Kansas State Indigenous Peoples Day and So Much More

On Monday, October 12, 2020, the Kansas State Indigenous Faculty and Staff Alliance hosted their fifth annual Indigenous Peoples Day Symposium. It comes in a season of compelling events, including a live art performance by artist/activist Bunky Echo-Hawk (Yakama/Pawnee), which was part of K-State’s KSUnite programming on Tuesday, October 13, and, looking forward, the upcoming performance next Tuesday, October 20th, from 5:00-6:00 pm CST by the Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo (Muscogee Creek Nation).

Indigenous Peoples Day went virtual in 2020, as much of life has these days, but the move to online discussions did nothing to lessen the intellectual and emotional impact of the Indigenous knowledges and practices shared by the speakers.

The day began with introductions and a welcome by the IFSA co-chairs Laverne Bitsie-Baldwin (Diné), the Director of Multicultural Engineering Program in the Carl R. Ice College of Engineering and Alex Red Corn (Osage), Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership, College of Education and Executive Director of the Kansas Association for Native American Education.

A highlight of the opening was the unveiling of the Native American Student Body’s land acknowledgements video, which is a powerful watch if you weren’t in attendance. You can view the video at https://vimeo.com/calemitchellphotography/ksu-nasb

At 9:30 a.m., Associate Professor of Anthropology and American Indian Studies from the University of Illinois, Jenny L. Davis, Ph.D. (Chickasaw), gave a keynote entitled “Our Languages Hold a Place for Us: Reclaiming Indigenous Systems of Gender, Sexuality, and Kinship in Language Revitalization.”

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Dr. Jenny L. Davis

Davis, whose research balances the intersections of language, gender/sexuality, and kinship, discussed how Two-Spirit gatherings such as powwows and organization or activist meetings, are frequent spaces for Indigenous language use. Davis explained the necessity of Two-Spirit language work and, as well, shared how language reclamation, or “language survivance,” occurs among Two-Spirit people as they joke, share stories, and build relationship at gatherings, as well as how such reclamation takes place between Two-Spirit folks and their tribal and pan-tribal communities. “Gender, sexuality, and kinship are co-constituting categories,” Davis explained, “our language holds a place for us.”

Davis was followed, at 10:30 a.m., with a panel entitled “Indian Country in Times of COVID: Health Disparities, Language Revitalization, and the Digital Divide.” The three impressive speakers included Dr. Kathy DeerInWater (Cherokee), the Chief Program Officer for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, Dr. Melissa E. Lewis, LMFT (Cherokee), an Assistant Professor, Department of Family & Community Medicine at University of Missouri School of Medicine, and Mr. Vann Bighorse (Osage and Cherokee), the Director of the Osage Nation Language Department and a Graduate Student in Educational Leadership.

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Dr. Kathy DeerInWater

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Dr. Melissa Lewis

While the panel tackled a number of topics, a persistent thread in discussion was, on one hand, the specific difficulties the pandemic has brought to Indigenous communities, including the loss of shared interactions such as communal meals, which are essential to building and maintaining relationship in Indigenous contexts, and, as well, the painful loss of elders and language holders among vulnerable populations. At the same time, the word “resilience” came up repeatedly, such as when Dr. Lewis spoke of the Cherokee communities she works with “turning to Indigenous health practices.” As a result, Lewis explained, “I’ve been able to demonstrate that Indigenous health beliefs are here today.”

K-State’s 2020 Indigenous Peoples Day events concluded with a keynote by internationally known scholar Stephanie Fryberg, Ph.D. (Tulalip), who is a University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan.

Stephanie Fryberg

Dr. Stephanie Fryberg

Fryberg’s presentation, “Reclaiming Native Truths: How Stereotypes and Invisibility Shape Native Mascot Use and Other Biases Toward Native Peoples, should be a required watch. In it, Fryberg broke down the science that conclusively shows how stereotypical representations of Native American people, whether “positive” (e.g. Disney’s Pocahontas or images said to “honor”) or negative (e.g. Chief Wahoo or “savage” imagery) have demonstrable negative effects on the self-esteem of Native people. Each of these images “lowered the achievement-related possible selves” the Indigenous members of the studies imagined for themselves. “We are not seen in our full humanity in mainstream society,” Fryberg argued. She concluded that these images must be abandoned because they represent “systems that undermine the future possibilities” of Native people.

Together, these Indigenous academics and practitioners spoke not only of survival — “We are still here”— but also of what it means for Indigenous people, cultures, and knowledges, to thrive and expand in the twenty-first century.

The 2020 Indigenous Peoples Day presentations will be uploaded and available to the public from the Indigenous Faculty and Staff Alliance webpage.

It takes a village to make such an incredible day happen.

In this case, the event was made possible by support from the Indigenous Faculty & Staff Alliance, the College of Education (Dean’s Office, Department of Educational Leadership, Diversity for Community Committee, and Social Justice Education Graduate Certificate), the College of Arts and Sciences (Dean’s Office, Diversity Committee, Department of English), the Dow Center for Multicultural and Community Studies at K-State Libraries, the National Geographic Society Explorers, KSU LGBT Resource Center, the Morse Department of Special Collections, the KSU Multicultural Engineering Program, and Diversity & Multicultural Student Affairs.

As I noted when I began, the Indigenous Peoples Day events are only one of a trio of happenings this week and next at K-State.

On Tuesday October 13, Bunky Echo-Hawk, a painter and Nike N-7 and Pendleton designer, was brought in by the Native American Student Body with support from the Student Government Association. As part of KSUnite’s first plenary session, Echo-Hawk staged an interactive live art presentation as he created an original piece for the Morris Family Multicultural Student Center.

Still ahead: You are warmly invited to join us for the final piece of this powerful trilogy of Indigenous events: U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo performs on Tuesday, October 20th, from 5:00-6:00 pm CST at an event that is free and open to the public. An internationally renowned writer, Harjo is also a musician and spoken word artists and her performances are full-body experiences filled with music, spoken word, and powerful conversations. To find out more on Harjo visit the Poetry Foundation, which offers an in-depth biography as well as excerpts of her work.


Ultimately, Joy Harjo’s performance will, I promise, be an evening to remember. The performance will be live-streamed from https://www.k-state.edu/english/visit.

Harjo’s performance is sponsored by the Student Government Association, the Student Association of Graduates in English (SAGE), the English Department, the Indigenous Faculty and Staff Alliance, the Dow Center for Multicultural and Community Studies at K-State Libraries, and the Beach Museum of Art.

— Lisa Tatonetti, Professor

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