When the city council in Oklahoma’s capital and largest city – Oklahoma City – decided last fall to vote down a resolution to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a group of Native American activists decided to redouble their efforts to empower tribal members and communities.
Oklahoma is home to 39 American Indian tribes, and the state’s three largest cities – Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Norman – are home to large numbers of indigenous people, said Ashley Nicole McCray, an activist who is Oglala Lakota and Absentee Shawnee. Despite the state’s Native history and population, American Indians are not represented by the local elected bodies, she said.
So McCray and several other indigenous activists have started banding together and mobilizing to bring greater awareness to issues facing American Indians in Oklahoma.
“After unsuccessfully petitioning the Oklahoma City Council, we recognized that we aren't considered important or forces to be reckoned with politically speaking,” McCray said.
The Norman City Council, however, has taken notice of McCray’s work, recently honoring her with the 2015 City of Norman Human Rights Award.
McCray, 31, who is a Ph.D student at the University of Oklahoma studying indigenous knowledge in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology department, said that while receiving the award will bring attention to the social justice issues she champions.
“Hopefully this attention will spur discussion and continuing dialogue around these issues,” said McCray. “Inclusivity means that all voices are represented and heard and that all truths are acknowledged. We are unfortunately so far from even beginning this process, even in Norman.”
McCray, a mother of three who the White House honored as a Champion of Change last fall, comes from a long line of activists and advocates. Her family was heavily involved in the American Indian Movement in the 1970s and the Wounded Knee occupation in South Dakota.
McCray’s great-grandmother, Agnes White Buffalo Chief LaMonte, was known as Grandma AIM, she said, while her grandfather, Lawrence Buddy LaMonte, was killed during the occupation after returning from a tour in Vietnam. His death led to the end of the occupation, and both McCray’s great-grandmother and grandfather are buried outside of the mass grave at Wounded Knee.
McCray, who is running for Norman City Council Ward 6, said she believes it is vital that people of color – particularly women of color – see themselves reflected and represented, especially in elected leadership.
Another member of the indigenous movement in the Oklahoma City metro area, Sarah Adams-Cornell, has received the 2015 Oklahoma Human Rights Award for her efforts to highlight issues related to American Indians. Adams-Cornell, who is Choctaw, said her advocacy work focuses on social justice issues specifically related to Native rights.
“The minimization of Native voices in local, state and federal government is a giant issue for Native people,” she said. “We see the fall out and continuation of this historical minimization today.”
She noted challenges to tribal sovereignty as a main issue facing Native Americans. It can be seen in the court system when the Indian Child Welfare Act is disregarded or when lawmakers in Oklahoma chose to not close the loophole in the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization that would protect Native women living on reservations, she said.
“We need more Native leaders to run for office and draft policy that protects our people and way of life,” she added. “We also need that leadership within the education system so we can see more accurate histories of our people being taught.”
Adams-Cornell believes requiring a Native American history class would be beneficial for all students and could help eliminate some of the social justice issues and issues related to racism. The wife and mother of two daughters said she always felt a pull toward advocacy work but that it really grew after she had children.
“It is within our power to provide our kids with a more accurate education as it pertains to our Native people, our country, state and region,” said the 37-year-old who works as a public relations and office manager for her family’s business, RedLand Sheet Metal, in Oklahoma City.
She said it is also important to provide the best learning environment for children, free of racist mascots and land run re-enactments, as well as support for urban Native children and families living away from tribal communities.
Adams-Cornell is teaming with another member of the Choctaw tribe, Kendra Wilson Clements, to create a new group for Native women called “Matriarch” this spring. The group will learn about issues related to Native American women, share in cultural activities, support each other and help build Native women leaders.
“As life-givers, we believe that if we know our worth, encourage and support each other, we can empower our women,” Adams-Cornell said of the group. “That feeling of empowerment will be passed onto our children and issues like domestic violence, dependency and oppression will start to dissipate.”