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Native American Activism Conference at Humboldt State University (2015)

Posted By PowWow Articles February 8th, 2015 Last Updated on: January 19th, 2022

Native American Activism Conference 2015

This past Saturday, January 18th, 2015 I had the honor of attending the Native American Activism Conference hosted by the Indigenous Peoples Student Alliance club at Humboldt State University in Arcata, CA. I drove up on Saturday afternoon, a six-hour drive that went pretty smoothly as I had my music and an ice chest filled with Gatorade and beef jerky. I was determined to make only one stop, and to make it by nightfall. I arrived at 6pm, and met with Andrew Perera, a Lakota man who was Head of Security for the event. He brought me to the house of one of the members who was hosting a potluck and meeting before the setup of the next day's event. We walked in and Andrew introduced me to Sara, a Paiute/Shoshone woman who had plates and bowls strewn about her kitchen as she prepared to let others cook during the meeting. Her kitchen walls were made of aged cedar, and the warmth of all the people in her house brought out its rich smell. Her stove was large, and every pan on the burner was well-aged and seasoned cast iron. She adjusted the shawl around her shoulders and tightened the bun of her long hair on her head as she pointed us in the direction of a group of students headed out to tie medicine wheel colors out of fabric strips on the chain link fence above the freeway people would drive to get to the conference.

We parked on the overpass; the rain had stopped for the moment, but the ground was peppered with black puddles I hopped over, desperate to keep my moccasins from being soaked. I failed. We stood in the dark, red, black, white and yellow strips of fabric in our hands, and spent the next hour tying the colors to the chain links. Cars drove beneath us and we watched the medicine wheel emerge as we tied. To think of how these colors would greet the speakers and attendees brought so much pride to the group. We took photos and ran back to the car to head back to the meeting at Sara’s house.

 

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Students tying Medicine Wheel above the 101 Freeway

Andrew opened the front door to Sara’s house and her living room was packed with about 20 people, all seated or standing, some even poking their heads in from the kitchen as they discussed logistics for the next day’s events. Once everything had been decided, people dispersed and I prepared my camera and notes for the next day.

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Andrew Perera a Lakota and head of Security, applies traditional Lakota “Akicita” face paint made from the ashes of a Shoshone Ghost Dance fire.

The beginning of the conference was opened by Jene McCovey, a well known Yurok and Hoopa Environmental Activist in Humboldt Country. She offered up a prayer, and asked the spirits to be with us as we heard the speakers. Her prayer was followed by songs on the drum, and a rousing speech from Rich Ledreagle of Indigenous Circles United, a non-profit group he created to offer support to Native youth in areas like tutoring, vocational training, mentoring and in attaining scholarships for college. During a break after Mr. Ledreagle spoke, I pulled aside Conor Handly, a student who was instrumental in organizing the weekend's events and speakers. Amid those stretching their legs in between scheduled speakers, I was able to ask him a few questions.

DSC_0628I asked what sparked or inspired him to organize this Native American Activism Conference. He said that the struggles in the Native Program at HSU began about 30 years ago. HSU was the premiere school for Native students seeking an education. They had amazing support from the Tribal community, and it filled the need for good education. ITEP (Indian Tribal & Education Personnel Program), a program for Native Education majors, and INRSEP (Indian Natural Resource, Science & Engineering Program) received massive budget cuts that forced them to go from 5 full-time employees per program to 1 full-time employee per program. INRSEP was a part of the school’s College of Natural Resources but was recently moved and reclassified as URM (Under-Represented Minority), which significantly decreased their budgets from a Science-based program to a URM club. Dr. Jacquelyn Bolman, the Director of INRSEP since 2005, was aware of the unfair changes and cuts to their important programs, and reported these unfair cuts. In October 2014, during class time, and while students were in the middle of timed tests on INRSEP computers, HSU administration walked into the hall and fired Dr. Bolman without explanation. Dr. Bolman was forced to pack her belongings in front of students and was escorted off campus. Students were outraged and many could not finish their school work as the locks on INRSEP doors were immediately changed and locked. This sparked the need for coming together, to unify with our Native brothers and sisters. Students at HSU orchestrated the largest protest in HSU history since the Vietnam War. Over 1,000 students walked out of class and peacefully protested the injustice of Dr. Bolman’s firing. Humboldt still won’t discuss the reasons for their firing, but after students filed under the Freedom of Information Act, the school was forced to release hundreds of emails to the public which revealed the reasons why Dr. Bolman was fired. LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation) filed a report stating employees of color at HSU felt threatened, and that the creation of this new URM division was a new form of segregation. This report that Dr. Bolman filed with LSAMP stated only facts. She was officially fired for defaming the University.

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Jene McCovey, Yurok/Hoopa

Students at HSU recognized the need to come together and so they organized this Native American Activism Conference.

Laura Hernandez, a student at HSU involved with the INRSEP program, said that she chose this institution having no idea what to expect, and found community and family in this program. She was a witness to the loss of Dr. Bolman as a Director and stated that “To see one who inspired, [and] guided, so immorally, hatefully and wrongfully taken from campus taught me that this will happen everywhere. But this conference leaves me with hope for a change.”

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Two of the speakers I sat in on were Professor Marlon Sherman (Oglala, Lakota) and Dr. Jacquelyn Bolman (Brule, Lakota), who both spoke under the topic “Why We Are Fighting.” One of Professor Sherman's most profound statements was when he said:
“You have lost the ways of your indigenous thinking..I’m sorry folks..its true. You have lost the ways of your indigenous thinking because you are not speaking the language.” “..you take the new thought pattern and you go out and become that virus, you need to know, and understand that. We need to resist that. Go to the people who will teach you our ways, and do not allow the University to pit us against each other anymore.” -Professor Marlon Sherman (NAAC 2015)

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(Professor Marlon Sherman, Oglala Lakota of Pine Ridge, SD)

Dr. Bolman was next to speak, and after taking time to hug me and speak to me about the eagle feather I wore in my hair which was given to me for my acts as a surrogate mother, carrying a baby for my friend because she could not, she honored me with saying that SHE was honored to be standing with ME. I stood there speechless. This woman who was so respected by her students, who even after being fired by the university still took the time to approach each student and ask “How are your grades? How are you? How are your classes?” because she cared for them. I could see the admiration her students had for her, and the talk she gave resonated with me.

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(Dr. Jacquelyn Bolman, Former Director of INRSEP at HSU)

She stated: “Indian people have never needed help, only an opportunity. To be believed in. Breathe on that fire, let it burn, and then set them free.” “..take that piece of paper (diploma) and go do your work, and follow this. (pointing to her heart.)” -Dr. Jacquelyn Bolman (NAAC 2015)

At the end of the conference, students informed the University that they were prepared to “sit in” the Bolman Forum, as renamed by students. Students are currently still occupying the Bolman Forum and have stated that they will only leave once Dr. Bolman is reinstated as the INRSEP Director again.

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The following is the official statement on the students' active protest from HSU…

“A sit-in by students and other individuals in the Native American Forum is disrupting classes during the first day of Spring Semester at Humboldt State University. The university is reaching out to those who are protesting to discuss their concerns and urge them to leave the facility so that classes may continue as scheduled. The university recognizes and respects the students’ right to protest and have their voices heard. However, the current action is affecting the education of other students. Five classes with high enrollment are scheduled to meet in the Native American Forum on Tuesday and Wednesday – the first class was held in the room with protestors present, and others are being relocated. The top priorities for the university as it works to address the situation are safety and student learning. The sit-in began following a two-day conference on Native American Activism. The student club called Civil Liberties Defense Center (HSU Chapter) had campus permission to use the space through 10 p.m. Monday evening, after which approximately 30 individuals chose to stay in the room overnight. They discussed their plans in advance with University Police, and asked officers many questions about options and consequences. The university does not know how long the protestors plan to continue the sit-in. The concern of protestors appears to be last fall’s departure of the director of Indian Natural Resource, Science and Engineering Program (INRSEP), though other issues have been raised in media reports and online. One other concern appears to be that the name of the Native American Forum may have been changed. It has not, and there have been no plans or discussions about doing so. Campus officials have had ongoing dialogue with Native students and many others about issues and challenges related to diversity. The university remains deeply committed to diversity and to providing support to help all students be successful.”

I left the conference filled with many emotions, and at one point stopped along the side of the highway to observe the valley and a large cloud that had settled into it. I took several deep breaths and released my emotions into the valley. It was freeing, and I am so honored that I can count myself among the students who participated in the conference.

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Joanna Grey

O’siyo, I am a graduate of HSU, and was an instructor in Sociology there. Though it’s been many years since I have been back, I was so happy to see the People taking this action. Things have changed since I lived there, and not for the better it seems. I hope your activism conference will bring about the changes you are seeking. That a professor should have been so disrespected by the administration is awful. Although I am now retired, my heart still lives at HSU and with my dear friend Diana McCovey-Ferris. Stay determined, stay strong. WaDo!

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