Social Anxieties: Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a chance to listen to Native American voices

Daily Trojan article by 
October 2, 2018 in 

Oct. 8 will mark the first annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the city of Los Angeles, after the city council voted to rename Columbus Day last year. This day of recognition should encourage us as students to pause and think about how we are serving our Native American peers.

In 2008, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the number of Native American and Alaska Native people enrolled in U.S. colleges doubled between 1976 and 2006, reaching 1 percent of the total college enrolled population in 2006. However, there are only 26 Native-identified undergraduate students at USC, according to the school’s Office of Institutional Research. These students comprise only one-tenth of a percent of the University’s total undergraduate population.

As it stands, Native Americans are one of the most underrepresented demographics on campus, as well as in the American workforce, media and education system. This week, I reached out to a Native American student to discuss what issues specifically affect this population, and how the USC community can help.

As an activist, filmmaker, musician and president of the USC Native American Student Union, Mato Standing Soldier doesn’t match stereotypes. He’s light-skinned with a bleach blonde buzzcut. Aside from his T-shirt which reads, “Don’t worry, be native,” he bears no visible indication of indigenous affiliation. Growing up between Sioux Falls, S. D. and a nearby reservation, Standing Soldier felt the consequences of the United States’ structural bias against Native Americans. He struggled with truancy in school from having to juggle life in two locations, and mourned when women in his community were assaulted and murdered at a disproportionately high rate compared to the average American.

Standing Soldier acknowledged that USC treats its indigenous students well, and praised the University Religious Center for its support. However, he mentioned one serious issue: Lack of representation diminishes Native students’ power and their consequent ability to speak for themselves.

For example, at an Undergraduate Student Government event in April, a vendor erected a teepee, which several students deemed culturally insensitive. USG organizers asked the vendor to take down the tent, and news of the incident quickly spread because of a post on a school Facebook page.

The student organizers were quick to release an apology, and unsurprisingly, students were quick to take sides and share their perspectives on the matter.

“What was concerning on my end was that nobody even consulted the [Native American] Student Union,” Standing Soldier said. “No one sought to get input from Native Americans or from any outlet or person who might be directly affected by this stereotype.”

Standing Soldier explained that it wasn’t the teepee that upset him most, but the native community’s exclusion from the conversation.

“That’s where my area of concern lied, there wasn’t a lot attention given to our opinions and our viewpoint on the matter,” he said. “I feel that when you see something that you might take offense to, you want to go to the source of whoever you feel it may be impacting.”

When Native American students were not given a chance to express their opinions, Standing Soldier realized the lack of sensitivity toward his culture’s existence.

“It’s detrimental to our livelihood … because it puts us in a historical box,” he said. “We’re only allowed to belong in the images that you picture for us.”

Standing Soldier explained that native students exist in different parameters.

“We’re just as human as anyone else,” Standing Soldier said. “But through mascots, through imagery and through Hollywood, we’re seen in a different light that’s actually detrimental to us because we’re seen as the past, we’re seen as history, and not as a current people … We’re not given attention and therefore we’re not given justice.”

By jumping into contentious rhetoric and excluding the voices of the affected individuals, students are then partaking in an act of ignorance that creates outrage out of sympathy.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is coming up next Monday. This year, we should celebrate the present, history and future of our Native American peers by actually listening to them.

The Native American Student Union meets Monday evenings at 7:30 p.m. at University Religious Center. I implore you to come by and hear what they have to say.

Nathaniel Hyman is a freshman majoring in philosophy, politics and law. His column, “Social Anxieties,” runs every other Tuesday.