Native American Studies Director Emeritus David West presented university’s first Distinguished Career Service Award
By Art Van Kraft for Ashland.news
Dancing, singing and ceremonial drums were undaunted by cloudy skies and light rain as several hundred people from across Oregon celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day at Southern Oregon University on Monday. This was the sixth official observance by SOU since 2019.
David West, a citizen of Potawatomi Nation and director emeritus of the Native American Studies department at SOU, spoke to the crowd gathered under a hastily installed event tent outside Stevenson Student Union. He recalled past celebrations on Oct. 9, still called Columbus Day on the roster of federal holidays.
“Those of us that were on campus wore black armbands on this day when it was called something else where that guy that was lost should have been left out there,” West recalled. “Excuse me for my opinion, but it turns out that we were right. My heart is filled today with so many people that have come to celebrate our Indigenous people. We are the holders of the longest history with this country.”
West spoke of the avarice and violence of the past, his hope for the future and offered a prayer to the turmoil of the present.
“We pray for peace, we pray that the fire of rage and greed to die down amongst the human beings. We pray for those that are suffering in war and in turmoil today. Our people are no stranger to that fear and our hearts go out to them and to the children who are being innocently hurt and killed. We think about a war being fought in a holy land, for our land is also holy,” West said.
Malulani Wright represents the youth of the Klamath Tribe. She was elected Queen two years ago and has been active in the Klamath Tribes Youth Council.
“As royalty I go from pow-wow, state to state, to attend different ceremonies and conferences,” Wright said. “I think it’s important not to dwell on some problems of the past but look to the future. That’s the message.”
Wright joined a table with a young friend and others enjoying the baked salmon meal that is traditionally served at the celebration. The long line that wrapped around the quad is also a tradition. The weather held and several hundred lunches were dished out.
The crowd reassembled upstairs in the Stevenson Building where nine flags, each representing a federally recognized Oregon tribe, were presented to the university. Before that ceremony, though, SOU President Dr. Richard Bailey addressed the crowd with a surprise announcement.
“We have created a special award,” Bailey announced. “For the first time in our 150-year history, we are going to bestow this award and we all kind of agreed that there is one person who is so fitting. On behalf of everyone at Southern Oregon University and our community, I’m proud to announce the first-ever Distinguished Career Service Award to David West.”
A surprised West said he was deeply moved.
The ceremony continued with the hanging of the nine flags, an installation that has significant meaning to SOU Assistant Professor Chance White Eyes, who was standing in the crowd witnessing the presentation he helped organize starting more than a year ago.
“It’s a big deal to us,” White Eyes said. “Otherwise, why would we have tribal governments coming here? It’s a symbolic move that we are committed to the tribes.”
Lindsey Watchman represented the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Nation from Northeastern Oregon.
“Tribal flags go all the way back, some sort of symbol that represents who they are as a people,” Watchman said. “The land that they live on, some sort of principle, just like the American flag. Every tribal flag, every color on the tribal flag also has its own purpose and its own meaning. Each tribe can share their development of that flag with everyone.”
Art Van Kraft is an artist living in Ashland and a former broadcast journalist and news director of a Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate. Email him at email@example.com.