Hundreds gather at SOU for Indigenous Peoples Day

Indigenous Peoples Day coordinator Lupe Sims, left and Tom Smith, a Cherokee and subsistence skills teacher, pose for a photo at the event. Art Van Kraft photo for Ashland.news
October 11, 2022

Salmon feast followed by panel of Indigenous speakers

By Art Van Kraft for Ashland.news

Amidst beating drums, brilliant feathers, fiery speeches and youths optimistically looking to the future, the Indigenous Peoples Day returned to Southern Oregon University on Monday for the first time since 2019. 

A crowd of about 200 lined up across the Stevenson Union patio to be served a traditional salmon lunch. Local tribal leaders, SOU faculty and tribal youth were represented at the podium. 

Eighteen-year-old Leilonnie Wilson, a member of the Klamath tribe, introduced herself to the crowd as a newly crowned princess. With her sparking pointed headdress and traditional dress, Wilson says she will help represent the youth of the tribe. She is considered royalty, a distinction she received when elected co-chair of the Klamath Tribes Youth Council for 2022-2023.

Leilonnie Wilson, Klamath Tribes Youth Council co-chair, poses for a photo at Indigenous Peoples Day at Southern Oregon University on Monday. Art Van Kraft photo for Ashland.news

“As royalty, I get to go from pow-wow to pow-wow and attend different ceremonies and conferences representing the Klamath tribes because not many people know about us. I also visit schools because most kids don’t know anything about the Klamath tribes in Southern Oregon,” Wilson said. “I can hold myself accountable for representing the tribes as an Indigenous young lady. Making my elders proud is a big part of my life. They never got the chance to represent themselves, because a lot of the elders’ history was in the boarding school system.” 

Wilson said she dwells less on the resentments of past wrongs and more toward an optimistic look to the future. Her goal, she said, is to stand up for past generations that didn’t have that chance.  

Lupe Sims organized the event. She is a descendant of the White Mountain Apache tribe of Arizona and holds a certificate in Native American Studies from SOU. 

Sims played an important role in organizing the first Indigenous Peoples day at SOU in 2016. She emphasized the need for cultural sovereignty while participating in the culture as a whole. She was responsible for arranging a forum held in the Rogue River Room, with guest speakers telling personal stories. 

One speaker was Dan Wahpepah, an Anishinabe, Kickapoo who has a high profile supporting Indigenous people in the Rogue Valley. 

“We’re at a critical time right now, and every decision we make is going to affect seven generations ahead,” Wahpepahsaid. “We’re in a transition of medicine bottles. As the Hopi say, from the white medicine bottle to the red medicine bottle. During this transition we’re going to see a lot of changes. We’ve lost 35% of both our insects and our bird species, 60% of our animal life. We’re going to see a diminishment in that what gives us life.

Members of the Klamath Tribes Youth Council enjoy their salmon lunch on the lawn at Southern Oregon University during Monday’s Indigenous Peoples Day observance. Art Van Kraft photo for Ashland.news

“That means, put away the colonization that made us this way, that made us individuals and disconnected from society and each other and from what is truly sacred. We need to put away our mindset of lack and create a mindset of abundance. We have to stop being victims of that fear button they push to make us react. The colonizing forces such as sports that entrain a nation state mentality to make you hate the other at the drop of a hat. We live in a closed system with racism representing self-hate and religion as stealing our critical thought. ” 

Wahpepah says it’s vital now to cultivate our biosphere by changing our very structure, one that is more in line with community. 

SOU is taking up the call. The university has raised more than $35,000 from the Oregon Cultural Trust. The objective is to create first foods, the stuff of life that Native Americans counted on to sustain their lives.  

The project plans to build the Shasta Takelma Learning Garden in five years. The outdoor classroom will be dedicated to the cultivation of indigenous plants and natural foods. The university will be working with the help of local tribes, faculty and private citizens to build an example of the “white medicine bottle.” 

The project will solicit the help of the tribes, conservation groups, educators and land managers. 

Next year the nine Oregon tribes plan to be recognized at the SOU campus with a permanent display of nine tribal nation flags. 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 artukraft@msn.com.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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