Indigenous Peoples’ Week: A discussion on embracing Indigenous identity

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During the past week, the University of Connecticut’s Native American Cultural Programs (NACP) held an event each weekday to honor Indigenous Peoples’ Week. Their last event took place on Friday, where Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) members shared their experiences being Indigenous at UConn. The end of Indigenous Peoples’ Week is by no means a presumption to discontinue the recognition of those who identify within Native or Indigenous populations. As part of the movement to educate others on the importance of this idea and to promote the continuation of these conversations, Friday’s discussion made a lasting impression on what it truly means to be Indigenous. 

Zoe Blevins, the vice president of NACP, facilitated the event by asking members questions regarding their backgrounds and how their Indigenous identities affect their attitudes and the perceived attitudes toward their own cultures. When asked about their efforts toward reclaiming those cultures, some speakers offered input that highlighted the hardships brought on through the process as well as the value of reclaiming one’s roots. 

As a Puerto Rican of Taíno descent, Sofia Saul discussed the struggles of reclaiming Taíno culture while also mentioning the extra efforts to learn more about it with the help of family members.  

“I definitely am trying to learn as much as I can about the Taíno culture and the women in my family have always tried to make that something that we do, that we recognize that we do have some connection to our ancestors, even if it may be difficult,” Saul said. “If we’re in Puerto Rico, my mom always tries to take us to Taíno sites or museums. The Institute of Puerto Rico has a bunch of sections just on Taíno history, so even with that little bit of connection, I try. But it is difficult just because we don’t know as much as we would like to.” 

Circling the same topic, Sage Phillips, who is of Penobscot descent and president of NACP, talked about how the role models in her life have aided in the reclamation of her culture.  

“My grandfather is [a role model] for me, 100%,” Phillips said. “He is who I go to anytime I’m trying to reclaim any parts of my culture.” 

Phillips also touched upon the benefits of time during quarantine, which contributed to the further efforts of educating herself about her roots.  

“Coming to UConn, I’m not super close to home by any means, so in quarantine I kind of sat myself down and said, ‘This is your time to reclaim some stuff,’” Phillips said. “But I think in reclaiming my roots at least, you have to do it on your own and go out and search for it because so much, and this is one misconception I think of our cultures, is they’re not necessarily written down for you most of the time. Like you can’t just open a book and see what your ancestors did … I think for me just going out and doing it on your own is more than enough because you’re doing it, and in doing that you’re trying to keep your ancestors alive through you.” 

The last question of the event generated a discussion surrounding the issue of cultural misconceptions the speakers faced upon entering college. Chloe Murphy, part Chamorro and secretary of NACP, shared a few particular conversations she encountered that were casual generalizations of her culture.  

“Coming to college, I just feel like there’s absolutely no context at all beyond Disney movies or the little hula girls that people have on their dashboards for Pacific Islander culture,” Murphy said. “I remember my freshman year … I was hanging out with this one dude and he was on FaceTime with his friend and he put my face in his camera and he goes, ‘Bro, look at her! She’s Moana.’” 

Murphy went on to explain another encounter when someone assumed she was Hawaiian.  

“I’m not Hawaiian and I’m not Moana, and so I think it just goes to show that that little bit is the only context that people have of Pacific Islanders and our culture,” Murphy said. 

On the same subject, Danny Alejandro Osorio mentioned how he usually deals with cultural misconceptions as an Indigenous native of Colombia.  

“I’m not Hawaiian and I’m not Moana, and so I think it just goes to show that that little bit is the only context that people have of Pacific Islanders and our culture,”

Chloe Murphy, Secretary of NACP

“Even among Colombians, like I once introduced myself and the guy asked ‘Oh, where is your taparrabo?’ and I was like ‘Yeah, it’s at home!’ so it’s always that kind of stuff … at some point I just take it as a joke because there’s no other way to approach it,” Osorio said. “You could tell me that and I’m just gonna laugh about it and that’s about it. Honestly, I don’t care but it’s just something I wasn’t used to when I lived [in Colombia] and here it’s just more of the same, right? I mean it shouldn’t be like that, but it is.” 

Cultural misconceptions are also a common occurrence for Brittany Diaz, who shares the same Indigenous identity as Saul. Diaz voiced her frustrations on the misinformation of Taíno culture, stating inaccurate textbooks and white-bias as the cause and leaving a poignant message about Indigenous pride.  

“In the history books when you talk about islands in Puerto Rico or the Caribbean, it will say the Taíno don’t exist anymore because we were the first people that encountered Christopher Columbus and he just wiped us out, which is [a] completely false narrative,” Diaz said. “Indigenous people still live [in Puerto Rico] but they’re not recognized … so when people say Taíno people don’t exist anymore, they’re not wrong in the sense that we’re not full-blooded, but at the end of the day that’s not our fault. That’s a part of our history and I’m not gonna sit here and ignore my Taíno descent because that would be letting the colonizers win.” 

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