Native American Student Association finds support in community, alumni

NASA President and Treasurer share the organization’s goals, network and wishes from the University

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Gloria Chiang / Daily Collegian

By Ella Adams, Assistant News Editor

The Native American Student Association at the University of Massachusetts aims to create a supportive environment for Native students on campus and in the greater community. With a dedicated board, various planned events and a thriving alumni network, the registered student organization is steadfast in its commitment to increase representation and support of Native American and Indigenous students at UMass.

“I really just want to be able to have a space for Native students, you know, to exist and to feel supported,” President Xilonen Vela-Garcia said. Vela-Garcia, a senior informatics student, added that while activities and events might look different now compared to pre-pandemic years, NASAhas been able to continue to support its members and community.

Although the group is made up of a small number of students, Treasurer Angelina Larotonda said, traditions and social gatherings have allowed them to accomplish a tight-knit group on campus. One of those traditions is UMass’ annual spring powwow.

The powwow —which has been hosted at UMass for almost 30 years— is run by NASA and for the past around 10 years, has happened every April in the Curry Hicks Cage. Other groups and areas on campus have also been known to help organize the powwow sometimes, financially and otherwise.

“It’s a time [when] a lot of East Coast Indigenous people, even people who aren’t necessarily associated with UMass, will come and dance and sing. And it’s just like a big, social event, essentially,” Larotonda explained.

“It’s one of the first powwows in the spring in this area. So at least like in years past, for me, it’s always been the first time I get to see people since the previous summer. So it’s like a reconnecting,” the senior anthropology student continued.

“A lot of people who come are UMass alum or associate with UMass in some way, but not everyone,” Larotonda said. “A lot of just like new people from this area, like Western Mass, even like Connecticut, Rhode Island and areas around here, will make the drive for the day.”

In addition to the annual campus powwow, Larotonda said that NASA holds Nikkomo — a pre-winter celebration and potluck. She described Nikkomo as a tradition celebrating going from fall into winter, similar to a winter solstice.

“The way we celebrate it is like Native students, and even like professors and staff, and a lot of community, a lot of alums, we all get together, and we have a potluck-style dinner. And it’s just a really good way to connect with everybody before the winter starts,” Larotonda said. It’s an especially important event, she added, because in this area there are few powwows or celebrations over the wintertime.

The events NASA holds, as well as its regular functions as a student organization, are supported by a vast alumni network. Vela-Garcia and Larotonda explained that NASA alumni are invaluable when it comes to the success of the group as well as of the individuals within the group on a personal level.

“They support us in a way, like we’re Native students on campus, but they also just support us as people, which I think sets us apart from all the other clubs on campus,” Larotonda said.

In Vela-Garcia’s experience, although she did not join NASA until the beginning of her sophomore year at UMass, the group’s extensive community has already helped her begin her reconnecting journey.

“My name, Xilonen, [is] an Indigenous Nahua/Mexica name in the language Nahuatl,” she explained. Vela-Garcia is reconnecting Nahua, which means she is in the process of learning about and understanding her identity as an Indigenous person.

“I have kind of a different background than all of them, but they’ve all been really supportive as I continue my reconnecting journey,” Vela-Garcia said. “I would say like, the community and the people in NASA really, kind of helped me start that journey. So, I’m really grateful to all of them.”

“They always offer their support and I feel like they have been like the main source of support for me in this position more than anything,” Vela-Garcia continued. “That’s one thing that I really appreciate a lot. Even if I haven’t felt supported by UMass, I know that they have my back, basically.”

That support may be provided by alumni and fellow students within NASA, but as Vela-Garcia noted, she and Larotonda believe that support from the University itself could use improvement. While the Student Government Association offered to help Vela-Garcia with the reactivation of NASA during the pandemic, there has been little support on the part of UMass itself.

“My goal in this position is just to help have a space for people who either are away from their community, or people who are trying to reconnect just to have, like, a space, you know, to feel supported. And I feel like to be able to foster that type of environment, you need a lot of different things,” Vela Garcia said.

“You need actually, you know, Native and Indigenous students to be attending UMass. I think definitely having more financial support for Native students, having more programs that, you know, actually connect them with resources that are not just generic ones, like ones that are catered to their experience is important,” she continued.

Larotonda added that the already-small number of Native students on campus, matched with a lack of support from the University, makes it difficult for NASA to do outreach to those students who might not know about the group.

According to Larotonda, University admissions makes it difficult as well. She recalled a 2017 visit and tour she was invited by admissions to give of the cultural center, and how admissions seemed to “scare” the students away with statistics that made their chances of getting into the school “slim” and of getting scholarships unlikely. She remembers almost working to “undo” what admissions had impressed upon the students.

According to Larotonda, there is a serious lack of support in getting more Native students to even come to UMass. Having heard from alumni that UMass used to hold programming for Native students, and host and reach out to tribes in the area to try to get Native students to apply to UMass, she believes that the school does not use nearly enough energy to support Native students now.

“There could be more support in admissions and just like getting Native people to apply to college or apply to UMass, there could be more financial support, or like scholarships offered. There could be more support once you’re in UMass,” Larotonda said.

She reflected on her own experience of being a first-generation college student, paired with the responsibility she now has of working three jobs and taking courses.

Larotonda remember having issues in the past when asking for funding to hold events the group wanted to do. She says UMass was not allocating enough money to allow them to hold some of the events they thought would be beneficial for the community.

“A lot of it’s financial…like getting people into school, keeping them there [and] running events for them,” she explained. “UMass is famous for their multicultural events where they just kind of like, lump a whole bunch of different, like, cultural groups together. Sometimes it’s nice to have culturally specific things as well.”

“I feel like as of right now, at least in my opinion, there’s nothing that [UMass is] doing perfectly. So almost everything could use improvement in some way.”

Looking into the future, Vela Garcia and Larontonda are preparing to pass on their leadership roles, as both are graduating this semester. Transition between leadership is their priority at this point in time, as well as continuing support for not just UMass Native students, but other Native and Indigenous people in the community. Between Five College-related students and alumni, Native community members and UMass’ own Native students, NASA is working to gather new members and make their events and meetings accessible for all who are interested.

Ella Adams reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @ella_adams15.