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Gyasi Ross—Moving Beyond Symbolic Heritage Month Celebrations

In recognition of Native American/Indigenous Heritage Month, Gyasi Ross—Blackfeet author, attorney, rapper, speaker, and storyteller—came to talk to upper school students during assembly. His presentation covered a large swath of the history of Indigenous people in this country—fighting in World War I without being recognized as citizens, having land and food sources systematically stolen by force or broken treaties, and having their children abducted and sent to residential schools.

Although unsettling and difficult, it was important for students to hear about these atrocities because “they have resonance today.” For Gyasi Ross, heritage months, however brief, are moments when we can focus on “a group  of people whose views and whose lives have been historically overlooked and undervalued.”

Ross acknowledged that heritage months are largely symbolic. Recognizing them “is not feeding any native person. It is not putting one other native person into a school, into a college university.” It is, he explains, “an invitation to have more substantive conversations” about things that could have very tangible implications, for example, reparations.

He sees value in aspiring to do better, much like activists and scholars in the sixties and seventies who wanted to "eradicate racism." Although it was a very ambitious goal, perhaps even “naive,” it did "push forward an idea that became something within the vernacular."

Ross pointed to the example of his stint in 2008 as state director for the Obama campaign in Montana. Despite losing the state, "the imagery and symbolism of this black man being elected to the highest seat in the nation was powerful. Spending the election night on my home (Blackfeet Indian) reservation, where we had done an amazing job. All these native people organizing and getting out the vote. I don't care who you vote for—go vote for somebody. And we actually had like 97% turnout, which is crazy. We had buses running—it was beautiful. We were feeding people—it was incredible. This programmatic approach to actually getting people engaged."

Ross’ parting message about heritage months to students and faculty: “We have to continue utilizing these months because really...they are platforms, they’re vehicles, to be able to have those bigger conversations. To understand Native American Heritage Month or Black History Month or Martin Luther King Day or Indigenous People's Day is not enough. It's a good start. Absolutely. It's a placeholder...but we can't rest on that as our destination. That can't be our destination."

Gyasi Ross is the author of two books Don't Know Much About Indians and How to Say I Love You in Indian. He is a regular writer for The Huffington Post, Gawker, and Indian Country Today.