The Cameron University Native American Student Association organized a protest Friday afternoon to call out the university and educate the community that “culture is not a costume.”
“This is an Indigenous teaching moment,” said Cornel Pewewardy. The lifetime activist and educator said it’s time the Indigenous people are recognized as full humans with a culture.
The purpose of the protest was to demonstrate the resilience, strength, and bravery of their Indigenous ancestors while no longer standing silent.
While it didn’t begin with a Halloween photo shared by the student organization, it proved to be the tipping point for action, according to Heather Towne, association president.
The organization saw a photo posted the official Cameron University golf teams’ Twitter of a CU women’s golf team member wearing an “Indian” costume during a trunk-or-treat event. In it, she is standing next to a “cowgirl” to suggest a “cowboy and Indian western narrative,” according to Towne.
“This is incredibly racist and offensive to the organization members as Native Americans,” she said. “Cultural appropriation such as this occurs as a direct result of colonialism. As Indigenous students we are working tirelessly to preserve our culture and put an end to these types of injustices within our community.”
Towne said that wearing sacred regalia as a costume and marketing it as “sexy”, “cool”, or “funny” is another step in the destruction of Indigenous culture.
“This is not a costume, this is a culture,” Pewewardy said.
“The Indigenous students of this university are tired of the systematic racism and colonialism,” she said. “We need to decolonize and provide trainings before incidents happen.”
The Native American Student Association, as an organization, is “deeply saddened” about this happening within the Cameron community, according to the president. She feels the university hasn’t lived up to its marketing as a diverse and dynamic student body.
“As students, we are told that Cameron is a safe space, but the Indigenous students of this university have to watch another student make a mockery of our sacred culture,” she said. “The Indigenous students of this campus are demanding action.”
Towne said more needs to be done. There is already an American Indian Retention Taskforce active at Cameron and there was a webinar via Zoom regarding cultural appropriation and Halloween costumes before the photo incident, and this still happened, she said.
Pewewardy, Gen Hadley and Sandra Gallegos shared their testimony of almost a half-century each in working for American Indian rights.
Pewewardy played the drum and sang the “Song for All Indigenous Nations” that was given to the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s.
In the end, Towne said that by standing their ground Friday afternoon and at other points when it has to be done, Native American students are using their voices to teach their truth.
“We’re here to teach people how to treat us in a kind and gentle way,” she said.