The Native American Student Assembly celebrated Indigenous People’s Day on Monday, Oct. 12, by conducting an educational campaign on social media and reflecting on its growing presence across USC.
The U.S. traditionally observes Columbus Day on Oct. 12, commemorating explorer Christopher Columbus' landing in the Americas. Across the country, however, an increasing number of cities and states are using today to acknowledge Indigenous history rather than Columbus' violent conquest and colonial rule.
“For Indigenous people, [Indigenous People’s Day is] a sign of reconciliation in a way,” said Jair Peltier, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Bear Clan Anishinaabe and NASA member. “It’s a sign that America is ready to reckon with that history, to grapple with it, because it’s not a pretty history, and it’s not one that everyone wants to necessarily admit to right away.”
In light of COVID restrictions, NASA is commemorating Indigenous People’s Day through virtual celebrations. Although the coronavirus prohibited traditional festivities such as serving Indigenous foods on Trousdale Parkway, they launched a social media campaign across Instagram and Facebook to raise awareness for Indigenous people throughout the USC community.
“[We are] putting out posts about what is Indigenous People’s Day, who are we as a student assembly and just kind of educating on that,” said Kolten Nephew, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and the assistant director for NASA. “Trying to make the move to virtual has been a journey on its own, but … we do hope to see more engagement with our members.”
At their weekly general body meeting on Wednesday, NASA plans to host a “a day of reflection” to continue conversations and further engage the community.
Despite this year’s obstacles, Peltier, a Ph.D. student studying political science and international relations, relishes that Indigenous students can continue to fellowship and spread their message.
“I think it’s a sign of solidarity that people are still willing to celebrate even when we can’t do it in person,” Peltier said. “Even though we’re all apart, we are all united in a cause and a belief and a love for our indigenous identity. So it’s really touching to see that people still want to celebrate and still get the word out even when we can’t do it in person.”
Nephew hopes NASA’s celebrations help educate all Americans on the truth behind the country’s land. Los Angeles sits upon traditional Tongva homelands, Nephew said, and he aims to shed light on the lasting struggles faced by the Indigenous people.
“[I hope people are] educating [themselves] on Indigenous issues that are affecting us,” Nephew said. “And these are not issues from generations past. These are issues that are affecting us now.”
Native American students at USC have faced challenges in their pursuit of recognition. In 2017, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System reported that Native American students made up only 0.186% of USC’s student body. With such little representation, the university’s Indigenous community created NASA to promote visibility.
In its beginning, the assembly was called The Native American Student Union, which the university categorized as a religious group due to its smaller number of members. After contesting this status, the group gained recognition as a cultural assembly on April 15, 2020.
Since then, NASA has actively worked with the Undergraduate Student Government to amplify the voices of Native American students across USC.
“The journey here has been amazing, to at least be recognized and also just educate the USC community about Native Americans in higher education and that topic as a whole,” Nephew said.
By establishing itself as a cultural assembly, NASA aims to foster a strong community while providing education on systemic and cultural issues that continue to marginalize Native American populations today.
“[NASA] recognizes the identity of being native,” Peltier said. “It isn’t just a religious one… it’s more than that … It encompasses so many other things than simply spirituality, but also political identity, national identity and student participation.”
In the future, NASA hopes to see more people learn about and fight for the preservation of their culture.
“As Indigenous people, we are often left out of the conversation for a wide array of topics,” Nephew said. “Knowing that we do have a seat at the table in this day and age compared to generations past… it’s really important and amazing to see that we are recognized and seen.”