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Native American Students Fight Discrimination By Celebrating Their Heritage

Nov 16, 2017
Originally published on November 20, 2017 11:56 pm

Ask students in the Mohawk Club at Massena Central High School whether they've been on the receiving end of negative stereotypes, and the answer is quick and sharp.

"We see that we're always the troublemakers or that we're bad kids," says Amanda Rourke, the club's president.

Member Mallory Sunday adds, "It's funny because they don't understand who we are as a people."

They and other club members live on the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation next to Massena, N.Y., on the U.S.-Canada border. One-tenth of the student body at their high school is Native American.

A new survey found that nationwide, three-quarters of Native Americans believe there is discrimination against their group today. The poll is a collaboration between NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The members of the Massena Central High School Mohawk Club are trying to fight that discrimination by sharing their history, culture and food with their classmates.

A chance to explain who we are

The Mohawk Club meets on Thursdays, right after the last bell and afternoon announcements. A half-dozen students burst into the Native resources classroom, where the purple Akwesasne flag and the U.S. flag hang side by side on the wall.

The students celebrate last weekend's successful fundraiser selling Indian tacos, made with Indian fry bread instead of tortillas.

"A lot of people get really excited for it as soon as they hear that fundraiser," says Amanda. "Indian tacos!"

The group raised $1,000 to put toward Native American Day, an annual schoolwide teach-in about Mohawk history, crafts, dance and song.

"It's a really good chance to explain who we are," says Mallory — and a way to combat negative stereotypes.

"Demeaning and disrespectful"

According to the new NPR poll, more than a third of Native Americans say someone has made negative assumptions or offensive comments about their race, something these students have personally experienced.

Racial slurs at sports games. Jokes about teepees. Assuming the reservation is riddled with crime and poverty.

"A lot of the friends that I have, their parents are afraid to come to the rez," says Amanda. "I've heard the saying, 'Oh you can't go down there. You're going to get shot or robbed or jumped.' "

"It's so demeaning and disrespectful," says Keely Thompson-Cook, the Mohawk Club treasurer. "I get so passionate about it because I just don't see where I shouldn't have an equal right to somebody who maybe isn't of my skin color."

The new NPR poll also found more than half of Native Americans say discrimination based on laws and policy is a big problem, too.

These students are very conscious of how institutional discrimination shaped their family history. For example, Amanda and Mallory say their grandparents were forced to go to Catholic residential schools in Canada.

"They would be forced to speak English. They wouldn't be able to speak their own language," explains Amanda.

"Or wear their own clothes or have their hair long," Mallory adds. "They would be hit with rulers."

Physical abuse and sexual assault were common at the residential schools.

The last Canadian residential school closed in 1996, a fact that Keely says highlights how recently this overt institutional discrimination took place.

"People think that this happened in the 1800s and it's in the past," she says, adding that some non-Native students can't understand why the history remains so painful for many Native young people. Canada didn't officially apologize for the residential schools until 2008.

Empowered to speak out

Watching these girls talk, her eyes moist, is Julie White, a guidance counselor who is also Mohawk.

"I could not be more proud of them," White says. "I think I teared up a couple times just listening to them."

White went to Massena high school, too. She remembers being called racial slurs. These students, she says, are creating a new reality. "Some of the things they're speaking out against — I guess we didn't feel empowered enough to do those things when I was here."

These students do feel empowered. They want Native American Day to be bigger. They want regular classes canceled for the day.

Keely says that last year, non-Native American students came up to her after the teach-in wanting to know more about her people's history, culture and traditions. She says that new curiosity helps all the Mohawk students.

"They feel more comfortable coming to school being Native American and being proud of who they are."

By starting those conversations, the students in the Mohawk Club hope to flip the script from Native American stereotypes to Native American pride.

Copyright 2017 NCPR. To see more, visit NCPR.

ELISE HU, HOST:

Now we're going to visit a high school in northern New York State where about a tenth of the student body is Native American. The school is right next to the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation. According to a new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, three-quarters of Native Americans say they've experienced discrimination because they're Native. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein talked with Mohawk students who are trying to fight discrimination with history, teaching and food.

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN, BYLINE: The Mohawk Club at Massena High School meets Thursdays right after the last bell and afternoon announcements.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Attention, boys ice hockey, there will be a...

SOMMERSTEIN: A few students burst in and crow about last weekend's Indian taco fundraiser - Indian fry bread instead of a tortilla.

AMANDA ROURKE: It's really good. A lot of people get excited for it as soon as they hear that fundraiser - Indian tacos.

SOMMERSTEIN: They made a thousand dollars to put toward their annual Native American Day. It's their way to teach about their culture and combat negative stereotypes, say club President Amanda Rourke and Secretary Mallory Sunday.

MALLORY SUNDAY: It's a really good chance to explain who we are.

ROURKE: We're always the troublemakers or that we're bad kids.

SUNDAY: But it's really because they don't understand who we are as a people.

ROURKE: Yeah.

SOMMERSTEIN: According to the new NPR poll, more than a third of Native Americans say someone has made negative assumptions about their race - racial slurs at sports games, jokes about teepees, assuming the reservation is riddled with crime and poverty. For these students, it's not unusual.

ROURKE: A lot of friends that I have - their parents are scared to come to the rez because they feel like...

KEELY THOMPSON-COOK: They're scared. They think they're going to be shot.

ROURKE: I've heard the saying, oh, you can't go down there. You're going to get shot...

THOMPSON-COOK: Or you're going to get robbed.

ROURKE: ...Or jumped.

THOMPSON-COOK: It's so demeaning.

SOMMERSTEIN: Demeaning and disrespectful, says Keely Thompson-Cook, the Mohawk Club treasurer. Again and again, these students say that's how those comments make them feel.

THOMPSON-COOK: I get so passionate about it because I just don't see where I shouldn't have an equal right to somebody who isn't maybe of my skin color.

SOMMERSTEIN: The new NPR poll also found more than half of Native Americans say discrimination based on laws and policy is a big problem. These students are very conscious of that shaping their family history. For example, Amanda and Mallory say their grandparents were forced to go to Catholic residential schools in Canada.

ROURKE: And they would be forced to speak English. They weren't allowed to speak their own language...

SUNDAY: Or wear their own clothes.

ROURKE: ...Or wear their own clothes.

SUNDAY: Or have their long hair.

ROURKE: They would be hit with rulers.

SOMMERSTEIN: Keely adds the last residential school closed in 1996.

THOMPSON-COOK: And people think that this happened in the 1800s. And it's in the past. Why are you guys still on about it?

SOMMERSTEIN: Watching these girls talk, her eyes moist, is Julie White, a guidance counselor who's also Mohawk.

JULIE WHITE: I could not be more proud of them. I think I teared up a couple of times just listening to them.

SOMMERSTEIN: White went to school here, too. She was called racial slurs. These students, she says, are creating a new reality.

WHITE: Some of the things that they're speaking out against - I guess we didn't feel empowered enough to do those things when I was here.

SOMMERSTEIN: These students do. They want Native American Day to be bigger. They want regular classes canceled for the day. Keely Thompson-Cook says last year, non-Native students came up to her wanting to know more, and that helps her fellow Mohawk students, too.

THOMPSON-COOK: They feel more comfortable coming to school, being a Native American and being proud of who they are.

SOMMERSTEIN: Which is how the Mohawk Club is flipping the script from Native stereotypes to Native pride. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in Massena, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIMMY THOMAS SONG, "THE COLDEST DAYS OF MY LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.