November is Native American Heritage Month. Did you know? We spoke with Yurok Tribe member Tori McConnell, a current college student and an American Indian College Fund student ambassador for 2020-2021, for perspective on her journey and how anyone can recognize this cultural moment.
1. What are you studying? Where?
I’m studying neurology, physiology and behavior at the University of California Davis.
2. What challenges have you faced in achieving higher education? What solutions do you propose to ease the path of others like you?
Although institutions of higher education have a lot to offer, they are not accessible if one doesn’t have the funds. Most universities have to function on a business model, so if you don’t have money then you can’t receive their “product” (education). From what I’ve experienced personally and what I’ve heard from my peers, financial obstacles are the biggest barriers to completing college. Sometimes, people can’t even apply to college because of application fees. Other times, people can’t afford rent in a college town so they have to either drop out, find affordable housing far away from the university location, choose a different college path, or go deep into debt.
To overcome these challenges, I think it is important that students are able to be hired in flexible, on-campus jobs, be fully aware of financial aid and scholarship logistics, and have access to scholarships that suit them. These are all structures that exist, and we have to learn how to use them for our benefit.
For now, we have to do our best with what we have—whether that’s going through community college, trade school, tribal colleges, private universities, or public universities—to educate ourselves and share what we learn.
3. What is your tribe’s greatest strength?
My tribe’s greatest strength is our relationship to our homelands that has not been broken since time immemorial. Because our homelands are in a remote part of Northern California protected by mountains and vast redwood forests, we were contacted by settlers later than most tribes in the continental U.S., and many families have been able to remain in the area. Partly due to this, we were able to survive the California Native genocide and now are the largest tribe in the state. Many of us have never stopped practicing our traditional food practices, and many of our most important ceremonies have been and continue to be revitalized. Our language is being revitalized and being taught in local schools, and our tribal organization and peoples have been gaining state, national, and global recognition in different ways. For those that have been displaced or disconnected, there are resources and opportunities to reconnect. All of these things originate from the fact that we have been nurtured and shaped by this land for generations; it has given us the strength to make it through even the most devastating times.
4. Why should everyone celebrate Native American Heritage Month and tribal peoples? How would you like non-Native people to celebrate with you?
Everyone should recognize Native American Heritage Month and tribal peoples. Any Native American heritage that is acknowledged today should be joyously celebrated. I think the best way for non-Native people to celebrate this month is to go out and learn about the environment and indigenous peoples of the lands they live on. I would be so happy if non-Natives made a commitment to honor the land and donated something—whether that’s time, money, resources, etc.—to promote the health of the land and its people.
Thanks for joining us for our second installment of #tapculture! As Tori suggested, use this resource provided by Canadian nonprofit Native Land Digital to find out which tribes inhabited the land where you live or work. For example, the Cheyenne lived where our Colorado Springs office is located; the Arapaho lived where our Denver office is located.
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