In honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Oct. 14, a day-long program of knowledge-sharing, celebration and community building, called “Language as Water: Honoring Our Relations,” was held as a collaborative event between Whatcom Community College, Northwest Indian College, and Western Washington University.
The program celebrated the fifth annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day event between Whatcom and NWIC, which aims to decolonize the legacy of Columbus Day and recognize the origin and first peoples of America.
Overall, the program was a coordinated effort among the three colleges, and each presented and hosted their own event.
The events were coordinated by the Simpson Intercultural Center and Program Diversity Board at Whatcom, Indigenous Service Learning at NWIC, and Associated Students of WWU and the AS Ethnic Student Center at Western. Western’s president, Sabah Randhawa, spoke at the event held at the university.
“This is a big cometogether to share our personal experiences and perspectives, reflect on our history, and work together in harmony for the future,” he said.
Three program events were held throughout the day. Whatcom hosted first in Syre Auditorium, followed by an afternoon event at Northwest Indian College, and concluded with an event and community dinner at Western. The emcees were NWIC’s Vice President of Activities, Terrance McKay, Vice President of Finance for the Student Executive Board, Jandy Pierre, and Vice President of Student Clubs and Organizations, Santana Rabang.
Each session began with a sage ceremony and prayer song by William Wilson III. “I want to honor the veterans and elders, and the men and women who take time away from their homes and families so that we can do this in peace, away from the different conflicts that America has had – and so that we are moving for ward and able to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” Wilson said.
The prayer song he performed was in his Native language, historically sung by his ancestors. They sang it “for encouragement, and to ensure that I am here today and that future generations will be here tomorrow,” he said.
Performances at each event were featured by artists Thunderbirds Raised Her, 1.Chance Mad-Eye, and Jonah Ballew, to name a few. Madaline Lawrence, 22, was one of the performers featured, under her rapper name, 1.Chance MadAye. She is a member of the Lummi tribe and is transgender. It was her first time getting on stage and performing music, an artistry she’s been connecting with for her entire life and making on her own since the age of 12.
“Something that makes me unique is that what really inspires my music is helping other artists that want to be heard,” said Lawrence. “That’s where I think I get my inspiration from – other people that love music. All of my songs feature other Native American artists, particularly my cousins who all make music too. It runs in our family.” She performed her original song, Dedication, and freestyle rapped and beatboxed for the audiences.
Also performing at each event was Thunderbirds Raised Her, a Native American country-rock vocal group. The trio of musicians, Billie Lynn Kennedy Jefferson, Danielle Kili Kennedy Jefferson, and Katherine Val Renee Kennedy Jefferson are sisters. They grew up on the Lummi reservation, with roots in both Coast Salish Lummi Nation and Assiniboine Sioux.
“I want to recognize our ancestors that stand behind us, both Assiniboine Sioux and Lummi Nation, as well as Coast Salish people and relatives, our lineage all rooted in this land,” said Katherine Kennedy Jefferson. “We are all making our ancestors proud and representing our people by recognizing that we are survivors, our bloodlines and our spirits are strong, and that our ancestors walk behind us every single day.”
The women performed a variety of songs, all of which they wrote themselves. Native American culture and advocacy for social justice is present in all of their music. The group began their performances with “America,” a song that “speaks to every indigenous person and person of color that walks or has walked on this earth, and our story,” said Katherine Kennedy Jefferson.
Their song “I Am Happy” was written “for indigenous youth that go away from home for their education and then come back home and are faced with negativity,” said Katherine Kennedy Jefferson. “Indigenous people, especially youth, don’t have a good history with leaving home for education.”
The women spoke about residential schools, noting that their mother is a survivor and they are the first generation in their family to not be in residential schools.
“My message to indigenous youth through this song is that it’s okay to come home to your people. Where your people are is where your home is,” said Katherine Kennedy Jefferson. Another song of theirs, titled “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women,” was written to raise awareness about the topic.
They concluded their performances with “Love,” a song about their pride in where they come from and to have so much variety in their culture.
“Wherever we bring our music, it’s important to recognize the truth about our history and about current times,” said Katherine Kennedy Jefferson. All three program events were well-attended by students, staff, faculty, and members of the greater Whatcom community, those indigenous and non-indigenous. Whatcom County resident and former reference librarian, Jane Lowrey, attended the event held at NWIC.
“It’s important for people to celebrate this day and come to these events because it’s a part of our community that we should all connect with and learn about more. Where we all live was stolen from them, it’s good to know our neighbors, and their performances are wonderful,” Lowrey said.
Lummi Nation Hereditary Chief, Tsi’li’xw Bill James, was present at the NWIC event. He spoke about the injustices that Native Americans have faced, where they stand now, and what Indigenous Peoples’ Day represents.
“We’re celebrating our Indigenous people and ancestors,” he said. “We’re making a statement that we are still here, and it is well.” In attendance at the college’s event was their freshly appointed Dean of Students, Destiny Petroske-James.
“Our hope is that moving forward, we will have an Indigenous Peoples’ Day event at every university in Whatcom county,” Petroske-James said.
Whatcom has been officially acknowledging and holding events in conjunction with NWIC for Indigenous Peoples’ Day since 2015. This was the first year that Western has officially acknowledged and celebrated Indigenous People’s Day in collaboration with Whatcom and NWIC.
The university has been taking steps in recent years to become more inclusive for indigenous students, faculty, and staff. When Randhawa took his position as Western’s president in 2016, he received a letter from the Native American Student Association, listing five requests to the university to better serve Native and indigenous students.
At the event Western hosted, Randhawa spoke about these requests, their importance and priority, and what they’re doing and will continue to do to expand access and success for Native and indigenous students in Bellingham.
In response to the letter, the first executive director of American Indian/Alaska Native and First Nations Relations & Tribal Liaison to the president, Laural Ballew, was named in January of this year. “It’s wonderful to be able to see all of these institutions coming together and recognizing this day with us,” Ballew said at the university’s event. She is a member of the Swinomish Tribe and resident of Lummi Nation, and considers herself an “intertribal indigenous woman,” she said.
As Western’s Tribal Liaison, Ballew builds Western’s connections to external tribal communities and strengthens its community within.
“Our ancestors want us to be loving, be positive, stand strong, and stand together,” she said. In addition to establishing a Tribal Liaison position earlier this year, since the beginning of this academic year, Western has opened a Multicultural Center and created an academic and cultural support program called Pathfinder for Native and indigenous students.
Pathfinder is “designed to mentor and serve American-Indian, Alaska-Native, and other Indigenous-identifying students, with appreciation for individual (and shared) cultural sovereignty, and to promote academic retention and excellence,” according to their website. Whatcom has a similar program to Pathfinder, called the AIM program – an acronym for “Achieve, Imagine, Motivate!”
The program specifically serves students with limited income, students with disabilities, students of color, and/or first-generation students. Like Western, Whatcom is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and has been taking steps to implement policies that expand access and success for students, including those who are Native and indigenous.
In 2011, the Simpson Intercultural Center opened here at Whatcom, and has since been embodying these goals and values. For the past nine years, the center has been advocating for, supporting, and serving historically marginalized and underrepresented students here at Whatcom.
Student support is also extended to several of the identity and culture-based student groups and clubs on campus, including the Native and Indigenous Student Association (NISA), which aims to create a sense of community for Native and indigenous students on campus and their allies.
The Indigenous Peoples’ Day program and events held this year were representative of Bellingham’s colleges coming together to collectively commit to recognizing Native and indigenous peoples and students, being more inclusive for them, and building their college communities within, with each other, and beyond.
“We recognize that these are just the first steps along the continuous path – one that reaches back into history and increases our hope of justice into the future,” said Western’s president, Sabah Randhawa. “One of the lessons engrained in my mind is that education is the most powerful tool we have to create an equitable and brighter future for individuals and for communities.”
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