Native American Student Union celebrates Native American Heritage Month, holds discussion advocating for Indigenous Studies program

A variety of events will be held later this month, including a talk with architect Scott Hayes, photographer Cara Romero and a “Stories Under the Sky” event with Professor Edward Murphy

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The Native American Student Union held a discussion Tuesday advocating for the Indigenous Studies program.

Audrey Lewis | Cavalier Daily

For over 10,000 years, the Monacan Nation has called Bear Mountain  — a peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains  — home. An hour away from Charlottesville, Bear Mountain holds the rich history of the people who inhabited Albemarle County long before the birth of the United States. This November, the Native American Student Union is hosting several events to celebrate Native American Heritage Month and recognize the original inhabitants of the present-day U.S., like the Monacan people, who had their own customs, traditions and history prior to the arrival of colonists. 

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan introduced the annual celebration of Native Americans. Reagan recognized Native Americans as the original inhabitants of the U.S. and proclaimed Nov. 23 through Nov. 30 to be “American Indian Week.” This weekly celebration has since evolved into Native American Heritage Month. 

NASU held a panel Sunday in recognition of Native American Heritage Month, and the discussion centered on Native American identities and how the University can better support Native American communities. The panel included faculty members Sonia Alconini, professor of archaeology with Aymara heritage, and Kasey Jernigan, an assistant professor of anthropology with Choctaw heritage. Community members were also on the panel, including Mary Wilson, who has Lakota heritage and Mike Wilson, a community member who was adopted by a member of the Alberta Nation. 

“[Being Native American] is an identity that is political, it’s social, it’s cultural, it’s historical and contemporary and at its base it's connecting to place,” Jernigan said. “And so, I tried to teach my kids — I have an eight-year-old and an almost-three-year-old — I tried to teach them what it means to be here in Charlottesville away from where we call home and still try to remember these things that I need to teach them.”

The panelists and NASU members expressed the need for an Indigenous Studies program at the University in order to make the University more inclusive and welcoming for current and prospective Native students. This program would also provide a way to educate all students on the history of the Native communities around them.

“The most radical thing we can do to bring light to the Native issues is just be present and be active in the community,” Anthony Malabad, fourth-year College student and president of NASU, said. “So we're going to keep working the Indigenous Studies initiative, and we're … going to keep having our social and cultural events.”

Over the course of the month, NASU is promoting a talk with Chemehuevi photographer Cara Romero through the Fralin Museum of Art and a talk with landscape architect Scott Heyes via the School of Architecture. Chemehuevi is a Native American tribe from the Southwestern U.S. Additionally, NASU is holding a “Stories Under the Sky” event with the help of Astronomy Prof. Edward Murphy. All the events focus heavily on indigenous cultures, and they will be free and open to the public. 

Though it was unable to be scheduled last year, NASU is partnering with Murphy to give the public an outlet to explore the sky and its stories from both Greek and Roman cultures as well as from Native Cultures — stories that are often forgotten on traditional constellation maps. 

“We'll begin the evening with a tour of the sky and mostly talk about the motions of the sky,” Murphy said. “People today are so disconnected from the sky that most people don't know how the sky moves or what's going on in the sky. And that's sort of critical to understanding the stories and why the stories are the way they are and how these stories were useful to people long ago.”

According to Murphy, both Western and Native cultures identified Ursa Major, known as the Big Bear or the Big Dipper, and the Pleiades, six stars in the shoulder of Taurus the bull, often misconstrued for the Little Dipper, as important markers in the northern sky.

“The Navajo, for example, used [the Pleiades] to determine when to plant their corn and when to stop planting their corn,” Murphy said. “I'll tell the story of the Hard Flint Boys, which is a story about using that [the Pleiades] for planting corn.”

The northern sky has been thoroughly viewed and mapped by Western society for centuries. However, the southern sky was long forgotten until Western explorers started to research and make southern constellations such as Telescopium and Microscopium —  all while ignoring what southern Native cultures saw in the sky. Hence, many Native stories of the sky are not well-known, and Native constellations are not mapped on conventional constellation maps.

“We have a set of constellations in the sky that represent only one heritage, which is Western civilization,” Murphy said. “All these other cultures have these wonderful stories of the sky that tell us a lot about their cultures that just aren't represented in the sky that we have today.”

The “Stories Under the Sky” event will be held Sunday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. at the McCormick Observatory. The talk with architect Scott Hayes will be held Wednesday, Nov. 13 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. in Campbell Hall, Room 153. The talk with Chemehuevi photographer Cara Romero will also be held in Room 153 of Campbell Hall Tuesday, Nov. 19 at 6 p.m.

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