Indigenous Peoples’ Day isn’t just for us. It’s for all indigenous people, and it’s for everybody to celebrate, because we live on this land. We live on indigenous territory,” she said.

Singer and drummer Ralph Zotigh, who spoke at the event, also appreciated the fact that it was inclusive of different tribes. 

“As I look around it just really melts my heart,” he said. “Through the years, somehow we got put down as a second-class people. But through all those years we’ve stuck together in spite of different languages, different geographic locations. We’ve always been together, so here we are today.”

Many students who attended the event discussed the importance of visibility for indigenous people, especially at Hopkins. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, Espinoza explained that connecting with members of indigenous communities was especially meaningful when he first came to college. 

Espinoza said that he was in part inspired to join ISH because of University President Ronald J. Daniels’ 2016 Roadmap on Diversity and Inclusion.

“Not seeing a mention of Native students or indigenous people — that really struck a chord,” he said. 

However, Espinoza said that he has appreciated the University’s recent efforts to be more supportive of indigenous students. 

“The Admissions Office has reached out to our club... to say, ‘How do we get a conversation going and reach Native students?” he said. “The decision to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, not Columbus Day, shouldn’t be, but is, a controversial thing to do and for an institution like Hopkins to do that and make that full acknowledgement is pretty bold, and it’s very much appreciated.”

Senior Cyndy Vasquez, the secretary of ISH, touched on ways the University could support indigenous students more. She suggested making an effort to bring more indigenous students to Hopkins, noting that currently, they make up only one percent of undergraduates. 

Vasquez added that she also appreciated the University’s recent recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

“Hopkins tends to gloss over histories of people who already existed here, be that indigenous or African American, so having this event to reaffirm that we are on Native land is really important because it establishes that Hopkins has an awareness of its own history and tries to rectify it,” she said.

Sophomore Jasmine Dong, a member of ISH, agreed that indigenous communities do not receive enough support at Hopkins, and suggested hiring an indigenous professor, since there are currently none working on the Homewood campus. She also said that she would like to see more indigenous history classes.

Bryant explained that while indigenous communities still face the threat of erasure, the powwow allows them to showcase their culture. 

“We really need to bring our culture into public view, into a normal or everyday thing, because a lot of people forget about us. A lot of people try to ignore us,” she said. “We’re still a very vibrant culture. We’re still here, we’re still making an impact.” 

Kwame Phillips, assistant director for programming at the Office for Multicultural Affairs (OMA), described the planning of the event in an email to The News-Letter

Phillips said that for this year’s celebration, OMA worked to expand their list of performers, improve their marketing and partnered with Hopkins departments and outside organizations.

“We have seen an increased awareness about the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Celebration at Hopkins through our social media channels where our event has reached over 21.1K people on Facebook,” Phillips wrote.

Some of the organizations present at the event included Native American Lifeline, a Baltimore-based group which provides health-care services to Indigenous people, and the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for American Indian Health, which offers services for students and opportunities for people doing research involving indigenous groups.

Last year, Phillips said, his office tried to make Indigenous Peoples’ Day as powerful as possible. 

“Indigenous Peoples’ Day reimagines and provides a counter-narrative to Columbus Day and changes a celebration of colonialism into an opportunity to reveal historical truths about the oppression of indigenous peoples in the Americas, to organize against current injustices, and to celebrate indigenous resistance,” Phillips wrote. 

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