Stony Brook University recognized Native American Heritage Month and the rich contributions of Native and Indigenous peoples with a November 16 panel discussion, “The Future of Indigenous Studies Across the University.”
The event took place in the Stony Brook Union Ballroom and was followed by a lunch reception featuring authentic Indigenous cuisine inspired by Native American Kiowa chef Lois Ellen Frank and Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie.
Judy Jaquez, associate director in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, delivered the opening remarks.
“Long Island is the homeland to many Indigenous peoples,” said Jaquez. “Though we are fortunate that our campus echoes the rich heritage of this community, more can be done to recognize their story, especially here on Long Island.”
After the welcome remarks, a panel including Paul Kelton, professor and Gardiner Chair in American History in the Department of History; Lori Repetti, professor and chair in the Department of Linguistics; Joseph Pierce, associate professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature; April Masten, associate professor in the Department of History; and Andrew Newman, professor and chair in the English Department, discussed current issues and challenges facing the Indigenous Studies program.
As each speaker noted their unique experiences and efforts in championing the preservation and inclusivity of the indigenous culture, including those relating to land acknowledgement and preserving Indigenous languages and customs, a common theme emerged.
“I’m glad that we’re here talking about the challenges in furthering Indigenous representation on this campus, but we need to do more,” said Pierce, who is a member of Cherokee Nation. “We talk about it, but I haven’t seen any significant advancement.”
Kelton, a leading scholar and author of indigenous North American and colonial American History, echoed the sentiment.
“We’ve experienced challenges and pressures that inhibit furthering these initiatives in Indigenous Studies,” he said. “These challenges will force universities to make choices.”
Also on hand was Harry Wallace, who served as chief of the Unkechaug Indian Nation for 25 years, and who for the past several years has taught courses as part of the Department of Linguistics’ Algonquian Language Revitalization Project, which he cofounded. Wallace urged those in attendance to support the cause.
“The story of Indigenous studies should be an inclusive one,” he said. “It includes history, art, science, spirituality and a lot more. We need to make that happen here if students are to get behind it. If we don’t, they can’t.”
Newman reinforced the point, commenting that “Indigenous studies have a deep personal relationship to many students. Everyone is from somewhere and this is often a story of migration.”
Lucrecia Urrutia, a junior majoring in Journalism and Spanish Literature, spoke of her own experience.
“I was born in Peru, a society in which indigenous individuals are likely to be ashamed of their origins,” she said. “Most of the Andean people living in the capital migrated from their homes looking for better opportunities and were forced into assimilation. It seemed as if everyone thought of the Incas and other indigenous groups as mythic beings that were no longer among us. Our identity was erased and a lot of our traditions had to adapt in order to fit religious societal standards.”
Urretia further described the pain of a lost family history.
“I don’t have any records past my grandfathers,” she said. “I don’t know where I am from or what my ancestors’ lives were like. It took a DNA test for me to finally identify as someone who is Indigenous to the Americas. I had been lying my whole life. This event hits home because my history was lost and I don’t want that happening to my brothers and sister from the North. Our culture is what makes us human. Losing that is something I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.”
Jaquez concluded the event, acknowledging Urretia’s experience.
“There is a re-emerging voice from the younger generation that is challenging the myths of erasure,” she said, “and they’re finding ways to reconnect with their ancestral heritage.”
The program was sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Faculty Student Association (FSA), which collaborate to support programs and events that bring the campus community together to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.
– Robert Emproto