The less than 1 percent: Native American Student Association revives group, aims to create visibility

The less than 1 percent: Native American Student Association revives group, aims to create visibility

The less than 1 percent: Native American Student Association revives group, aims to create visibility
May 17
19:00 2018

On Tuesday nights, members of the Native American Student Association (NASA) trickle into a small, dingy classroom in the language building. Only six people, with their own experiences and background, have gathered to revive Native American Student Association for the UNT community and themselves.

Emilia Gaston is the president of Native American Student Association, one of the main members who has been pushing to bring back the organization that naturally became stagnant after a year. Native American Student Association was founded in 2016 and active for a full calendar year, but Gaston said when the seniors graduated, the group dissipated.

“We’re getting back up and running now, and it has taken us a full year even to get people to come to the meetings,” Gaston said. “It’s about people finding us and people knowing that we’re here because that’s how it was for me in the greater Dallas community.”

The members come from different experiences and are descendants of various tribes, like the Comanche, Northern Cheyenne, Lakota Sioux and Navajo tribes. Many of them said they grew up learning about the culture and having some experience with the reservation but not direct and consistent contact.

“I grew up knowing that I was Native American, but not having any connection to that culture so like many other predominantly non-Native people, our heritage is a few generations removed,” Gaston said. “I grew up going to powwows and observing culture but not having a direct connection to that community.”

Gaston said it took her until she was 21 years old to find a Native American community in the Dallas area to connect better with the culture she had only vaguely known.

“Through that [Dallas] community, I’ve been able to connect with my culture because I grew up not knowing what that meant,” Gaston said. “Basically knowing [my Native American heritage] was there but how do you express it? How do you connect to it if there’s nothing visually you can feel or sense?”

In 2016, Native Americans comprised about 2 percent of the entire U.S. population. Even growing up in diverse circles, members said it was rare to find anyone who shared the same culture.

“The only Native Americans I knew of were me, my sister and my brother,” member Naomi Niyah said. “We were pretty much the only ones, and it was interesting because I grew up in a community that was pretty diverse — a lot of Hispanics, a lot of blacks, a lot of Asians, but it was different being the less than 1 percent of the population.”

As for the following generation, students said they still grew up seeing the issues that arise within the community caused by lack of visibility and opportunity for Native Americans.

“I’ve grown up pretty much my whole life in suburban and rural areas, and I only occasionally go back to visit my family on the [reservation], so I think that left some issues on both sides,” Niyah said. “[There are] people not leaving the reservation and not getting all the opportunities they could, and then there are people not returning back and losing that connection with culture. It’s sort of a two-way problem.”

The small population has also correlated to a direct lack of visibility of Native Americans in local areas. Member Ruther Thunderhawk said she did not come in contact with the culture until her family traveled to a reservation.

“One of my main issues was lack of representation because it felt like for a while I didn’t know anyone else who was my culture, so I didn’t really know much about [it],” Thunderhawk said. “It wasn’t until my parents, when I was about 8, took us up north to South Dakota and Montana and we actually visited a reservation.”

For members, the Native American Student Association group is a way to bring that culture to UNT and Denton.

“For me, my experience is different from theirs and each person in the group’s experiences are different, and that’s why its important to have a group like this,” Gaston said. “It is so that people can get connected who are displaced or just had never had that opportunity.”

As the fall semester approaches and Native American Heritage month rolls around, Native American Student Association students are planning to create official events to create that representation. Guest speakers, presentations and film screenings are just a few events Native American Student Association members are hoping to finalize.

“A lot of the problems we have, like difficulties between races, is due to a lack of education and a lack of dialogue,” Niyah said. “I think by finding a good system combining that we can start having healthy relationships.”

Although she has only recently been connected to her culture, Gaston said this is simply a part of her lifelong appreciation and respect for it.

“I didn’t grow up traditionally,” Gaston said. “But as an adult, I live like it now in a way where I respect it and practice the culture from what I’ve been taught and what people have shared with me. Hopefully for my kids it’s different.”

Featured Image: The Native America Student Association (from left to right) Ruth Thunderhawk, Emilia Gaston, Inti Huaman, Naomi Niyah, Jared Sandal, Casey Reed. Will Baldwin

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Amy Roh

Amy Roh

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