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Sustainability and Identity:
Celebrating American Indian Heritage

Red WaspSymposium   11-2-11

By Freddie A. Bowles
Fayetteville, Arkansas

November is American Indian Heritage Month in the United States. This is my fifth year to be involved in organizing and promoting events in honor of the annual occasion on our campus, the University of Arkansas. November 2011 also marks the 18th anniversary of the founding of the Native American Symposium.

“Sustainability and Native American Identity” is the theme of this year’s Symposium. Special events and exhibits related to the theme will be held throughout the month of November.

Ancestry, Bloodlines, Heritage

Like so many of my peers and acquaintances, my ancestry includes American Indian. My great grandmother migrated west from Kentucky, and family lore grants her the recognition of being Cherokee. Her son, my mother’s father, was the last one in our family to hold on to some of the culture passed down to him by his mother. I imagine the vestiges of that bloodline to burn faintly in my heart and soul as I ponder what it means to be an American Indian in the 21st century.

Though not culturally raised as a Native, I try to honor that part of my heritage by supporting the Symposium committee and by volunteering as faculty advisor for the Native American Student Association (NASA). My commitment to these two groups ties me to a community both native and non-native. It is a community devoted to the idea that Native American identity and culture remain a vital aspect of life on campus and in neighborhoods throughout northwest Arkansas.

Over 300 students at UA claim American Indian/Alaskan heritage. Our database consists of 500-plus campus contacts. The Office of Admissions actively recruits students from the Indian nations in Oklahoma. A plan for an American Indian Studies minor is taking shape. And for the first time in the history of higher education in the United States, an American Indian, Dr. Stacy Leeds, a Cherokee from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, is Dean of the Law School here on campus.

Today Is Native Impact Day
On the University Campus.

The Symposium events for November began today (Nov. 2) with Native Impact Day, a recruitment effort launched last year by the Office of Admissions. High school students from Sequoyah School in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, are touring campus, meeting NASA students, and attending workshops and panels about student life and academic opportunities. Twelve students from the first Impact Day in 2010 are now enrolled as UA freshmen.

Tonight, one of the last films of the silent era,
a docudrama from 1930, will be shown in Giffels Auditorium. The movie, The Silent Enemy, will be accompanied by a live performance by Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Silent Film Orchestra. The first Symposium event I ever attended was one of the silent movie events. I was enthralled by the orchestral accompaniment and its profound emotional and intellectual impact on the artistry of the film. It was as if the music created the language for the sound track.

Three Speakers of Special Import

One of the new initiatives for 2011 originated from my desire to showcase individuals who support Native American culture. I was fortunate to secure the participation of three very talented, innovative people: Dr. Tim Thornes, Brooke Benham, and Manuela Well-Off-Man.

Dr. Tim Thornes’ work with a dialect of Northern Paiute and his efforts to help preserve native languages is a perfect fit for the themes of sustainability and identity. Dr. Thornes, a professor of linguistics on the University of Central Arkansas faculty, agreed to my suggestion to initiate an Academic Lecture Series for the Symposium. You can hear his lecture on Monday, November 7, at 6 p.m. in Giffels Auditorium.

The second presenter is a local resident and artist, Brooke Benham, a clothing and jewelry designer who owns Ultra Studios here in Fayetteville and has already shown her designs on campus. Brooke is of Kiowa descent. Her father, Jay Benham, is also a well-known contemporary Native artist. Jay will have pieces on exhibit at the UA Mullins library beginning November 4.

Brooke will talk about the influence of her Kiowa ancestry on her designs. She will also discuss the importance of traditional fashions and how the design of clothing and jewelry supports the sustainability of native identity. Several of the NASA members will model her fashions during Brooke's presentation on Tuesday, November 8, at 6 p.m. in Giffels Auditorium.

I met the third presenter, Manuela Well-Off-Man, at a campus art exhibit last fall. She is the Assistant Curator for the Crystal Bridges Museum of Contemporary Art in Bentonville. Her husband John is also a renowned contemporary Native artist. Manuela and I struck up a conversation in German at the exhibit and soon realized we share many interests. Manuela will talk about issues and challenges in contemporary Native art on November 28, at 6:00 p.m. in Giffels Auditorium.

Art Works Are on Exhibit
At the Library and Global Campus.

Two art exhibits are running concurrently in November. Mullins Library on the university campus will exhibit several pieces of contemporary Native art beginning Nov. 4. The UA Global Campus on the Fayetteville Square is hosting a collection of photos by Edward Lee Curtis and a selection of objects and art from the UA Museum Collection.

All events are free and open to the public thanks to the support of the UA community, including the Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies, the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, the Honors Film Association, and the Multicultural Center.

Indigenous Peoples
Of the Americas Day

The November events of our 2011 Symposium follow the solemn and poignant observation of Indigenous Peoples of the Americas Day on the second Monday of October, an occasion with special meaning to our community because it contains a portion of the historic Trail of Tears. A committee of faculty, students, and community leaders worked to ensure that we remember the past — and that we commemorate the contributions of First Americans to the history of the United States of America.

In 2004, Dr. Dick Bennett, founder of the OMNI Center for Peace, Justice, and Ecology, recommended that the University of Arkansas host an observance in recognition of indigenous people. The university, in collaboration with the City of Fayetteville and the Omni Peace Center, continues to recognize the First People of "Turtle Island" with a series of events to commemorate the forced removal of native peoples from the eastern part of the United States to the Territory of Oklahoma along the infamous Trail of Tears and to celebrate the Native Americans of today. Thousands of people died during this thousand-mile journey in the 1830s. Part of the infamous trail traverses northwest Arkansas and passes through town not far from the heart of the university campus.

The official recognition of the contributions of first Americans actually began early in the 20th century when Dr. Arthur C. Parker, Seneca and director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, N.Y., persuaded the Boy Scouts of America in 1915 to adopt a day for the “First Americans.” Three years later at the annual Congress of the American Indian Association in Lawrence, Kansas, a plan was approved to recognize American Indian Day. Rev. Sherman Coolidge, Arapahoe and president of the Congress, issued a proclamation on September 28, 1915, declaring the second Saturday of each May as American Indian Day. The proclamation also contained the first formal appeal for recognizing Indians as citizens of the United States.

On December 14, 1915, Red Fox James, Blackfoot, presented to the White House the endorsement of 24 states declaring their support for a day to honor Indians. Red Fox James gathered the endorsements the year before by riding horseback from state to state asking for approval. However, an official record has not been found to verify the proclamation of a national day.

New York has the honor of being the first state to officially declare an American Indian Day in May 1916. The day of recognition continues to be celebrated by different states on various days of the year without any recognition as a national legal holiday. The Library of Congress hosts a web about Native American Heritage Month. Here's the link: 

After the Documentary and Readings,
We Walked to the Trail of Tears Marker.

The 2011 observance at the University of Arkansas began on October 10 with a screening of a documentary about the Trail of Tears in the Student Union. Dr. Frank Scheide, UA professor in Communications and a member of the Native American Symposium Committee, also shared his presentation, Cherokee Philosophy as American Heritage:  Will Rogers and the White Path. Students, faculty, and staff presented readings of historical and contemporary writings by native authors in the Connections Lounge at the Union. The group then proceeded to walk to the Trail of Tears marker, signifying the location where a thousand Cherokees camped during their journey to Indian Territory in 1839.

Members of the Heritage Trail Partners spoke about the continued efforts to mark the historic routes of the Trail through northwest Arkansas. Lindsley Smith, Communications Director of the Fayetteville City Council, read proclamations on behalf of the Senate of the State of Arkansas and the City of Fayetteville commemorating the event. Special recognition was extended to a UA grad student and sixth-generation descendant of one of the survivors of the Cherokees passing through Arkansas.

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