UTEP’s College of Liberal Arts is among the sponsors of the 2nd Annual Indigenous People’s Celebration: U.S.-Mexico Border, an event that consists of 10 presentations from noon to 1:30 p.m. weekdays through Oct. 23, 2020. In 2019, the UTEP student group, A.R.I.S.E. (Academic Revival of Indigenous Studies and Education) acknowledged Indigenous Peoples Day by setting up a teepee on Centennial Plaza. | Photo courtesy UTEP

UTEP participates in panels to promote Indigenous People

The University of Texas at El Paso is helping to recognize the history of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo through a series of virtual panel discussions in October.

UTEP’s College of Liberal Arts is among the sponsors of the 2nd Annual Indigenous People’s Celebration: U.S.-Mexico Border. El Paso Community College is the main organizer of this event that consists of 10 eclectic presentations from noon to 1:30 p.m. weekdays through Oct. 23, 2020.

The panel topics include health, the law, the environment, language, education and stereotypes. People may log into these discussions via UTEP’s Events Calendar.

Many municipal and state governments as well as academic institutions, to include UTEP, have switched to a recognition of Indigenous People’s Day from Columbus Day, which had been celebrated in the United States since 1792. The move to acknowledge Native Americans with an Indigenous People’s Day started in the 1970s, but the idea began to gain popularity about five years ago.

Jeffrey Shepherd, Ph.D., professor and chair of UTEP’s Department of History, said he considers these panel discussions as an opportunity to recognize the vibrancy of Native American communities that continue to be part of the nation’s culture in the 21st century.

“Indigenous People’s Day allows everyone in the Borderlands to listen to and learn from native people’s concerns about the past, present and future of their communities,” Shepherd said. “Partnerships like this demonstrate great opportunity for collaboration with Ysleta del Sur and surrounding native nations.”

Shepherd said the collaboration is part of The University of Texas System’s effort to promote Indigenous studies throughout the System’s campuses.

He said events such as this celebration will help raise awareness of the Ysleta del Sur pueblo’s history as well as its current and future capabilities. The community, established in the 1680s, was given a 17,000-acre land grant from the king of Spain in the 18th century. The pueblo was overshadowed 200 years later by dramatic economic and political transformations, but has continued to be a notable component of the area’s economy. Despite the hardships, the community maintained its language and culture.

“This partnership with Ysleta emphasizes the commitment of UTEP to all members of the community and begins to acknowledge the multicultural, multilingual and multinational realities of the Paso del Norte region,” Shepherd said.

While the number of pueblo members who attended UTEP is a mystery, it is known that many Miner graduates are members of the community’s Tribal Council, and offices that oversee culture, education and economic development to name a few. UTEP’s Center for Institutional Evaluation, Research and Planning recorded that the University enrolled 45 Native American students in the fall 2020 semester to include three doctoral students, one special professional (doctoral level) student, and seven in pursuit of a master’s degree. In the 2019-20 academic year, the University awarded four bachelor’s degrees and five master’s degrees to graduates who registered as Native Americans.

Pat Riggs, an Ysleta pueblo resident and Indigenous consultant, helped organize the celebration. She said she hopes this event would raise awareness of the socio-economic concerns that the native nations and their students must face as well as the crucial role that institutions of higher education play in their lives. The familiarization will allow the University to create the kinds of support programs that could lead to more successful graduates who may decide to return to their communities and rebuild their nations.

“Despite colonization and loss of resources, we have remained resilient,” said Riggs, a UTEP graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree in business in 2002 and an MBA two years later. “However, to build a sustainable and better future, we must build capacity and create opportunities for our people. As a nation, we seek to control our own destiny and preserve traditions and culture.”

Shepherd is among several University faculty members, administrators and students who helped organize or will participate in this celebration. Others include Denis O’Hearn, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s College of Liberal Arts, and members of the student group, A.R.I.S.E. (Academic Revival of Indigenous Studies and Education).

O’Hearn, whose paternal ancestors were part of the Unangan Aleuts of the Aleutian Islands southwest of Alaska, said he was excited about the upcoming discussions about Indigenous issues. He said part of the significance is because the campus is built on land that had been held and revered by Native Americans for centuries before European conquests.

“It is important that we raise the profile of Indigenous studies and Indigenous events and recognition on our campus,” said O’Hearn, who praised his grandmother and great-grandmother for their resilience in the face of Russian and U.S. colonialism. “We should always recognize this, and our observation of Indigenous People’s Day and events around it are just a small part of what we can do to acknowledge this.”

Veronica Cruz, president of A.R.I.S.E., said that her organization was honored to assist with this celebration because it allowed its members to recognize the culture and customs of their ancestors, as well as educate others about them. Additionally, she said it was a great opportunity to network with Native American representatives from northern and central Mexico and introduce them to their Ysleta del Sur peers.

“We hope this could lead to more opportunities to build partnerships,” Cruz said.

Author: Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications