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Being a Genuine Relative

Student Success Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Community Indigenous Peoples Professional Level
July 24, 2023 Brian Medina University of Maryland, College Park

I am but one voice in the vast expanse of the universe. I am but one of countless others who strive to be a better human in this world.

What I will share is from my heart, mind, and body. It is my experience and not representative of anyone else’s as I attempt to center Indigeneity every day.

There are no linear paths nor written guides in order to be a thoughtful and genuine relative to Native friends or strangers.

I began as many do, listening to wise elders in my midst and reflecting upon their myriad ways of being. No one is the same, just as no community should be reduced to a monolith.

I learn and adapt to the particular Indigenous human as they speak their truth. Perhaps they share their means for grounding in power and place. Maybe they describe how they honor their ancestors by teaching young, Native children the language and ceremonies they learned long ago.

When prompted, I share from my own lived experiences, similar or different from their own. I receive feedback with humility, recognizing there is so much more to glean through our relationship than by getting anything ‘right’ the first time. When I do make mistakes, I apologize without any expectation that my apology will be accepted. I attempt to repair our relationship through actions and not just words.

I have been asked to assist with land acknowledgments from non-native peers, and I encourage them to reflect and begin the process of respecting the space we occupy. I do not know that there is ever a perfect way to honor land, water, and peoples. I do know that ‘borrowing’ others’ work can quickly become colonizing behavior. My dear friend, Charlotte Davidson, shared incredible insights about the recognition of power, place, and acknowledging land: https://conference.naspa.org/blog/recognitions-of-place-roundtable 

Over time, I teach others as I cultivate a deeper reverence of Indigeneity. I helped to host a national conference alongside many Native peers and we built lifelong relationships, not just a singular event. Now, this same organization seeks to model future national and regional events with the lessons learned from our work together.

I recently attended and danced within a Pow Wow held at my campus, feeling the rhythm from drums that beat alongside our communal heart and breath. Piscataway Conoy elder Rico Newman shared space and stories with me. I listened and shared some of my own ancestry and the meaning behind my Oaxacan earrings and dress.

I have also joined a coalition that intentionally infuses Indigeneity into every interaction and attempts to pollinate promise for our collective future. We are currently advocating for a new Native Studies minor that will also pay local tribal leaders for the wisdom they so often impart without compensation.

I never call myself a relative, but rather accept with love when an Indigenous person references me as such. Being a relative is not a title but rather an invitation for growing our relationship. It is a gift to be in the presence of Native peers. Much like many now shy away from calling themselves an 'ally,' it is more important to do the ongoing work than try to take credit for it. We do this work together and so by claiming a performative title, you may inadvertently be claiming others' labor as well.

Like a mighty river, we channel power that can cut through stone. Like an ocean, we are a vast body, bringing forth currents and tides. Like the rain, we can sustain many plants and animals on land. Like a single drop of water, we are the essence of life.

In solidarity, we are stronger. Perhaps you become an attentive observer to ceremonies and gatherings hosted by Indigenous groups in your area. Relationships may naturally form and your unique skills and wisdom can contribute to larger community efforts. Maybe you have the ability to advocate for resources and support for Native students, who are often forgotten within universities due to lower enrollment. When your institution speaks about land acknowledgments, are they merely a performative gesture or can you push others to honor the Indigenous ancestors and current stewards of the space you now inhabit? The more you center Indigeneity, the more you can cultivate a community of care.