Students Discuss Native American Heritage Month and Building Capacity for NALSA

November is Native American Heritage Month. Four Minnesota Law students, who are members of the Native American Law Student Association (NALSA), answered questions about what Native American Heritage Month means to them and about building capacity for the newly re-formed NALSA affinity group. 

What does Native American Heritage Month Mean to You?

Jo Germaine, 2L: Every year, Native American Heritage Month (NAHM) reminds me of my duty to my people. I was raised in the 10 1/2 counties, Choctaw Nation's reservation area. I was born at an Indian hospital, grew up dancing in PowWow, taught in reservation schools. But the fact remains that every day, I "pass" as a caucasian person. My father was a "pasty-faced Englishman." Strangers look at me and see a white lady with dark hair and dark eyes. I am cloaked with what I call "white lady privilege." I can be loud (and shrill). I can curse. I can throw milkshakes. I generally will not have to worry that someone is going to shoot me or tase me or sic dogs on me or spray me with a firehose. As such, I have an obligation to be the loud voice against discrimination and disenfranchisement in the way that so many of my sisters and brothers can't be without endangering themselves. Ironically, it was my father who taught me that it was my duty to stand up against injustice whenever and wherever I saw it, and he gave me the ability to do it.

Randa Larsen, 1L: To me Native American Heritage Month is about celebrating cultures, shared experiences, and recognizing the lives of indigenous peoples. Native American Heritage Month is every month, but in November there is this added focus to the broader community that we can tell our stories and experiences to, there’s more of a national focus on celebrating indigenous lives, peoples, and cultures and that’s valuable.

Christopher Smith, 3L:  It is a celebration of Indigenous heritage and culture.

Mica Standing Soldier, 3L: It’s a celebration and recognition of Indigenous peoples, particularly honoring the holistic complexities of what it means to be Indigenous in the US. One complexity being that NAHM falls within the same month of Thanksgiving, a holiday perpetuating myths about Native and Settler relationships as peaceful. The real history behind Thanksgiving is appalling. 

How do you celebrate Native American Heritage Month?

Jo Germaine: This year, I've worn makeup to mimic traditional Choctaw facial tattoos. Before I moved away from Oklahoma, we attended PowWow and other events held in Atoka County. Prior to starting law school, I was often in the UK for American Thanksgiving, and I would cook a meal for my best friend and her family but we would talk about my culture and the history of the country prior to invasion rather than focusing on the whitewashed version of the holiday.

Randa Larsen: I celebrate NAHM by spending time with my family and my broader community and just celebrating our lives and culture. I also take the time to talk about indigenous ways of life with my non-indigenous friends. 

Christopher Smith: Attending functions focused on Indigenous Law and Policy.

Mica Standing Soldier
Mica Standing Soldier, 3L

Mica Standing Soldier: I think NAHM is a time of education and introspection. I love all of the content from different Indigenous creators and organizations published during this time, and it gives me a lot to reflect on about my own identity.

What are some of the goals of the Native American Law Student Association?

Randa Larsen: My goals for the group are just that it continues to grow and becomes a more known presence at the law school! We are in our rebuilding years so the opportunity for growth and community outreach at the Law School is there and we’re ready!

Christopher Smith: Creating a space for Indigenous law students and those interested in Indigenous matters to connect with each other, law students at other law schools, and the wider indigenous legal community.

Mica Standing Soldier: For the last three years our goal has been capacity building and growing engagement within the law school community and the Twin Cities community at large. We want our chapter to exist as an inclusive space for Indigenous law students and people interested in the intersections of Indigeneity and law. 

How many members are in NALSA and have you seen more interest in your group and its activities?

Mica Standing Soldier: We’re slowly growing, but we are growing. Social media has definitely helped with generating more interest. I think awareness is actually a better word than interest, because a lot of people still don’t know that there is a NALSA chapter at the University of Minnesota Law School. We’ve also had opportunities to collaborate with other student organizations and affinity groups, which is a great way to meet new people.

Throughout the month of November NALSA raised awareness by sponsoring or co-sponsoring several events and activities to honor and reflect on Native American Heritage Month. The group launched a six part educational series on Instagram about various topics important to Indigenous culture, histories, and communities. Topics included the history of Native American Heritage Month, tribal sovereignty and Public Law 280 in Minnesota, Line 3, criminal charges against Enbridge, and pervasive myths about Native Americans. NALSA also co-hosted a film screening of "Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian." Last but not least, NALSA and the American Constitution Society co-sponsored a panel discussion on the Indian Child Welfare Act. Guest panelists Professor Liliana Zaragoza of the Racial Justice Law Clinic, Professor Shannon Smith '99 of the ICWA Law Center, and Joseph Halloran of Jacobsen Law Group explained Haaland v. Brackeen and the threat it poses to tribal courts and tribal sovereignty.