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Indigenous Peoples' Day resolution clears OU Student Government Association 28-5

Casey Holcomb / Red Dirt Report
Indigenize OU members stand before SGA.
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NORMAN, Okla. – While the Indigenous Peoples' Day resolution brought before Oklahoma City council members Tuesday failed by a 4-4 vote, the movement cleared another hurdle that same evening when University of Oklahoma’s Student Government association voted overwhelmingly in favor of recognize Indigenous Peoples Day at OU. 

After many questions, two friendly amendments, and one failed objection from members of OU’s Undergraduate Student Government Association, the SGA approved the resolution declaring the second Monday in October as Indigenous People’s day.

Organizers with Indigenize OU scored an earlier victory Sunday evening when members of the Graduate Student Senate voted unanimously to approve the Indigenous Peoples Day resolution.

After meeting lasting almost two hours, the undergraduate student congress approved the resolution with 28 members voting Yes, 5 voting No, and 3 members abstaining.

Co-author and Indigenize OU member Ashley Nicole McCray, a doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma, presented the resolution to SGA members asking for a yes vote. 

McCray noted that the City of Anadarko and the OU Graduate Student Senate passed similar resolutions earlier in week.  She also noted that student government organizations in other US cities are also in the process of considering similar resolutions. “We think that recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day would be a way to restore trust and justice to the Native community here on campus,” she said.

Earlier in September, McCray was recognized by the White House Champions of Change program for her contributions in improving inclusivity and diversity training in academia. Last year, McCray’s advocacy led OU administrators to adopt mandatory diversity education requirements for new and incoming OU students. 

At the Tuesday meeting, McCray was joined by undergraduate co-organizers from Indigenize OU including Jesse Robbins. Robbins is an OU student, activist, and nationally-recognized hip-hop artist based in Oklahoma. McCray and Robbins fielded questions from SGA members in a session that lasted nearly two hours.

During that session McCray and Robbins articulated their vision for what Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations at OU could be. McCray talked about engaging other American Indian student organizations to hold campus pow wows, music events with contemporary Native Hip-Hop artists, live paintings, and a variety of traditional, pre-colonization foods.

Despite the organizers’ emphasis on bridge-building, collaboration, inclusivity, and healing, questions from the SGA members were at times drawn out into tedious and repetitive interrogations of the resolution’s intent as well as the identity of its authors. The repetitiveness of the SGA members’ questioning throughout the session was noted by journalists covering the meeting. SGA rules on meeting decorum do not prohibit members from repeating previous comments and questions.

SGA members hear the resolution authors field questions. (Casey Holcomb / Red Dirt Report)

Many student government representatives seemed eager to support the declaration and refrained from the aggressive questioning.  Others voiced concerns about overturning Columbus Day and possibly offending students of Italian descent. Some students seemed more intent on interrogating the resolution’s authors as though cross examining witnesses in a trial setting.

On the issue of tradition, Robbins noted that Columbus Day celebrations only trace back to the 1920s. There are no ceremonies or long-standing traditions attached to the holiday which originated in the early 20th century.

“I don’t know how much that can be considered a tradition without ceremony attached to it as well,”  Robbins said.  He noted Native communities have traditions and ceremonies going back more than 10,000 years. 

When the organizers were asked if the Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations would include historical representations of Christopher Columbus, Robbins emphasized that he wanted to celebrate the healing and restoration part even more. Robbins indicated that the celebrations and social dancing he’s anticipating would be inclusive and welcoming of non-indigenous participants.

“This is more about moving forward as indigenous people and non-Indigenous people.”  The traditional dances, Robbins said, are not exclusionary. 

For the organizers, the declaration signifies a step forward in opening up dialogue and setting the record straight about the role of the first European colonizers. Columbus was responsible for exploiting, massacring, and enslaving indigenous peoples as well as exporting slaves to Europe. It’s harder to have those honest conversations when the history downplay or fail to acknowledge what actually exists in the historical records.  The violence and brutality of the Columbus expeditions is well documented in the historical records. School curricula still celebrates Columbus as an adventurer and entrepreneur who profited greatly from his conquests in the Americas.

The genocide and horrific nature of atrocities committed against Indigenous people in the Americas is minimized or omitted from the historical narratives taught in US school curricula. Some texts do acknowledge the fact that Indians were used as forced laborer.  They do not accurately reflect Columbus' role in terrorizing native villages and capturing Indian slaves for export back to Europe.

An Oklahoma-approved history textbook which acknowledges forced labor and the enslavement of Native Americans, but ignores the atrocities committed by Columbus as the first European slave-trader in the Americas.

Textbooks used in Oklahoma history courses and social studies classes still credit Columbus as a discoverer even though this doctrine discovery has been widely discredited by academics as a fiction, myth, or nationalist creation story in the tradition of Manifest Destiny. Textbooks also avoid characterizing the organized violence against Native Americans as “extermination” or “genocide." 

SGA members asked Indigenize OU members to speak about atrocities committed by Columbus. Robbins was willing to do so, however he prefaced his remarks by saying, “We want to show that we celebrate too. We want to show that our people move with the times. Our culture is dynamic. It can move in all ways and with all times and we can remain traditional within that."

Robbins explained that OU is often an unwelcoming and exclusionary environment for Native Students, especially full-blood American Indians.  He and fellow organizers explained that their efforts are often met with hostile, racist language and aggressive questioning from those opposing the Indigenous Peoples Day declaration. That opposition, they noted, is frequently accompanied by derogatory language, racial slurs and more recently, death threats. 

Robbins said he and his fellow organizers have documented the threats and racist tirades they’ve been receiving over social media since the start of the Indigenous Peoples Day campaign.

Some SGA members offered friendly amendments to the resolution. One amendment proposed to edit one of whereas clauses to include stronger language on the recruiting and retaining more Native American students to the University. The amendment was accepted.  Because that amendment was accepted, the resolution will now go back to the Graduate Student Senate for approval before going to President David Boren for review.

Tension heightened near the meeting’s close when one SGA student, Rep. Crisp, requested a postponement in order to consult with constituents to gauge student opinion and feel out how “students try feel.” Resolution author Ashley Nicole McCray reminded Crisp of the more than 200 letters of support from fellow students and faculty members recommending adoption of the Indigenous Peoples Day resolution.  Robbins spoke in opposition to the postponement saying, “Our community is on edge right now waiting to see if this passes.  I don’t want to go back to them and say ‘maybe next year.’”

Jesse Robbins addressing SGA near the close of Tuesday night’s meeting. (Casey Holcomb / Red Dirt Report)

In the end, no motion to postpone was offered. The resolution’s passage was met with enthusiastic cheers and a standing ovation from several SGA members. It passed 28-5 with three members abstaining. When the applause ended, Robbins stood and sang a traditional song in his tribal language expressing thanks for the vote of support.

Listen here to an interview with Indigenize OU organizers Jesse Robbins and Ashley Nicole McCray.

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About the Author

Casey Holcomb

Casey Holcomb is a writer, independent journalist, and policy advocate based in Norman, Oklahoma...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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