Native students at North Eugene High School find comfort, cultural bonds with student union
North Eugene students recognize native peers
North Eugene students recognize native peers
Students at North Eugene High School recognized Native American Heritage Month with an Indigenous People's Day celebration, raising native voices to share their experiences with peers.
The students in the Native American Student Union said the recognition and acceptance from other students was uplifting.
Steven Lee Bryan, a senior at NEHS, said he feels comfortable talking about his Cherokee culture and heritage in a way he never had before. After talking on a student panel about being Indigenous in Eugene, he received significant positive feedback from his peers.
"I've gotten so many reactions, each time it's a different one," Lee Bryan said. "I wish that my sixth grade year I knew about my tribe, and I knew that there was a Native American meeting at the school. Just hanging out with everybody is just a great experience."
Lee Bryan joined the NASU group at North Eugene his junior year of high school. He was invited by his friend and recent NEHS graduate Keith Schnick, who graduated in May and is Chiricahua Apache. Schnick and several other recent graduates came back to the school for the Indigenous celebration to support the younger students.
The Indigenous People's Day celebration at NEHS is normally held during Native American Heritage Month or occasionally on the true Indigenous People's Day holiday. This year, a three-presentation rotation took NEHS students through Oregon history, innovative indigenous music and a panel on NASU students' experiences. To close out the celebration, a drum circle was held at the totem pole of the school.
Schnick, who was a member of NASU starting his freshman year, said students this year showed significantly better support than in the past.
"(Compared to my) freshman and sophomore year, this year went a lot better," Schnick said. "Those years we got a lot of kids talking and kind of making fun of it. So it was good to see kids at least, like, be silent, because then it's like they care."
The Native American Student Union at North Eugene participates in a drum circle as part of an event recognizing Native American Heritage Month. pic.twitter.com/7kc3xxEy2Y— Miranda Cyr (@mirandabcyr) November 18, 2022
During the NASU panel, students in the audience asked questions. One student asked how the students at NEHS could better support their native peers.
Schnick responded by recommending people keep up-to-date on native issues and get involved with them, such as the missing and murdered Indigenous women movement.
"It's hard to be an ally," Schnick said. "Just be more aware. If you have the chance to come to our meetings or maybe even if it's outside the school, I would always suggest just going and showing support for any of our movements. Even just one more non-native showing up could help us a lot. Even one voice is better than none."
The Thanksgiving holiday has become more divisive in recent years as the treatment of native people under colonialism has become more broadly recognized and discussed.
Some of the current and former students shared their thoughts on the holiday and suggested ways the community can recognize Indigenous people during this time.
Halie Nightpipe, who is Lakota Sioux and graduated from NEHS in 2021, said Indigenous people have varied opinions on the holiday. Some celebrate Thanksgiving while others choose not to.
She said her family uses the day as a day to join together and feast, but they do not recognize the supposed harvest feast shared between colonists and the Wampanoag people.
"We take that away into bringing it to a family-oriented holiday and we celebrate it with each other," Nightpipe said. "It's more of a day to get together and hang out with the family and just enjoy each other's company and enjoy the food."
Alán Ortiz, a freshman at NEHS who is Navajo and Zapotec, said his family celebrates in a similar way.
"We never really associated Thanksgiving with the origins of Thanksgiving, about the settlers," Ortiz said. "We think of it as a holiday to just feast. During Thanksgiving, we always stay silent for a moment and just remember our ancestors."
Lee Bryan said one way people can keep Indigenous people in mind during the holiday is by doing their own research about local tribal communities and nations, looking into their traditional clothing, songs, food and more.
In Oregon, there are nine federally recognized tribes: the Burns Paiute Tribe; the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians; the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon; the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians; the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation; the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs; the Coquille Indian Tribe; the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians; and the Klamath Tribes.
Lee Bryan and several other students suggested attending a local powwow or other public events to learn and connect with different cultures.
The NASU stressed the importance of supporting Indigenous peers during the holidays and beyond.
Brenda Brainard, former executive director of the Eugene School District 4J Natives Program, explained the meaning behind the drum circle performance. She said the song is recognized as the "Native American national anthem," but was originally a Northern Cheyenne war song.
"Sometimes you have to be a warrior in your own life," Brainard said in relation to the song.
She said North Eugene has really stepped up as a school.
"North Eugene is possibly the most supportive high school that we have, and they have made a commitment to do this every year," Brainard said. "Other schools are hit and miss depending on who... their NASU kids are, but the administration at North Eugene has really made the commitment to make this happen."
Nightpipe said she continues to return to NEHS to support the NASU group. She said it's great when non-native students choose to join the union or sit in on their meetings.
Nightpipe said it's an opportunity to share their culture and for non-native students to learn about different communities.
"We're letting the public know who we are and what we represent," Nightpipe said. "As we get to know each other, we become a family."
Miranda Cyr reports on education for The Register-Guard. You can contact her at [email protected] or find her on Twitter @mirandabcyr.
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