Friday Focus: Native American Heritage Month

headshot of a woman
Photo courtesy of the Tanana Chiefs Conference
Charlene Stern is the interim vice chancellor for rural, community and Native education.

Nov. 12, 2021

— by Charlene Stern, interim vice chancellor for rural, community and Native education

November marks Native American Heritage Month. According to the National Congress of American Indians, “The month is a time to celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people. Heritage Month is also an opportune time to educate the general public about tribes, to raise a general awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges.” 

Alaska is home to many diverse tribal nations. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, there are 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States, 229 of which are located within Alaska. Since time immemorial, Alaska Native peoples have served as the ancestral stewards of the lands, waters and resources in and around our traditional territories. Our societies were, and continue to be, governed by traditional laws, customs, and values that guide how we relate to and engage with one another and the world around us. 

As colonization unfolded in Alaska, many of our rights and cultural practices were infringed upon. For example, in 1915, the Alaska Territorial Legislature recognized the right of Indigenous people to vote if they completed a complex process to give up tribal customs and traditions. Ten years later, the Legislature again acted to pass the Alaska Voters Literacy Act, which required voters to be able to speak and read English,  further marginalizing Alaska Natives. It was not until 1926 that Alaska Natives were guaranteed the right to vote, although discriminatory voting suppression practices continued in the decades after. 

Despite the many injustices that Alaska Natives have endured — and continue to endure — our history is also one of remarkable acts of resistance, activism and advocacy to continually assert our rights. Current generations of Alaska Native peoples are the product of all those who came before us and the experiences that shaped our collective history. At UAF, we recognize the ongoing contributions of Alaska Native people and tribal nations to the university system and the state as a whole. As of fall 2020, 19.7% of UAF’s student body self-identified as Alaska Native or American Indian. We recognize this as both a significant strength and also a responsibility to ensure that UAF is committed to investing in Alaska Native success. We are dedicated to continuing our efforts to achieve our strategic goal “to strengthen our position as a global leader in Alaska Native and Indigenous programs.”  

We invite you to participate in the many Native American Heritage Month activities planned at UAF. You can find more information in Cornerstone and on the events page of the College of Rural and Community Development.

Friday Focus is a column written by a different member of UAF’s leadership team every week.