Halloween was not the only celebration that got off to a premature start Thursday night. Two nights ago, about forty students gathered in the John Jay Lounge to celebrate the start of Native American Heritage Month.
Although a diverse mix of Native American, white, black and Latino students made up the audience, an interest in the traditional and contemporary Native American culture characterized all in attendance. But as NAHM chair, Maxine Paul, CC ’09, was quick to mention, an interest in Native American culture is entirely different than actually understanding the Native American experience. Last night’s events aimed not just to commemorate the trials, travails, and triumphs of American Indians, but also to educate the audience on contemporary Native American customs and the tension between cultural assimilation and cultural autonomy.
The audience’s initial chattering and cornbread nibbling stopped when Enoch Kelly Haney, former Democratic Oklahoma State Senator and current Principal Chief of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, rose to give the keynote address. At first the diction and tropes Senator Haney employed undermined his candor and caused his address to sound like a motivational speech. But after acknowledging that “it isn’t the color of the balloon that makes it go high, but what’s inside it,” and eulogizing the achievements of Native American students at Columbia — including a shout-out to his son, John Haney, CC ’11 — Senator Haney moved on to more specific topics pertaining to the Native American community.
As Senator Haney spoke, he repeatedly emphasized how social and politic conditions within the Seminole Nation in the “early days” differed from those conditions “these days.” Stressing a prevalent misconception made by non-Native Americans, Senator Haney went on to ascribe much of the difficulty American Indians face to the tendency of non-Natives to group culturally and geographically distinct tribes under one umbrella group. Haney explained how at one point separate American Indian tribes could be distinguished by their disparate languages, customs, dress and appearance. Not so any more, he lamented. Senator Haney nonetheless applauded the NAC’s goal this month to strengthen the circle of Native American voices.
Over the course of the evening, circles proved to be an important theme in Native American culture. The highlight of the ceremony featured a discussion led by representatives from the Redhawk Native American Arts Council, an organization based out of Queens that aims to break down Native American stereotypes through song, dance and art.
Decked out in bald-eagle feathers, a beaded-breastplate and a bold patterned vest, Redhawk rep. Larry, of the Chippewa Cree tribe of Montana, informed the audience that contrary to common belief New York City has the highest First Nations population in the country. But when Larry went on to ask the audience to name the tribes comprising the Six Nations alliance, it was clear that despite of this census fact, New Yorkers and Columbia students are not terribly aware of the Native American culture around them.
After a brief discussion of the differences between traditional and contemporary Native American dance, the Redhawk representatives invited audience members to join them in a contemporary social dance. Proving themselves an outgoing bunch, the majority of students in the audience giddily danced and chanted along to the beat Larry struck out on his drum.
The group dance was followed by an impressive solo hoop dance in which one athletic Redhawk dancer performed a five minute long dance complete with hoops flying through the air, hoops spinning along the ground and hoops built into shapes and animals.
The Redhawk performance concluded with a folk story told to the accompaniment of the drum and wood-pipe. Again, the Redhawks asked for audience’s involvement and again the audience showed the same unabashed enthusiasm they displayed earlier.
Although some unavoidable “us”/”them” vocabulary was expressed in Thursday night’s discussions, it was clear that NAC, Senator Haney and the representatives from the Redhawk Council were eager to include the audience in their culture, its history and its continuing presence today.