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Native students encouraged to embrace their culture

(MCT) – Cameron Piscoya thinks many Native Americans choose not to go to college because they don’t want to leave the support and traditions of their families at home.

Piscoya, a sophomore studying environmental science, is the president of the University of Idaho’s Native American Student Association and is originally from Alaska.

“I know my parents are worried that I’m here and don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I see that in a lot of Native families.”

The UI is home to only about 150 Native American students, a number that has typically stayed the same over the past several years, said Steven Martin, director of the UI Native American Student Center.

Martin, Piscoya and other NASA and NASC organizers are hoping to give those students a louder voice on campus in November during Native American Heritage Month, which began nationally in 1990 with a designation from former President George H.W. Bush.

Martin said the activities scheduled this month are meant to create a sense of community among Native students, many of whom are not typically involved in events celebrating their heritage.

He said only about 30 to 35 students patronize the NASC on a regular basis, and the rest may not participate because they don’t identify themselves as Native Americans.

“It’s a time to educate and create understanding of who we are.”

He said there is a rich diversity of traditions among tribes that many people don’t understand, even some Native Americans.

NASC staff can help students trace their tribal lineage. Janice Jack-Ellenwood, the center’s budget and retention specialist, said many students who come to the center are those “who know they’re part Indian but don’t know where they’re from.”

Martin said it’s important for Native Americans to stress their “Nativeness” on a daily basis, but this month is a time to showcase the accomplishments of the guests presenting on campus.

“These are role models – people who have achieved success in a variety of ways,” he said.

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Piscoya said events like those during Heritage Month are important in demonstrating to Native Americans that they can leave their homes and retain their culture.

He’s also part of a Native American drum circle group that has performed at various events around campus this year.

“We can do all that while still going to school and showing (our families) that we can do traditional stuff here,” he said.

Martin said UI hasn’t done enough to reach out to tribal communities, so his goal is to hit the road and recruit students in person. He said UI’s annual spring powwow is a major event for the area, but it’s not enough.

“We want to be known for more than just the powwow,” he said. “This is Nez Perce country. We deserve that spotlight.”

Piscoya wants his fellow Native American students to make an effort to participate in activities celebrating their heritage, especially in a modern world with endless distractions.

“It’s important to know it and practice what you do, because if you don’t have it – if no one’s practicing it – then later, it’ll be gone,” he said. “Future generations might want to learn, but there won’t be (anyone) to help.”





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(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.