November is Native American Heritage month, and for the past four weeks, Cal State San Bernardino held virtual events focused on building a safe space for students to celebrate their history, traditions and culture.
“Something I’m working on is the greeting from my Native language," said Amanda Rose, a graduate student and Native American peer mentor at Cal State San Bernardino. "I can’t do it, but it’s really exciting to just know that other people are doing that too.”
Rose said she considers herself an urban Indian who did not spend much time on the reservation growing up, which made it difficult to make connections within the Native community until college.
“What’s nice about the college campus is there are all kinds of Indians. There’s all kinds of Indigenous and Native Americans so you kind of get that connection in more than one place," said Rose. "And we are able to learn from one another despite having different backgrounds. We kind of all have similar experiences as far as feelings and emotions, so that’s created a real comradery too.”
Dr. Molly Springer, the college’s associate vice president of student success and board member for heritage month, said up until college, most Native students are used to being only one of a few.
"It’s a hard existence to not have your community around you," said Springer. "And so Native students are often elated when we have Native events on campus or recognition of who they are.”
Rose said she can relate to the feeling of isolation.
“I didn’t grow up with a lot of Native role models and I’m beginning to realize that was because historically it wasn’t always something you wanted to tell everyone,” said Rose.
That experience she shared ties into the month’s theme, “Decolonizing Across Communities.”
Another example is from a film they screened, “Rumble: Indians Who Rocked the World,” and how it decolonizes music history by showing the influence Indigenous music had on modern music. Like the little-known fact that legend Jimi Hendrix had Native heritage, too.
Rose said a good place for anyone to start is to look at accepted history and then learn what other versions of the story might be out there.
“I think it was Dr. Molly Springer, in a talk recently on decolonizing higher education, she said don’t be afraid to question," said Rose. "Don’t be afraid to question something, just because it’s something you’ve always known or always done, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing. And that really resonated with me because sometimes it’s really embarrassing to question. Especially as a Native when I’m told what to think or expect. It can be hard to question.”
Springer, who is Cherokee and Osage, said for many years colonial European culture told Native people what they should and should not do.
“The antithesis of that is to ask. To ask, never tell, but to ask. What would you like us to partner on with you? What would bring healing and help?”
Springer said the month was also a time for healing through traditional songs and stories. The opening ceremony on Zoom included a speech by State Assembly and San Manuel Band of Mission Indians member James Ramos. The Bird Singing troop he is a member of also sang.
“We were just listening and dancing along in our own living rooms," said Springer. "But it’s still so important to do the work we know is ours to do. And that’s to create the traditional modalities and make sure that we are teaching our stories and our songs of these areas to our students, and to make sure that people understand, that virtual or no virtual, we still exist.”
She said the Native community in the Inland Empire is especially vibrant and very much alive.