UNT and the UNT Native American Student Association declared Oct. 8 as “Indigenous People’s Day,” a university holiday that will be celebrated annually with the first annual celebration held on Tuesday, Oct. 15.
Incoming Native American Student Association President Lane Barrett helped with the declaration of this new university holiday to help raise awareness of the Native American population at UNT.
“Our goal coming into this year was towards growth and making UNT more of a native-friendly campus,” Barrett said. “Right now, UNT offers no scholarship or intertribal studies. Even if you are native, trying to get out of Oklahoma, UNT would not be the place to go.”
The demographics for Native Americans at UNT is under 4 percent of the non-white student population, according to a UNT System website.
“If I want to study tribal law or intertribal studies, I can’t do it here,” Barrett said. “The only program offered here at UNT is an anthropology course called “Indigenous Peoples of North America,” and that’s taught by our faculty advisor, Adam Dunstan, but it starts and stops there.”
Being close to the Red River and Oklahoma, which is known for the abundance of tribal culture, Barrett found the lack of Native American representation upsetting.
“We’re 30 minutes from the Red River,” Barrett said. “I think the percentage of native student here on campus is less than 2 percent, which is crazy, considering the fact that we are literally 30 minutes away from the Red River. We’re right there and we have zero recruitment coming from the native population in Indian territory.”
While attending a keynote event, Barrett was approached by President Smatresk who shared an eagerness to bring awareness to the minimal tribal representation at UNT. Smatresk asked Barrett and her friend Emilia Gaston, about how to get more attraction from students of native ethnicities and how to improve the university to be more welcoming to native minority groups.
“With our organization gaining recognition, the presence of Native Americans is coming more apparent here,” Barrett said. “This is Wichita and Caddo homeland. UNT is native, as much as we don’t want to acknowledge it.”
The recruitment of Native American students, scholarship funding, homeland trips, putting programs into place and integrating native faculty recognition were discussed between Gaston and Ruby Raines, the executive assistant to the UNT president.
Barrett and NASA still had one sentimental request to officially kickstart Indigenous People’s Day.
“We had all talked about it and really wanted to have Indigenous People’s Day to be declared on campus,” Barrett said. “You have no idea how much this means to us.”
The indigenous celebration had many different aspects of the culture for students to interact with and become more aware of. From vendors selling handmade items to playing cultural games, the Native American Student Association said they were happy with the turnout as roughly 50 students attended the event. Additional students walked through the event, taking advantage of the free food.
“In our student group alone, we have at least 17 or 18 different tribes represented,” Gaston said. “I would say over 20 different tribes are being represented here today.”
The vendors at the event ranged from selling handmade beaded jewelry and teaching attendees about Native American artifacts from the university and cultural musical instruments.
Leslie Thunderhawk, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, came to the event and had a booth showcasing Bird Hit flutes, a musical instrument that was used within the tribe for courting purposes.
“Originally, when the pioneers first arrived, they would come across the valley and would hear the sound of flutes,” Thunderhawk said. “That made them aware that they were getting close to indigenous people’s camps.”
The flutes Thunderhawk had on display were handcrafted and tuned by himself. The Bird Hit Flute is an instrument made entirely out of wood, detailed with intricate diamond shapes and swirl designs and finished off with a polish coat. Thunderhawk said that he tries to get them as close to the original flutes as possible.
Carrying on with the festivities, attendees were allowed to enjoy free food and participate in Stickball, a cultural game enjoyed by many indigenous people.
For interdisciplinary studies junior Peter Su, this was his first ever Native American cultural celebration he attended.
“This celebration was all about love and unity with the food and the games that were displayed on Sage Lawn,” Su said. “I definitely felt the power and pride that they all had for their own identities.”
Featured Image: Students browse tables of vendors during the Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration hosted by UNT’s Native American Student Association on Oct. 15, 2019. Ricardo Vazquez Garcia