In honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Week, the University of Connecticut’s Native American Cultural Programs lined up a number of virtual events, each scheduled on varying days. Tuesday’s event, titled “Indigenous at Connecticut Universities,” had much to do with discussing the value of Indigenous communities, as students from UConn, Yale University and Quinnipiac University gave their own perspectives on how their Indigenous identities coincide with their academic surroundings.
The panel was moderated by Zoe Blevins, vice president of the Native American & Indigenous Students Association at UConn, who opened the floor for all eight panelists to introduce themselves. In the midst of their introduction, Nolan Arkansas, a fifth-semester American studies major of Cherokee descent, shared the story of how an impromptu trip to the Native American Cultural Center fueled their decision to attend Yale.
“I stayed here for a weekend with another Native student … and I was still deciding, ‘Do I wanna go here? Do I not wanna go here?’,” Arkansas said. “We went to the Native American Cultural Center … and we were so tired and so [my friend] and I just sat down on this little couch in one of the lobbies and we both fell asleep at like 6 p.m. … when we woke up, we woke up to the smell of rye bread because the older students were cooking us dinner. Then we all kind of shared food together and we were just cracking jokes and it felt warm; it felt inviting and it just felt like I could feel at home in the Native community, which is such a huge privilege and such an amazing feeling because not everybody gets to feel at home.”
When asked about the process of finding and cultivating Native and Indigenous communities within their schools, panelists Kiara Tanta-Quidgeon, Sage Phillips, Hema Patel and Evan Roberts offered their input on the matter.
Tanta-Quidgeon, an eighth-semester health science studies major of Mohegan descent, talked about her own personal struggles as the founder and president of Quinnipiac’s Indigenous Student Union, and how these struggles continued to surface even after overcoming them. Despite this, she noted the significance of having these communities readily available for future students.
“It’s definitely been challenging, but it makes me really happy to know that now when students do come here in the future — specifically Native students or Indigenous students or just students who are interested in Indigenous identities’ culture and history — that they’ll have that space to share that and they’ll have that sense of community that a lot of us didn’t have even when we first got on campus and that a lot of students before us didn’t have,” Tanta-Quidgeon said.
Phillips, a seventh-semester political science and human rights double major of Penobscot descent and president of NAISA, highlighted her reasons behind founding NAISA at UConn.
“I came to find that NACP itself, the title didn’t contain ‘Indigenous,’” Phillips said. “So Indigenous students weren’t comfortable here and that was a problem because we had inquiries from Indigenous students who were like ‘Do I belong at NACP?’ like students asked ‘Do you think I belong there?’ and that’s when I was like ‘Okay, time out.’ Yes, of course you belong here, but how are we gonna go about that and change that and make sure these students do feel welcome here? So that’s why we started NAISA.”
Patel, a fifth-semester history of science, health and medicine and education studies double major of Turtle Mountain Ojibwe and Gujarati American descent, followed Phillips’ input with a similar sentiment, citing Yale’s need for improvement within its Native and Indigenous community.
“Even though we’ve been here since 2013 — so nearly 10 years — it’s still so slow-moving, there’s still so much left to do, [with] not enough people to do it,” Patel said. “It’s very inspiring to see what you both have done at UConn and QU because you have the word ‘Indigenous’ in the title of your group and we still don’t have that even though we’ve had our groups for longer.”
In relation to Phillips’ and Patel’s commentary, Roberts, a fifth-semester ethnic studies major of Lingít descent, continued Patel’s conversation on Native and Indigenous communities at Yale.
“I was thinking this because we have been discussing our name and how exclusive [our organizations] can appear to people who are not just Indigenous to North America,” Roberts said. “We’ve also been reckoning and trying to address anti-Blackness in our community, as we’re starting to see how that plays a role in our community and all Indigenous communities. So I think there’ll always continue to be work done to make spaces somewhere that [are] comfortable and welcoming and a place of joy for everyone.”
The last question asked for any advice the panelists would offer to prospective Indigenous students seeking higher education, to which Samantha Gove, Rania Bensadok and Sofia Saul voiced their answers.
Gove, a third-semester sociology and psychological sciences double major of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and secretary of NAISA, emphasized the importance of finding Indigenous communities and having the courage to build them when they’re undiscoverable.
“It can be hard to go through education feeling invisible and invalidated, but the most important thing is that you will find communities who see you and who resonate with you, as we all have here, thankfully,” Gove said. “And if you don’t, you can build that and be a part of that for yourself and for other people. It’s a hard thing to do, but it’s really important to find those communities because they’re gonna make that work better, not only for everyone involved currently, but for everyone who’s gonna be involved in the future.”
Bensadok, a seventh-semester philosophy and political science double major of the Amazigh people of Tizi Ouzou, shared Gove’s perspective by adding a personal anecdote about joining ISU at Quinnipiac.
“I was part of several organizations on campus before ISU was an organization, and I always felt like the community questioned my identity,” Bensadok said. “ISU was the first place where it was okay to learn more about your background and do the research and figure out the history of your people, like there’s no shame to that. So, one advice I would give is to never settle until you find the comfort. And if that means putting in the work and creating that community and group that you need, then so be it.”
Saul, a seventh-semester political science major of Puerto Rican Taíno descent and social media chair of NAISA, then made a lasting comment on overcoming doubts about fitting in and instead, advised to embrace spaces that allow Indigenous identities to prosper.
“I’ve definitely had that feeling of ‘I’m not Native, I’m not Native American, I’m Indigenous; where do I fit in?’ — that struggle,” Saul said. “But I think I would definitely wanna give out advice to [students]; like you may not think that this is for you, but if you look into it, you will be welcomed. I’ve had those fears of ‘I’m not meant to be here,’ but this is your culture, it’s my culture and it’s a place that should be open to learn more about it.”