WLRN 91.3 FM | By Jessica Bakeman Published April 14, 2021 at 6:00 AM EDT
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Some faculty at the University of Miami responded to last summer’s reckoning over racial injustice by proposing a new program in Native American and Global Indigenous Studies. Native Americans are a tiny minority on the Coral Gables campus and one Cherokee graduate student is on her own journey to educate her peers.
As long as people are willing to learn, Kelsey Jackson is ready to teach them. She thinks she gets that from her mom, a lifelong educator.
“I embrace people who ask questions,” Jackson said. “Even when I think they’re crazy questions. … Sometimes, yes, I do get a laugh out of them, but if I know that they’re asking me for an answer, I will try to answer that question. And if not, then I will get an answer and get back to them.”
Jackson gets a lot of questions at the University of Miami, where she’s studying for her master’s in sports administration. She’s part of a tiny minority on campus: only 0.1% of students there are indigenous to the U.S. mainland or Alaska. That’s a slightly lower proportion than the national average for private four-year universities.
Jackson is an enrolled member with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians from Cherokee, N.C. While some people in marginalized communities find constant questioning to be tiresome, Jackson feels a responsibility to help others understand her culture, traditions, and especially how the atrocities of the past contribute to the urgent problems Native Americans face now.
“At this point, if our people want better for the future generations, then that’s something that everyone’s going to have to embrace,” she said.
Last semester, Jackson had a formal opportunity to educate her classmates, during a debate in her sports ethics class. Her team’s assignment was to argue against the use of Native American mascots.
To prepare for the debate, Jackson texted her five teammates asking if they’d be open to a virtual history lesson with her mentor, a professor in Oregon who’s a member of the same tribe.
“People don’t get the chance to learn about the genocide, the history of broken treaties or the treaties that aren’t upheld,” Jackson said.
“I was so proud of my group, because they were so open to learn and be educated, and they got to learn the history and the background,” Jackson said, “and so they understood the context of where I was coming from, why in all of my introduction videos, or when I introduced myself in class, why I made it a point to say, ‘Hey, I’m Native American.’ Why I prided myself on that.”
When Jackson arrived in class on the day of the debate, two of her classmates told her to “take it easy” on the team that was assigned the opposite viewpoint: pro Native American mascots.
“And I was like, ‘Just because I’m Native American does not mean that we’re automatically going to win,'” Jackson said.
“I think that’s the thinking that people need to get away from. ‘Oh, I’m used to that. Oh, that’s normal.’ We actually need to start speaking up against what is harmful or what is disrespectful.”
In her opening statement during the debate, Jackson tried to help her classmates understand the deeper reasons why she believes it’s disrespectful and harmful to use Native American mascots: Fans cheer on teams with names that are racial slurs, without thinking about the violent history behind them.
“I was like, ‘Imagine you’re sitting at home with your parents. Someone from the government walks in. They just take you. They split your family up. They take the kids across the country, and you’re in this boarding school now,'” she said, explaining the U.S. government practice of separating Native American families and placing children in residential schools, which continued into the 1960s.
“‘Your hair gets cut. You’re no longer allowed to speak your language. You have to match everyone else,'” she told her classmates. “‘They’re trying to take your culture, your language, your traditions away from you and assimilate your tribe or your people.'”
Jackson told the class, this is what happened to her elders.
“One of my classmates actually said, ‘That didn’t have anything to do with sports,'” Jackson said. “So that’s one of the times my professor stepped in, and she was like, ‘She’s setting the tone for you, for you to understand all the arguments that they’re getting ready to bring forward.’ But even when she said that, I still don’t think it resonated with them.”
In the other group’s presentation, Jackson said, students agreed that there were very few reasons, if any, to use Native American mascots.
After both teams debated, the whole class voted on the winner.
“We lost. My, my group lost,” Jackson said, referring to her team which was representing the argument against the use of Native American mascots.
“My teammate got up, and I thought he was just going to the restroom or something and coming back. He never came back. That’s how mad he was. He left class,” she said.
She called her parents, who live in a Native American community called a Qualla boundary in North Carolina, to tell them about it. “I caught myself saying, ‘Oh, I’m used to it, it’s fine.'”
“I think that’s the thinking that people need to get away from. ‘Oh, I’m used to that. Oh, that’s normal.’ We actually need to start speaking up against what is harmful or what is disrespectful,” she said, “and doing that in a respectful manner, so that we can teach people.”
Jackson says even though her team lost, the debate was a positive experience for her, because she felt she was able to reach several of her classmates, to make them really care, “which,” she said, “is better than nothing.”
Jackson’s professors followed up via email after the debate to stress that, despite the vote tally, her team should be proud of their research and presentation. The group got 10 bonus points.