The MOSAIC and LGBTQ+ Resource Center hosted an Evolving Language event on Nov. 15 that gave UCCS students, staff and faculty the opportunity to learn about the difference in using the terms Indian, Native American or Indigenous to describe Native people, and how misguided perceptions of Native cultures affect these individuals.
Panel guests included Ilaheva Tua’one, a professor for the WEST department; Michèle Companion, a professor for the sociology department; and Ramsey Weeks, a UCCS alum.
MOSAIC Director Whitley Hadley began the event by establishing a brief set of community guidelines. “As a campus committed to diversity and inclusion, we aim to provide safe spaces for ongoing education, conversation and practice of skills through engagement with our community,” they said.
Before opening the floor to the panel guests, Hadley also provided some information about the Evolving Language series, saying that these events seek to educate students, staff and faculty on how marginalized communities have reclaimed and created new ways to define themselves over time.
“For National Native American Heritage Month, we wanted to expand our panel … to focus more on accuracy of terminology and elevating the experiences of the Native community in relation to higher education,” they said.
Hadley asked guests to begin the panel by explaining how they introduce themselves, and if the ways in which they introduce themselves change depending on the space that they are in.
Weeks, who is two-spirit and Lakota — more specifically, Assiniboine — confirmed that their experience with introducing themselves does change depending on the space that they are in. They explained, for instance, that their legal identity is separate from their cultural identity.
“When I say I am Assiniboine, that is my culture,” they said, “[but] I am also a registered member of three other affiliated tribes of North Dakota.”
Companion joined the conversation as well, saying that “everyone has multiple and overlapping senses of identity,” and that these identities can change depending on the context of a given situation.
For instance, Weeks mentioned that the Lakota translation of the term “two-spirit” differs greatly from how they themself choose to identify as a two-spirited individual.
The Lakota term, “winkt,” translates as “man who is accepted as a woman.” However, the Navajo term for two-spirit, “nádleeh,” translates as “one who is transformed.”
Both terms mean “two-spirit,” but Weeks feels more comfortable identifying as nádleeh due to that slight change in translation. “This [speaks] to the power of evolving language,” they said.
Tua’one joined the conversation to talk about the different layers of identity, noting the importance of calling people what they want to be called. “I am not Indigenous to this land,” she said, “so when I use the term Indigenous, it is to talk about the people who feel a genetic connection to the land that they are on.”
“Unless someone has asked me to call them something different,” she said, “I use [the terms] Indigenous or Native American.”
This led to more conversation on the concept of “living culture,” with panelists expressing their experience with identifying as Native in a country full of misconceptions about Native peoples.
Weeks pointed out that non-Native people often “have this idea of what a real Indian looks like,” and it is usually false.
Companion joined in as well and said, “Culture is inhibited by social constructions that lock people into time.”
She explained that not all Native individuals are going to look the same, or wear the “traditional” garb shown in film and television, because culture changes and evolves — as it should.
She explained that when non-Native people watch films that depict the “savage” trope, it gives them a warped and racist understanding of what Native individuals actually look and act like, to the point that some people actually believe that Native Americans no longer exist.
In closing, Hadley opened the floor for a Q&A, allowing audience members to ask the panelists questions about the conversation they had, and contribute any of their own points as well.
Hadley also announced some upcoming events happening at the MOSAIC and LGBTQ+ Resource Center, including a Trans Week of Remembrance Dialogue that happened on Nov. 18 and a Candlelight Vigil on Nov. 19.