The Indigenous Student Union reclaims the narrative

Quinnipiac students celebrate Indigenous Peoples Week

Ashley Pelletier and Neha Seenarine

Rania Bensadok (left) and Kiara Tantaquidgeon (right), secretary and president of the Indigenous Student Union, spread the word about the organization at the Multicultural Student Leadership Council’s Culture Fair on Oct. 15. (Ashley Pelletier)

Indigenous people all over the world continued to reclaim their story on Oct. 11, celebrating their heritage — Quinnipiac University was no exception.

The Indigenous Student Union (ISU) hosted a week of events from Oct. 11-15, to celebrate and educate the Quinnipiac community on Indigenous cultures and history.

The ISU kicked off its week of events on Oct. 11 with an “Indigenous Peoples Day Celebration” on Zoom. It recognized the Indigenous peoples of the past, present and future.

“These conversations in this space are particularly important as we walk on Quinnipiac land,” said Kiara Tantaquidgeon, president of the ISU and a member of the Mohegan tribe. “Indigenous Peoples Day is not just important for those with Indigenous backgrounds, heritage and history, but for all of us as it is an integral part of our community on this campus that is on native land and carries a native name.”

The event focused on taking back the narrative of colonization that has been stolen from Indigenous people in American history. The second Monday in October has been celebrated as Columbus Day since 1971. But in 1977, Indigenous peoples went to the United Nations to propose the idea of Indigenous Peoples Day to correct the whitewashing of both American and global history.

“Indigenous Peoples Day is not only about decolonizing the holiday,” Tantaquidgeon said. “It also allows us, Indigenous people, to be empowered to decolonize ourselves by occupying spaces and making our voices heard in a way that our ancestors were not able to.”

The celebration featured guest speaker Adam Soulor who serves on the Center for Native Youth advisory board and is chairman of the Mohegan Youth Council. Soulor emphasized the power of education when unveiling the truth.

“A lot of times just rewriting that narrative — that education piece, because we go through school and we learned so much about Columbus,” Soulor said. “When we’re younger, he was such a great, great guy. He was a hero, but as you get older you start to learn the truth. The horror of all the stories — I think now as society advances we’re coming to that point, education is power.”

In September, the Hartford City Council unanimously voted to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. This is also the first time a president recognized Oct. 11 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, since President Joe Biden acknowledged Indigenous Peoples Day as a holiday on Oct. 8.

“Our country was conceived on a promise of equality and opportunity for all people — a promise that, despite the extraordinary progress we have made through the years, we have never fully lived up to,” Biden said. “That is especially true when it comes to upholding the rights and dignity of the Indigenous people who were here long before colonization of the Americas began.”

The ISU’s second event on Oct. 12, was called “Indigenous at CT Universities: a Student Perspective” with panelists from Quinnipiac, the University of Connecticut and Yale University. Each speaker discussed the importance of an Indigenous presence on their school’s campus. The panelists shared their journeys through higher education and how the lack of a multicultural environment impacted them.

An Indigenous presence at Quinnipiac is crucial considering the university was built on native land. The university lacks ties with the Quinnipiac tribe and has misrepresented the tribe and its mythos in the past, as seen with the Legend of the Bobcat, which fictionalizes the story of Hobbamock. Tantaquidgeon founded the  ISU only two years ago to build a community for Indigenous students and faculty on campus.

On Oct. 13, the ISU took a step away from Connecticut and focused on the Inupiaq tribe of Alaska at its general board meeting, “Kickin’ it with the Inuit.”

The ISU treasurer David Rosenbaum focused on the Inupiaq tribe because he was inspired by their adaptability in the harsh conditions of the most northern regions of Alaska and Canada. He focused his presentation specifically on Utqiagvik, the Alaskan town formerly known as Barrow.

The Inupiaq still primarily eat meat despite some commerce in the region. Agriculture is all but impossible because of a layer of permafrost, preventing the ground from thawing. The tribe’s diet consists of whales, seals, caribou and other arctic animals. They make use of every part of an animal, including bones which can be used for tools and artistic carvings.

“I am insanely inspired by Alaska,” Rosenbaum said. “I plan on, after I graduate, (going) up to Utqiagvik for two years and emailing someone to be like ‘I just graduated college, I want to go into ethnography, teach me how you live, put me to work.’ I believe (the Inupiaq) are heavily overlooked because when you think of native and Indigenous people, whether we like it or not, we all have an image in our minds.”

Tantaquidgeon agreed that learning about the Inupiaq tribes helps challenge traditional ideas of what it means to be Indigenous in the U.S.

“I think from an ISU perspective it’s really important to look at these different cultures and the dichotomy between what we think of as American … and the vastly different experiences that (the Inupiaq have) had in the face of colonization and the different kind of attitudes towards that are definitely important to highlight,” Tantaquidgeon said.

To round off the events specific to Indigenous Peoples Week, the ISU did a viewing of the documentary “Gather,” which is set to come out on Netflix on Nov. 1.

“Gather” is an “intimate portrait of the growing movement amongst Native Americans to reclaim their spiritual, political and cultural identities through food sovereignty, while battling the trauma of centuries of genocide,” according to the film’s website.

The documentary followed the experiences of several Indigenous people, including Elsie DuBray, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation who is an undergraduate at Stanford University. DuBray placed fourth in the biology division at the 2018 Intel World Science Fair, where she presented her studies on buffalo meat, which her family harvests.

She researches traditional indigenous diets to combat the diabetes epidemic that Indigenous people face. According to a study conducted by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, eight in 10 First Nations people will develop diabetes compared to only five in 10 non-First Nations people. While that study was specific to Indigenous peoples from Canada, the issue extends to Native Americans as well.

Another story from the film is that of Nephi Craig, a member of the White Mountain Apache that founded the Native American Culinary Association, a network “devoted to the development and preservation of Native American foodways.”

Food insecurity is a serious issue for Indigenous peoples. Native Americans face food insecurity as a lasting impact of centuries of persecution from colonizers that continues to this day. According to Hunger and Health, one out of four Indigenous people in America face some form of food insecurity.

The team behind “Gather” also ran a journalism project from 2017-19, hiring Native American journalists and photographers to cover stories important to food sovereignty in Indigenous communities. The project ended with several stories published across several platforms, including a story published by The San Francisco Chronicle about the restoration of tribal traditions in northern California.

The week ended with the Multicultural Student Leadership Council’s Culture Fair, where the ISU executive board had a table to advertise their club and an upcoming fundraiser with fraternity Alpha Sigma Phi.

The fundraiser is to support the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, a group that advocates for Indigenous women and children, and the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the U.S.

The ISU has progressively made a significant impression on Quinnipiac, and it has been long overdue for Indigenous presence to be acknowledged at the university.