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Native Student Tackles the Powwow Trail and Preserving his Language

Native student Julian Brave NoiseCat studies U.S. history at Columbia University, dances the powwow trail and is learning his native Shuswap language.

Harvard wanted him. Yale wanted him. Dartmouth, UCLA, Stanford—they all wanted him.

So who finally landed Julian Brave NoiseCat? Columbia University in New York City.

NoiseCat, 20, a citizen of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation from Oakland, California, decided on Columbia University because of its location and curriculum. That and the school's budding Native American presence.

“There is a really strong and growing Native community on campus that hadn’t been there five years before, but [it] was starting to take off when I was looking at the school,” he said. “I really wanted to be a part of that.”

Columbia University hosted its third annual pow wow, dubbed “Taking Back Manhattan” on April 14. (Related story: “Columbia University Native Students Are Taking Back Manhattan)

NoiseCat, who was on the pow wow committee, is a history major. He said he briefly struggled selecting that major.

“I was always interested in history,” he said. “It took me a while to decide what my major would be. But I decided on history because I think it’s very flexible in offering different understandings of the way that society works and the way that politics works and the way that the world works.”

Two years into his studies now, NoiseCat is specializing in 19th century U.S. history.

“I’m interested in what’s called the Indian Wars, and indigenous history and indigenous resistance of the nation state,” he said. “That was always one of my big draws to [history].”

And NoiseCat isn’t only a burgeoning academic—he’s also an adroit hockey player, the treasurer of Columbia’s Native American Council and a traditional chicken dancer. He said he’s already begun learning the intricacies of grass dancing.

So, for NoiseCat, if it’s summer, it’s pow wow time.

“During the summer I travel around a fair amount,” he said. “Last summer I went as far north as Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and went as far south as California and as far east as the Shinnecock pow wow in Long Island. I just love to dance; I love the music.”

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As NoiseCat preps his regalia for the coming pow wow trail, he’s also readying to take on language research with his people.

“This summer I’ll get to work on a research project on our words for white people,” he said. “It’s [tentatively] called ‘Words for the White Man.’ I’ll be doing interviews with speakers and community members.”

Although English is NoiseCat’s first language, he’s currently working to become a fluent speaker of Shuswap. He said he learns much of his language from his grandmother, and that he’ll continue to study his people’s language until he’s versed in the entire lexicon.

“I think it’s important to still speak the language itself because… I think that it’s what my grandma always told me, that she laments the most about residential schools—the boarding school system—that they took that language away,” he said.

NoiseCat said that, when he was younger, he knew some phrases, like “Come here” and “Thank you,” but there’s much more in the language that he seeks to discover.

“I think there’s a certain wisdom in the language that can’t be conferred through English—through romantic languages,” he said. “I wanted to learn because I didn’t know enough.”

When NoiseCat gets back to Columbia in the fall, he said he plans to run for president of the Native American Council. He’s already the vice president of the university’s hockey club, not to mention the coordinator for the Manhattan House—a residential space reserved for the university's indigenous student body.

And he’s currently the senior editor for the Columbia Political Review, but this is all in a day’s work for him. And it’s not work, he said—it’s pleasure.

“I just make the time; it’s fun. I enjoy it,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t.”

For the next generation of Native college students, NoiseCat says it’s difficult to be away from family and familiarity for so long, but it’s an endeavor well worth the trudge.

“I love my mom. It’s hard being away from home sometimes. I miss her,” he said. “[But] it’s worth it because I’m having the time of my life. I’m going to get to have been in New York City at Columbia University from the age of 18 to 22. I’m incredibly lucky to get to do this, and that keeps me going.”

NoiseCat said that, following graduation in 2015, he plans to take on a two-year fellowship and then maybe enroll in a Ph.D. program.

“[That’s] if I decide that I really, really love academia, that I really love studies,” he said. “Or I’ll go into law.”