CPNAIS presents 5th annual Native Studies Symposium

By Alyssa Creamer

Alyssa Creamer/Collegian

The University of Massachusetts’ Certificate Program in Native American Indian Studies [CPNAIS] held its fifth-annual Native Studies Symposium last Friday, which sought to educate audience members on indigenous peoples’ health and their land sustainability through a series of presentations and lectures.

The lecture, titled “Indigenous Health and Land Sustainability,” drew academic lecturers with indigenous backgrounds for presentations which spoke, through personal anecdotes, to the struggles facing the lecturers’ respective tribes.

The lecture series, which coincidentally landed upon the second anniversary of the oil company BP’s oil spill – the largest accidental oil spill in history – featured a lecturer of the Houma Nation, a tribe predominantly filled with fishermen, that has been deeply affected economically and politically by the spill.

The lecture was co-organized by Joyce Vincent of the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success and Jean Forward, a UMass anthropology senior lecturer and director of CPNAIS.

“During last year’s symposium, ‘Indigenous Identities: Location, Relocation and Reclamation,’ a common concern arose that made us [the Native and Native studies community] realize that we needed to further examine concepts of power,” said Forward in an email after Friday’s lecture. “Thus, as we pursued the development of this year’s symposium, we decided to examine concepts of power in connection with indigenous health in relation to land sustainability.”

The lecture was an intimate setting, taking place in Herter Hall and drawing less than 30 audience members – a mixture of students and mostly faculty.

To begin the lecture, Forward gave a brief introduction to the lecture series before handing the stage over to a man who formerly held her position as director of the now 15-year-old CPNAIS program.

Former CPNAIS director and current English department professor Ron Welburn brought the audience to its feet during his opening remarks. At Welburn’s request, all audience members joined hands in a silent circle to participate in a “traditional blessing.”  During this blessing, Welburn thanked “the Creator” and asked for “the Creator’s blessings” during “this day of presentations.”

Welburn then introduced the Vice Provost for Academic Personnel and Dean of the Faculty, Joel Martin, and said that Martin, upon coming to the college of Humanities and Fine Arts “had been a starboard supporter of the Native American studies department.”

Martin stressed that interdepartmental partnerships across the University’s various colleges could shed new light upon issues, such as the BP oil spill, that touch many lives and have lasting effects, known and unknown.

“When I think about this campus and the enormous resources we have to bring to the barrel on any topic, it is very important that we have programs focusing on the Native American studies,” said Martin. “Because everything we do here is relevant to the Native American communities…  the gulf oil spill, that thing, touched everything.”

The lecture’s keynote speaker was N. Bruce Duthu of the Houma Nation, whose lecture, titled “Impacts of the Gulf Oil Spill on the Houma Nation, Louisiana” dived into the socioeconomic and environmental effects of the 2010 BP oil spill on his community.

A former lawyer, Duthu came to speak at UMass, hailing from Dartmouth College, where he is currently a Samsom Occom professor and chair of the Native American studies department.

In memory of the 11 individuals killed in the BP oil explosion and in recognition of all lives affected today by the spill, Duthu opened his speech by requesting a moment of silence from the audience.

Duthu’s lecture was split into three narrative segments, and Duthu said he would be explaining the theme of “lessons learned” within all of his narratives. His affection for story-telling, he said during the lecture, results from an identification with his tribe’s feelings that “the story is the life-blood” of a tribal community.

During Duthu’s first segment, he gleaned insight into his upbringing as part of the Houma Nation when segregation of blacks, whites and Native Americans still occurred in the Bayou within schools, churches and other commercial locations.

“In the Catholic church that I attended, this changed just in my youth, there was a section that was the Indian section, nailed down two by fours in a quadrant of the church,” Duthu recalled. He said during this time, the priest would not allow Native Americans to receive communion until every white member of the church had received theirs first. He also said most members of his tribe had and still do identify with the Catholic religion.

He spoke about 1965’s Hurricane Betsy, and how the destruction had affected the social groups living in the Laforche-Terrebonne Parish, which the Houma Nation considers its homeland.

“[Hurricane Betsy] was a direct hit to this area,” said Duthu. After the blow of the hurricane occurred, Duthu recounted seeing people of all ethnic backgrounds placing their destroyed property, “appliances, rugs, furniture,” on the curbside for garbage collection.

“White families, black families and Indian families all got hurt the same,” he said. “Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate.”

Duthu wondered how people would respond to what he perceived to be nature’s equalizing force, and during the lecture he expressed his amazement at how his society went “right back to building their own structures and practicing our old ways” of enforcing segregation.

“We got a chance to wipe the slate clean, because nature wiped the slate clean,” he said. “It shouldn’t take a hurricane, though.”

During his second narrative, Duthu also spoke in great depth about the oil spill’s effects. Using an interactive diagram created by the New York Times, he illustrated how quickly and continuously the damage from the oil spread along the coast. His lecture also dived into the broader problem facing Louisiana as its coastline suffers the greatest amount of coastal erosion in the continental United States. Duthu talked about the role of the redirection of the Mississippi River along with the role of major hurricanes in this erosion.

“I get discouraged thinking … that my kids will literally not have a homeland to go back to because my homeland will be under the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

“We are still uncovering and discovering the impact from this massive catastrophic, environmental, social and economic disaster,” said Duthu of the spill. “We still don’t know what it has done and what it will do to the ecosystem.”

He also talked about the economic effects the spill has had on his community, citing settlements in the billions made between BP and the state for commercial losses and health care costs.

Duthu said family members of his, whose livelihoods are dependent upon the commercial fishing of fish, shrimp, crabs and oysters in the area, have had difficulty finding work after the oil spill, with regulators opening and then immediately closing areas at the discovery of more oil. Duthu said that “over 30 percent of Louisiana’s seafood comes from our area, so, the impacts [of the spill] are far-ranging and still being determined.”

“This is where Indian humor comes into the picture,” said Duthu, drawing laughs from the crowd at his punch-line. “[My cousin] was going to advertise his shrimp as pre-oiled, just put it in the pan and it cooks itself.”

His final narrative detailed the Houma Nation’s struggle to achieve federal recognition since 1985 as a tribe and the economic and social implications this struggle presents in the wake of the oil spill and the hurricanes that have run through the nation’s homeland. Without federal recognition, Duthu said, his tribe does not have the legal standing “to assert damages” as a “trustee” of the “natural world.” Duthu continued to add that his tribe must rely on the Louisiana government, which Duthu said he feels has close connections with the oil companies, to make a case for damages to be paid to his tribe and their claims to be addressed fairly.

After Duthu’s speech, members of the Anthropology 396W course, which traveled to the Houma Nation for an “indigenous alternative spring break” spoke about their experiences.

Senior BDIC major in media and global citizenship and CPNAIS certificate recipient Michael Stewart said the students wanted to help the Houma Nation in its efforts towards rebuilding their homes and lives in the wake of the hurricanes and the effects of the BP oil spill.

Stewart said the students’ main mission was inspired by a quote by Lila Watson an indigenous Australian activist, which says, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

The group stayed in churches in Pennsylvania and Birmingham, Alabama on the way down to Dulac, Louisiana, visiting the Civil Rights Museum on their trip too.

The group gave a powerpoint presentation on their trip that lasted about an hour, as the students recounted lessons learned in bonding, cultural and social awareness and traveling.

Faye Adams, a former Collegian reporter and graduating BDIC student in journalism and Native Studies gave a presentation on the media’s response to the BP oil spill and the types and number of ethnic voices missing from mainstream media.

Finally, before graduate student presentations were given, a final lecture conducted by one of the first graduating members of CPNAIS was given on the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway and its effects on the Mohawk people.

Opening her presentation with the traditional language of the Mohawk people, former principal of the Mohawk Survival School, Sandra Deer-Standup talked about the cultural dynamics of the Mohawk tribe.

At one point during the lecture, her emotions overtook her speech momentarily, as she recounted her mother-in-law’s response to pictures of the St. Lawrence River, which once the seaway was built, cut off the tribe’s connection to the water and interrupted their economy, among many other effects.

“When I went to see my mother-in-law and brought this little booklet of pictures [of what the tribal lands looked like before the seaway was built], she opened the book and she just started to cry and cry,” she said. “I was so shocked. I had no idea how emotional the building of the seaway was for her.”

“The event went very well overall,” said Forward in an email. “All of the parties mentioned, administrators, Indigenous leaders, faculty, staff and students engaged, interacted and learned from each other.”

Members of CMASS, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the Vice-Provost’s office, the Anthropology and Public Health departments and Commonwealth Honors College contributed to the lecture.

Alyssa Creamer can be reached at [email protected]