Native American Heritage Month: Students Share Their Stories

Jacob Factor, Chief Photographer 

(originally published November 1, 2017)

Native Americans have a very prominent part in Oklahoma History. It was originally called Indian Territory, and its name now is two words from the Choctaw language put together: “okla” and “humma,” meaning red people.

Native Americans are proud of their heritage, and Native American Heritage Month is a good way for them to share it with others.

Senior communications major Rachel Buckner is of the Muscogee (Creek) and Cherokee tribes. She grew up in Florida, a place where she said she and her family were the only Native Americans.

“When I was younger, I actually wasn’t proud to be Native American,” she said. “We were the only Native Americans for miles. I wanted to be like everybody else–to fit in more because I felt like I stuck out like sore thumb. So I didn’t really get involved in our heritage.”

Buckner said she felt this way until her seventh grade year, when she received her Cherokee name, Mouse, from her grandmother.

Now, Buckner said, she tries to stay involved in the Cherokee Tribe whenever she can.

“Last year I ran for the Miss Cherokee Pageant,” Buckner said. “Where you’re a role model for other Cherokee women and girls and build a platform on how important you think it is for American Indians to be in education.”

Buckner said now she isn’t ashamed of her heritage.

“I’m proud to be Cherokee, proud to be part of a tribe with Wilma Mankiller and Chief Bill John Baker.”

Wilma Mankiller was the first woman to be elected as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. She served for ten years from 1985 to 1995 and spent her time in office working to improve the Cherokee Nation’s healthcare and education systems.

“Knowing that I have the blood of great chiefs and great war women, that encourages me every day. I do have the potential to do better than what I’m doing,” Buckner said.

Buckner’s ancestry is important to her, she said, and they inspire her to keep going.

“Our ancestors are proud of where we are because we did survive,” she

said. “They didn’t think they were going to survive after being removed. If they could see us now they’d be so proud.”

As a last message for people who don’t know much about Native Americans, Buckner said. “There are all sorts of different tribes, and they all act differently.”

“We’re all Native American, but we’re not all the same.”

Sierra Davis, sophomore biology major, is another Native American student, and she is of the Choctaw, Otoe and Kickapoo tribes. She said she and her family are very involved in their tribal traditions.

“My family goes to powwows a lot,” Davis said. “My dad gourd dances in the Choctaw style, so all his regalia is Choctaw.”

Davis said she doesn’t know how do dance in the traditional style, but she still participates.

“I can just throw on a shawl and get behind and support and dance in that way. We do that, my mom, grandma and I,” Davis said.

She said she loves having three generations of her family dancing together.

“Anything Native American is based around your family.”

Davis said her family also follows tradition in their funeral practices.

“Whenever someone on our Otoe side passes away we go through the traditional Otoe way of mourning,” she said. “We go up to Red Rock [the Otoe capital], and we stay at the Otoe Agency.”

Davis said that it’s a three-day mourning process.

“The first night is specifically all of the family grieving. It’s so intense and everyone is so emotionally attached to what’s going on. It’s really important for all of the family to be there, so everyone comes up and we all stay there together, because it’s a family process.”

Davis said that the family in mourning isn’t allowed to cook their meals during this time, so another family will be there to provide food.

“[The second night] is the night for all the friends and people of the community to come. We sing traditional songs in Otoe language. We sing to ease ourselves and to ease the spirit of the person who’s passed. Then we tell stories of their life. It’s something to lift us all up, to remind us of the per- son and celebrate their life,” she said.

Davis said that the third day, in the morning, is the funeral.

“Someone will talk and then everyone except the family will go by and say their goodbyes. Then the family goes and says their goodbyes,” she said.

Davis said that after a person leaves the casket, they’re not allowed to say the person’s name or even cry.

“It’s very important that you don’t do any of those things because the belief is that if you show that you’re still hurting after you say your final goodbye, or if you say their name, then they think that you need them, so they stay,” she said.

“You don’t want them to stay; you want them to go on and be at peace. Your can’t say their name at the gravesite for six months because it’s thought that they’ll come back, that you’re important to them and if they think that you need them it will prohibit them from being at peace.”

She said that this whole process is done at the Otoe Agency.

“We never leave it,” she said.

Along with the three-day mourning, Davis said that there is another Otoe practice that her family follows.

Before an Otoe person dies they find a trusted friend and ask them to be their “Indian Friend.”

“We’re asking them, ‘Will you be the one that never leaves my side until I’m buried?’” she said.

“The Indian Friend has a special chair next to the coffin that they sit in

so they can watch over them. They’re there to provide comfort to the spirit so they’re never alone until [the fu- neral] is over.”

“I think that’s one of the most beau- tiful things about it. I’ve seen enough people go through this and to see the care that they display; the delicacy is so amazing,” she said.

As a final goodbye to the deceased person’s spirit, Davis said that the kids will walk across the gravesite.

“We place a board over the hole and the kids walk on it,” she said.

“Then we take them away from the site immediately and tell them not to look. The reason for this is, kids are the next generation, and it symbolizes us going on,” she said.

“We’re moving forward from that point, which is why they can’t look back, because to look back is to stay in the past.”

Davis said she understands that to some who are unfamiliar with Native beliefs, they might seem unchristian.

“I once got told by a teacher that I couldn’t hold my native beliefs and still be a Christian,” she said.

“He said there wasn’t a line where they connected and some of the things I believed in were completely unrelated and couldn’t coexist with a Christian worldview.”

Davis said she has been a Christian since she was nine years old, and that the beliefs that she holds don’t contradict the Bible.

“We believe that people have souls. All of the things we do at funerals are to take care of someone’s soul in their final time,” she said.

“There are examples from the Bible where Jesus would go and deal with demon possession. People act like it doesn’t happen now. We [Native Americans] still very much know demons exist and handle that as a part of life. Knowing demons exist means giving human souls more care than a lot of people give it.”

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