Native American Heritage Month calls for change

USC students and faculty call out underrepresentation of Native American culture on campus, even during Heritage month.

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With President Biden’s proclamation of November as Native American Heritage month, this marks the 26th consecutive year that National Native American Heritage Month is being celebrated throughout the United States. However, at USC, students and faculty are calling out the lack of Native American culture and tradition represented on campus.

While multiple events to celebrate Native American heritage have been held this month by the Native American Student Assembly (NASA), USC leadership has yet to release any information regarding events celebrating or commemorating Native American Heritage Month.

Annenberg Media contacted the university, who said there would be an announcement related to Native American Heritage Month later this week but did not offer any details.

For Latinx Heritage Month, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and Black History Month, USC President Carol L. Folt has made formal announcements via email inviting students, faculty, alumni, and staff to join her in “kicking-off” such celebrations.

Screenshots of the emails that show each community's events for the month.

These announcements went out before the start of each celebratory month. However, as of Nov. 15, no email has been sent out about Native American Heritage Month.

One member of NASA, freshman Terrell Mesteth, noted the lack of acknowledgment by university officials.

“I think USC could do a much better job because, while I understand that it’s such a small population on campus, it doesn’t necessarily mean to forget about Native American Heritage Month,” he said. “It still has great importance.”

Mesteth, who grew up on the Navajo reservation and connected with the Navajo and Oglala Lakota tribe, is a part of the Native American population on campus that makes up less than 1% of the student body.

In USC’s fall 2020 Enrollment by Racial/Ethnic Category Report, the “American Indian or Alaska Native, non-Hispanic” student population comprised of 25 students, representing roughly 0.001% of the undergraduate student body.

The report does not use the term Native American and does not specify how many students are from that specific demographic. This does not take into account students of mixed race who are also Native American and may be classified into another category.

In USC’s demographic report released for the 2021-2022 academic year, the Native American student population is not specified. Instead, the report uses the term “Other” to identify students who do not fit into its listed categories.

For Mesteth, the transition from the Navajo reservation to USC’s campus has been an eye-opening experience in regards to the lack of representation compared to his home.

“It’s very different coming from the reservation because it was like 99% native, and then coming to USC where the population is way less than 1%,” he said. “After coming to USC, I realized the importance of Native American Heritage Month and educating others about the history that natives have endured and their significant contributions they have made.”

Professor John Rowe, who helped lead the recent development of the Native American Studies minor and numerous Native American studies courses, also called out the underrepresentation of Native Americans on campus.

“I think [Native Americans] are very underrepresented, and that’s a great misfortune. Take the fact that USC is built on unceded Tongva and other tribal lands,” said Rowe. “I think if you were to ask most USC students and most USC faculty and staff, few would know that we’re on the land of the Tongva and about 20 or 25 other tribal communities.”

With the addition of the Native American Studies Minor to USC curriculum in recent years, Native American-focused classes have become increasingly available for students. However, Rowe believes a minor is not enough.

“We need to move toward a major, with sufficient courses offered on a regular basis to provide coherent education for USC undergraduates… Just to start planning a major would require the hiring of tenure-track and tenured faculty with expertise in Native American/Indigenous Studies.”

UCLA, UC Berkeley, Stanford and numerous other California universities currently offer a major in Native American Studies.

In Rowe’s opinion, the path to just representation starts with education. Though he is not Native American himself, he advocates for the inclusion of Native American history in educational curriculum. In his own life, his inspiration to advocate and promote Native American culture is rooted in the lack of education he received on Indigenous history.

“Growing up in California, I learned far more about Spanish Missions than about [Indigenous] people and that troubled me,” he said. “As I studied Indigenous history, I promised myself that I would not pass on the ignorance of my teachers and have taken great joy in what native people have taught me. I want to share that knowledge and inspiration.”

Mesteth, who agreed that an increased Native American curriculum would benefit the lack of Native American representation on campus, also believes that USC admissions could also focus more on attracting more Native American applicants to increase the Native American population on campus.

“I think that admissions can also do some events targeted towards native individuals to have them apply. There was only one webinar for native students when I was applying, so I think admissions offices could help increase representation too.”

As for events that could be held on campus for students, he suggested numerous ideas such as “discussions with native individuals on various topics, cultural performances on campus, film festivals showcasing native producers or native films, or even cooking demonstrations.”