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Sophomores, Brenna Smith, psychology major (left) and Shelby Zink, biology major, make traditional corn husk dolls

Sophomores, Brenna Smith, psychology major (left) and Shelby Zink, biology major, make traditional corn husk dolls

Community | Events | Featured | StudentsNovember 21, 2023

Native American Heritage Month Celebrated at UAFS

Written By: Ian Silvester

Thirty-three years after a presidential proclamation designated November as a month to celebrate the culture and history of indigenous peoples in the U.S., the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith continues the tradition with a slate of events planned by the Native American Student Association.

These events, which include stickball demonstrations, heritage crafts, a Cherokee language presentation, and basket weaving instruction, aim to bring the community and UAFS students together to share in Native American culture, history, and traditions.

During the heritage crafts event, students got a hands-on look at traditional construction of practical, beautiful, and entertaining crafts. Students could make pinch pots, beaded bracelets, corn husk dolls, or any combination of the three. Ashley Gragg, the Indian Director for McAlester Public Schools in Oklahoma, provided a history of and lent a hand in making corn husk dolls.

Corn husk dolls“These dolls show our Native American culture. This is how they made dolls and what they played with,” Gragg explained. “Before, they had no cotton dolls. This is what children grew up making. They’re resourceful and used what they had to make their own toys.”

UAFS students popped in and out of the event space, leaving with something handmade and a new understanding of their fellow students.

Sophomore psychology student Brenna Smith attended the heritage crafts event with her friend, fellow sophomore Shelby Zink, a biology student. Brenna shared that the event taught her new things and said events like this are “important to make sure everyone feels seen.”

Gragg echoed, “Native culture is important because it shows kids who they are and where they came from and teaches them confidence because they learned about their culture and heritage. It’s also important to teach non-native people, so they know where we came from, our history, our past, and our culture so that it’s not something foreign to them.”

Two days later, NASA hosted a Cherokee language presentation. During the demonstration, students, faculty, and staff were taught how to say words and phrases in Cherokee, a language that is dangerously close to being considered endangered.

UAFS alum and former NASA vice president Amber Walker is the Speaker Support Services Social Worker for the Cherokee Nation Language Department. The nation has a new immersion school that Walker said is “all Cherokee, all the time,” and teaches students from toddlers to adults. She calls it “language revitalization,” as there are roughly 1,800 fluent Cherokee speakers; if that number falls to 1,000, the language will be considered endangered. The language presentation at UAFS as part of Native American Heritage Month is a step, Walker hopes, toward encouraging others to keep Cherokee alive.

“I’m hoping it might spark something in somebody,” Walker said. “I think getting the language out there and having it kind of catch hold of somebody will help prolong the language. … My whole motive is to save the language because it’s a piece of who we are. It’s our identity.”

The UAFS Native American Heritage Month will conclude with a basket weaving class hosted by NASA from 1-3 p.m. on Nov. 30 in the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center, room 129AB. The UAFS community is invited to attend, but space is limited. Only 30 spots are available and will be first come, first served.

About Native American Heritage Month: In a 1990 proclamation by former President George H.W. Bush designated November as National American Indian Heritage Month. A year later, Congress passed Senate Joint Resolution 172, which “authorize(s) and request(s) the President to proclaim the month of November 1991, and the month of each November thereafter, as ‘American Indian Heritage Month.’” The designation was renamed in 2010 to “National Native American Heritage Month” by former President Barack Obama, which has remained since.

  • Tags:
  • DEIB
  • Native American Heritage Month
  • Native American Student Association

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