Here first but nearly forgotten, some Native Americans celebrate this November

Posted November 6, 2017

Aiyana Ledwein, a senior softball player, is one of the few Native American athletes at UWRF. She is a descendant of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, and her birth mom lived on a reservation in eastern Wisconsin before moving to Minnesota.

Ledwein is excited about the idea of Native American Heritage Month but said it doesn’t receive enough publicity.

Aiyana Ledwein

Aiyana Ledwein is a senior softball player who continues to focus on Native American culture in her life. (Photo courtesy of Aiyana Ledwein)

“It’s not really talked about a whole lot,” Ledwein said. “I would like to celebrate it more, but nobody really knows about it.  I celebrate with my family, and we talk about important Native Americans. But otherwise it doesn’t really get mentioned, so there’s not a whole lot of celebration.”

This lack of notoriety also can be seen in how Native Americans are viewed in the broader public, according to Ledwein.

“I think that they’re kind of overlooked,” she said. “There were Native Americans here for a really long time, and people forget that.”

Native American Heritage Month is celebrated during the month of November. According to the Campus Data Report  that measures enrollment by ethnicity, only 12 students at UWRF identified as Native American in 2016-2017. This is only 0.2 percent of the student body, making it the smallest minority on campus.

The city of River Falls is similar with only 0.3 percent of the city’s total population identifying as Native American, according to the 2011-2015 American Community Survey. Both the campus and city have seen a rise in people that identify as more than once race, but the diversity results still prove the lack of Native American voices at UWRF.

Aiyana Ledwein, right, participates in the Native American tradition of making fry bread with her family.

Aiyana Ledwein, right, participates in the Native American tradition of making fry bread with her family. (Photo courtesy of Aiyana Ledwein)

However, Ledwein continues to stay active in her heritage through cooking ethnic dishes. When her family participates in these traditions, the long process and large portion sizes are special.

“Something that we make is wild rice for a lot of the holidays,” Ledwein said. “Something that my birth family taught me was how to make fry bread. It’s a Native American food that you can make Indian tacos with, or you can put sugar on it and make donuts with it. It’s so good!”

Ledwein was adopted as a child but continued to have a Native American influence in her life in her adoptive father and grandmother. Something unique for adopting Native American children is that one of the adopting parents must be Native American.

One Native American item that has stuck with her is the dream catcher. She has had one from her grandmother since she was little and also has one from her birth mom. The dream catcher is meant to be a soothing token for when you are asleep.

“All of your dreams go into the strings, and the bad dreams get caught,” Ledwein said. “The good dreams get caught and flow down through the feathers into your body. I have one at home, school, at my cabin and in my truck. I have dream catchers all over the place.”

Ryan Fischer, a professor of Native American history at UWRF, also noted the lack of publicity for the month of celebration. He said that the push for changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day has seemed to receive more attention. He believes this type of awareness will begin to have positive effects.

“There’s more awareness, and people are thinking about this in a more well-rounded way,” Fischer said. “There are a lot of stereotypes about Native Americans … but people are beginning to show more sensitivity.”

The rise in opposition to racist costumes and sports mascots has begun to be publicized in pop culture. The Native American population totals 5.2 million in the United States, according to the 2010 census, and Fischer said people need to think about how they present themselves and how racism will affect the lives of this large ethnic group.

One tool that Ledwein has used to begin a conversation about these issues is her involvement in Falcons United. She has felt connected with the group and their goal of starting a conversation and openly talking about difficult things like race. The group is made up of minority athletes and now includes opportunities for any athlete on campus.

“We talk about micro aggressions and how those affect us and how we can combat that,” Ledwein said. “The goal is to make the athletic community closer and open up people’s perspectives to see our point of view. It’s kind of like a teaching group for everyone.”

Sam Gale is a visiting assistant professor of history at UWRF, and he was originally a teaching assistant at UW-Madison. In his time at the university, he became close with former Wisconsin Badgers basketball star Bronson Koenig and taught Koenig in a few of his history classes.

Koenig is Native American and has always been very vocal about his heritage of being a member of the Ho-Chunk nation.

“What I appreciated was, while he was a talented athlete and all for the Badgers, he also went to Standing Rock,” Gale said. “He worked and fought for the rights of Native Americans. He understood this is who I am, and this has to be a part of my experience as a college student and a college athlete.”

Gale said that Koenig’s activism can serve as an example for Native American athletes and students alike. Gale has a specialty in sports history and added that sports have always been seen as an entry point for racial equality. However, blending into a team and avoiding who you are also isn’t a solution, according to Gale.

“It’s key to remain true to who you are,” Gale said. “If you try to sacrifice or hide (from issues) for the betterment of fitting in, it’s extremely difficult on a personal level, and it doesn’t achieve what you need.”

Native American Heritage Month is also noted for being celebrated in November, the same month as Thanksgiving. Some Native Americans have very different interpretations of the holiday and the results that followed.

“We celebrate the same, but we think about it differently,” Ledwein said. “There were good and bad intentions (for the settlers), and I like to remember what happened in the past.”

Realizing the connotation of events such as Thanksgiving and Columbus Day are ways that citizens have begun to take an interest in what Native American voices are saying. Sports mascots and certain names might not seem offensive to most, but it’s not the majority that needs to be heard from.

“It needs to be based on an open dialogue,” Gale said. “We can’t say what’s demeaning until we have that conversation. We can’t try to silence a valid voice.”