A Native American Student's Message This Season: 'We Are Still Here.'

Participants in the first Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C., on January 18, 2019. Photo: Rena Schild/Shutterstock

You may have noticed there are a few nuances that have come about since your high school history books left off. Terms and concepts relating to current Native American affairs can be confusing, and some people expect everyone to know meanings without explanation.

I write this article based on my understanding and from my own perspective. Both of my parents are of Cherokee descent, and I identify as Cherokee as well. I grew up a short distance from my father’s tribe in central Alabama and then moved to Mississippi near Cherokee relatives from my mother’s side. However, I also acknowledge I have always lived with white privilege and never on a reservation myself.

With that being said, let’s start off light with something everyone can do to support.

Land recognition/acknowledgement-- This practice has been around in Native culture before colonial institutions, but today it is commonly used by non-native communities as a sign of respect. It acknowledges the truth and helps prevent erasure of the Native narrative. A simple template of one such proclamations is: “I would like to acknowledge that we are on the traditional land of the first people of [current name of area/city], [name the group of Natives], past and present, and honor with gratitude the land itself and the [specific Native] Tribe.” There can be a ceremony for this, as well as news articles to share the information with other unaware citizens.

Next on the list of terms is blood quantum and the alternative form of heritage justification, lineage. Blood quantum is the percent or fraction of one’s ancestors that were/are Native American. This is what people mean when they say “I am 1/4th Choctaw.” This method is highly problematic and tribes were allowed to change their methods to claim Native identity in 1934, but this was only after 138 million acres of land were taken from Native reservations and given to “homesteaders” and corporations, a practice allowed by blood quantum discrepancies. Many believe that gatekeeping with “certificates of degree of Indian blood” and being the only ethnicity requiring federal proof is the slow phasing out of a culture. If blood quantum rules continued, tribal enrollment would not stop declining. One alternative that some tribes use is the proof of direct descent from a lineal ancestor included in certain documents, which also proves to be an immense challenge for many.

Cultural appropriation vs. appreciation: The definition of cultural appropriation is “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture." One example might be wearing a headdress. The headdresses that are popular in costumes are an honor and a privilege for any native that wears one, and therefore it is disrespectful if it is worn for fun or other contexts. An example of cultural appreciation, however, is purchasing beaded jewelry from a Native American vendor and appreciating it for the time it took to create it and wearing it with pride and respect of its history. This would be supporting a Native American artist directly.

Now, I will focus on a few things that can be done to support. First is the name change of holidays. For example: The tradition of harvest festivals could replace the problematic “Thanksgiving.” Additionally, Christopher Columbus Day could be replaced by Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Instead of having a holiday to celebrate the blood on America's hands, why not celebrate the cultures that were here before the arrival of conquistadors?

Next is holding the United States government accountable and forcing the end of the destruction of sacred lands. One area of concern is the oil industry, which is notorious for building oil pipelines that contaminate rivers that provide water for many natives communities. They drink, clean, fish, and complete other many daily tasks from the help of very few water sources, yet their dedication to the preservation of nature is constantly being reversed at the hands of capitalist extremists.

Lastly, include Native Americans in history! There is and were unique languages and music and art, all of which are overlooked by the standard curriculum covered in American public schools today. We are beginning to acknowledge the mass genocide of native children in residential schools, but we cannot stop there. The Trail of Tears did not mark the end of a culture. There are unspeakable atrocities happening on reservations right now that the media does not cover. The battle is not over. We are still here.


Diana Gillespie is a sophomore, first-generation, pre-med student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She is studying medical humanities and civic interfaith studies. In her free time, she works on projects that fight for socioeconomic, gender, spiritual, and LGBTQ+ equality. 

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

A new book, “Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas,” by Omar Mouallem, may meet the needs of a new generation of Muslims.
For Christians, Advent is a period of preparation for Christmas and beyond. The Rev. Thomas J. Reese writes that perhaps fasting during Advent can be the Christian response to the consumerism of the season.
Interfaith holiday events can be a great way to show respect for others and make everyone feel included. Need some tips? Our IFYC colleagues have you covered.
Studies show that American religious diversity will only continue to grow and that Thanksgiving dinners of the future will continue to reflect this “potluck nation.” We all bring something special to the table.
IFYC staff members share what they're listening to, watching and reading that inspires an attitude for gratitude this season.
How can you support Native Americans and understand important issues and terminology? This Baylor University sophomore is here to help.
Aided by an international team of artists, author Salma Hasan Ali turned her viral blog about Ramadan into a new handmade book.
A symposium hosted by the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago focused on the intersection of Indian boarding schools and theological education as well as efforts to uncover truth and bring healing.
This week's top 10 includes stories on faith and meatpacking in the Midwest, religion in the metaverse and an interfaith call for peace in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The two lawmakers appeared at "Race, Religion and the Assault on Voting Rights," the inaugural event at Georgetown University's Center on Faith and Justice.
Religion & Politics journal interviews the author of a new book on the impact of growing religious diversity in the American Midwest.
Five interfaith leaders share readings and resources that inspire them, give them hope and offer solace in turbulent times.
“There is a huge gap between the religiosity of clinicians and the religiosity of the clients,” mental health counselor Shivam Gosai says. “This gap has always been there. Mental health professionals are not always reflective of the people we are serving.”
Part of what I found so beautiful about our conversation is that we both agree that American pluralism is not simply a pragmatic solution to the challenge of a diverse democracy, it is also a kind of sacred trust that God intends us to steward.
The author, a Hindu and a Sikh, notes that faith plays a subtle yet powerful role in the show -- and creates space for more dialogue.
Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, is the first Native American to serve as a U.S. Cabinet secretary.
The average congregation these days is small — about 70 people — but the majority of churchgoers are worshipping in a congregation of about 400 people.
The metaverse has dramatic implications that should make all of us sit up, lean in, and claim our role in shaping the worlds within the world that is being created.  
Decades of silence, stigma, and structural barriers to treatment and testing have allowed the epidemic to spread, claiming the lives of far too many of our Black friends and families.   
Mawiyah Bomani, a Tarot reader in Louisiana, used to make her own Tarot cards until she found a deck celebrating spiritual practices throughout the African Diaspora. "I hoped and wished to find a deck with me in it," she says.
In this week's round up, a Buddha gets a paint job, a Black interfaith social media account goes viral, and Indigenous activists speak out.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.