When asked about her current fight with the Bellefonte Area School District, Penn State Administrative Assistant in the Undergraduate Education, College of Agricultural Sciences Kathryn Pletcher’s response was, “You got a couple of hours?”
Pletcher said she joined the movement knowing about the “death threats” against the people involved, yet she couldn’t stand the disrespect toward Indigenous people.
“I joined because my daughter was no longer at the high school. So had she been still in high school, I don’t know if I would have put a target on her back because that’s what was happening to the people that were standing up and speaking and being heard,” she said.
Pletcher is an enrolled tribal member of The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Growing up in “white suburbia” in northern Wisconsin, Pletcher said her family didn’t talk much about their Indigenous heritage.
“[My father] never even knew he was Native until… 1955. He received a letter saying that he and his siblings own land parcels on the Bad River Indian Reservation,” she said. “Back then, you didn’t want to advertise that you were Native because they lived right off the reservation, and they were second-class citizens… It really wasn’t cool back in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s to be Native.”
Pletcher isn’t the only one whose heritage and culture was misappropriated. Misty Solorio, head female dancer of Penn State Traditional American Indian Powwow, said she was 2 years old when she was adopted out of her home community.
“I’m what’s called Treaty Indian,” Solorio said. “I’m a Sixties Scoop survivor out of Manitoba, Canada — it means there was a generation of First Nation children that were taken from their homes, put into the foster care welfare system and then adopted out of Canada for profit.”
Now, a resident of Pennsylvania, Solorio said she tries to take each day of November, which is National Native American Heritage Month, to share something about herself on social media — why she dances a certain style, what got her dancing or one of her jingle dresses.
“As far as my family, I try to do my best as a Native mom to be proud of [my sons] every single day and to not waver in that and who they are because it’s very hard to be a Native young man. Both of my sons have long hair. I’m extremely proud of them for that,” Solorio said. “I think it’s nice that there is a month acknowledging Native Americans.”
However, a month of acknowledgment doesn’t erase “hundreds of years of genocide,” Solorio said. She said she wants people to understand that the history so widely taught about Indigenous people “is completely wrong.”
“Now, because of resources that are on the internet, and even the resources going directly to the community members themselves, there’s opportunity to rightfully educate yourself in the right way with history when it pertains to the Indigenous peoples of this land,” she said. “I would really want non-Native individuals to look up that history but also to ask questions, and most of us are very open to having those conversations.”
Questioning history and supporting Indigenous people and resources is also what Penn State student Timothy Benally wants more people to take action on. Benally (graduate-recreation, parks and tourism management and transdisciplinary research on environment and society) said he’s disappointed to see mostly negative disparities surrounding Native Americans at a high-level research institution like Penn State.
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“The United States has 574 federally recognized tribes, and each one is completely different with different languages, and I felt like that was never really talked about at all in any of my classes,” Benally said. “It’s kind of concerning because these are our future doctors, mental health practitioners and lawyers. These are very smart people of influence coming out of Penn State who are learning the bare minimum — that Native Americans are alcoholics, have casinos and have the highest rates of suicide — without telling why.”
While these are myths that have been debunked, they continue to perpetuate harmful stereotypes about Indigenous people.
According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine titled “American Indians and Alcohol,” “most studies of drinking among American Indians have focused on Indians living on reservations or on traditional Indian lands, even though this group accounts for only one-third of the American Indian population in the United States,” which leads to an “unfortunate stereotype” about the whole population.
Furthermore, only 15% of all American Indian Nations have a gaming interest or tribal casino, according to Penn State associate professor of news and media ethics John Sanchez, whose research focuses on American Indian identity in the 21st century.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, the second-leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Natives between the ages of 10 and 34 in 2019 was suicide.
A native of Arizona and the Navajo Nation, Benally just wrapped up his work for the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President in his home state this summer.
He said through research, he’s come to find out how “land grant” is a “loosely used title” to address Penn State as an institution and its rivalry with Michigan State and how the word can be problematic.
“It all points to the Morrill Act of 1862 that not only purchased Pennsylvania from Indigenous peoples, but it also displaced those peoples as well out of their homeland. So just seeing this huge commitment to diversity that [Penn State] pushes everywhere, including in their promotion materials… and then seeing the complete lack of acknowledgement for those original peoples and the acknowledgement for the stories of those peoples, which is something that I felt needed to be better represented.”
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Benally founded the Penn State Indigenous Peoples’ Student Association with the help of other faculty members who are also from the Navajo Nation in spring 2020.
Benally said a big tradition in his heritage is resilience, which goes with a saying that translates to, “We are still here.” While this shows the Navajo Nation’s perseverance, it also speaks volumes to the hardships smaller nations still face.
“It's incredible that the largest tribe in America has to say that when there's so many tribes that are smaller than us here, especially because [we’re] such a large tribe and privileged in many ways,” he said. “What we’re trying to do within the Indigenous People’s Student Association is support our students and that’s not just the students that are here at Penn State. We’re still trying to identify who’s all here and who all should be at the table.”
In State College’s neighboring town Bellefonte, Native Americans are still fighting for a seat at the table, Pletcher noted. Pletcher said about two years’ worth of work to get the school board to find a less offensive name and mascot was set back when the “anti-changers” banded together.
“They voted off the people who voted for the change… and then they immediately reversed the vote and brought back the name and the imagery. We had worked on consistently trying to present them the facts, the data, the research and the feelings that it’s not very welcoming, it’s not very inclusive,” Pletcher said. “They have no facts to back that up. It’s their white privileged emotion that they’re attached to this high school mascot and name, and they don’t like change.
“It’s hard to be different in a mostly white town and trying to open their minds to the way they’ve been doing things and looking at it isn't really honoring us at all. So for us, for all of the family, it's a journey.”
Pletcher said when protestors brought their discontentment to the school board’s attention, one of the responses stated there would be “no forced removal” of the remaining Native imagery signs. Pletcher urges “anyone who is disgusted by that” to speak out or email the school board whose actions scream “white privilege and ignorance and lack of knowledge.”
“It's not like we're asking for our land back. We're asking you to respect us the way we actually want to be respected,” Pletcher said. “So I would encourage anybody who either has friends or family to physically attend [the school board meetings] and speak up in support of this. If you're a nonresident, you can email the board and express your disgust at this neighboring town and how they're sticking to their guns of non-inclusivity.”
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