UT needs spaces for tribal students

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Photo Credit: Helen Brown | Daily Texan Staff

 At the start of my sophomore year, after having comfortably settled into the pace of UT life, I decided it was high-time I laid down roots and found a community. Being a Cherokee citizen from Oklahoma, I was instantly drawn to the Native American and Indigenous Collective, an organization housed within the Multicultural Engagement Center that revolves around diverse experiences. 

 When I attended last year’s welcome event, I felt displaced — the trivia didn’t include a single tribal factoid, and the tablers solely represented indigenous peoples. It seemed like nontribal indigeneity was prioritized, relegating Native Americans to an invisible secondary role — a part of NAIC in name, not practice.

 Later, I emailed a student working with organization, asking to connect with fellow tribal students. I was promptly dismissed in their response, with the student adding that “many other Native students … don’t possess tribal citizenship with federally recognized nations.”

 But some do. A select few students, including those lacking legal recognition, identify as belonging to a tribal nation. Whether sovereign citizens or community members, we’ve inherited distinct identities — a result of geography, of genocide and relocation, of fates bound in treaties. As such, we need our own group, a space to connect freely. 

 According to their webpage, the collective is dedicated to “transnational and intertribal unity,” which is crucial to recognizing shared strife. Both indigenous peoples from Latin America and North American tribes were irreparably affected by colonialism — it’s what binds us together under the category of indigeneity, along with providing a foundation for resistance. However, these groups are not interchangeable.

 James Cox, a professor in the Center for Mexican American Studies, said federal Indian law defines Native Americans as those possessing membership in a federally recognized tribe. Among other privileges, tribal citizens can vote in tribal elections and serve in tribal government. Indigenous identities in Latin America, in contrast, are often culturally defined. 

“Those treaty-guaranteed rights establish a dramatic distinction between citizens of (the United States) tribal nations and indigenous peoples from Latin America,” Cox said. 

 Though UT is currently without a tribal student organization, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, the organization was formed by merging two groups — the Longhorn American Indian Council (LAIC) and the Native American & Indigenous Student Assembly (NAISA), Formed in 1998, the Longhorn American Indian Council was a small but vibrant group. 

“They held a yearly powwow, but they very much thought of themselves as a social group and hosted study sessions, film screenings, speakers,” Cox said.

 In the Longhorn American Indian Council, tribal students had a place to discuss their experiences and preserve their heritage — an imperative practice since less than 0.1 percent of students self-identify as American Indian. According to Tyler Durman, a Cherokee and former co-director of the council, tribal students “grow up with an invisible identity.” This was a home for them.

 “College is a high risk time in any person’s life,” Durman said. “But especially when you layer on an identity that’s linked to issues like poverty, addiction, even the domestic and sexual violence against Native women … it’s a lot to grapple with.”

 Our sovereign status continually hangs in the balance, and the collective — due to lack of tribal representation and subtle disconnects between its two groups — is not positioned to address these concerns. But I’m not advocating for a split or funding from the Multicultural Engagement Center. Rather, I think tribal students should carve out our own group. Reach out to me. If you can, go through the Multicultural Engagement Center to reach out to other self-identifying tribal students. In finding each other, we have a chance at reviving the Longhorn American Indian Council. 

 This goal is attainable: UT Arlington has a thriving tribal association. There’s no excuse why UT can’t do the same. 

 David is an advertising sophomore from Allen.