From the Archives: Celebrating Native American heritage at Notre Dame
Today, discussions of Native Americans at Notre Dame often begin and end with disputes over the Main Building’s Columbus murals — almost never acknowledging the University’s long, complicated history with Indigenous peoples, or the local tribes’ rich and vibrant cultures.
This week’s edition of From the Archives looks beyond the controversy, towards celebration — chronicling stories of cultural commemoration for Native Americans inside and outside of the Notre Dame community.
Faculty group honors Native Americans, works to increase representation
March 27, 1973 | David Rust | Researched by Evan McKenna
Before beginning his coverage of Native American leadership and representation on campus, news writer David Rust (‘76) began with a forthright reminder: Notre Dame’s history is inextricably linked to Native American heritage.
“The school sits on [Native American] land,” Rust reminded readers. “…and Fr. Sorin was invited here by the [Native Americans] to introduce Christianity and education to the region.”
But despite the University owing its origins to this invitation from the Potawatomi, there were still “very few” Native American students and faculty on campus, noted English professor Dr. Adoph Soens — the Native American Club of Notre Dame only had five members that year.
That’s what brought about Notre Dame’s Faculty Indian Affairs Tribe (FIAT), an advisory committee chartered in 1969 dedicated to increasing the University’s Native American representation through outreach and financial aid.
But attracting Native American students to Notre Dame was only the beginning of the group’s mission — they also worked to create an environment where new Native American students could thrive.
“Some kind of successful scholarship program must be set up to keep [Native Americans] here once they get here,” said Soens, Chairman of FIAT. Citing many programs’ high dropout rates for new Native American students, Soens argued that every school has an obligation towards making its Indigenous students feel welcome.
At the time of the article’s publication, FIAT had already done much for Native Americans at Notre Dame and in the surrounding area: organizing a program wherein Notre Dame students tutored children from the local Miami tribe, building libraries, setting up schools, providing legal assistance, sponsoring tribes’ visits to campus and organizing powwows to showcase the tribes’ heritage at Notre Dame.
To facilitate these activities, FIAT was funded primarily by personal donations from the university president at the time, Fr. Hesburgh, but the group was in the process of applying for “more substantial funding.”
Notre Dame hosts first powwows, showcases Native American heritage
On April 17, 1989, news writer Janice O’Leary (‘92) covered the first Native American powwow held at Notre Dame. Five tribes attended the event: the Miami, the Ottawa, the Sioux and the Lakota, all traveling from various locations across the midwest, and the Potawatomi, residing in the South Bend region.
The event was organized by the Native American Student Association of Notre Dame (NASAND), a group composed of 15 members hailing from Native American tribes across the country. According to O’Leary, the powwow took nearly two years to plan.
O’Leary captured the cultural significance of ceremonial dances performed at the powwow, such as the “Two-Step,” the “Round Dance” and the “Eagle Feather Honor Song,” each routine largely family-oriented. Mary Feliz, chairman of the powwow, told O’Leary that the integration of young and old tribe members is “very different from the American society where the children are kept quiet.”
Native American vendors were also present at the event, selling “turquoise jewelry, moccasins, and various crafts.” Event coordinators told O’Leary that wares were “all fashioned from things found to exist in nature.”
One year later, on Apr. 3, 1990, Patrick Healy (‘91) relayed the Observer’s coverage of NASAND’s second on-campus powwow. The event’s second year saw an increase in participation from five tribes to 12.
Both O’Leary and Healy wrote of the cultural exposure that stemmed from this event. Student attendees listened to traditional music, performed ceremonial dances and interacted with tribal elders. Elizabeth Bird, former president of NASAND, told O’Leary the powwow was meant to make the Notre Dame community “open their eyes to something that was here before them.”
“We wanted to show [Notre Dame] who we are,” Feliz added. “It was something that needed to be done.”
While the last documented powwow at Notre Dame was held in April 1992, NASAND hopes to celebrate future Indigenous People’s Days by organizing more.
Recognition and celebration: Tour honors Native American heritage at Notre Dame
March 21, 1995 | Liza Nykiel | Researched by Maggie Clark
“From Plains, Pueblos, and Tundras”: this event, an ode to the excellence and uniqueness of Native American culture, occurred at Notre Dame on March 21, 1995. Held in the Stepan Center, the celebration was organized and brought to the school by NASAND in an attempt to enhance cultural appreciation among students. Accent writer Liza Nykiel (‘96) covered the anticipation and excitement on and off-campus leading up to the event, and in doing so, shed light on a turning point in Notre Dame’s relationship with Indigenous culture.
Nykiel noted the cultural tour was run by the National Council for the Traditional Arts, an organization dedicated to “the documentation and presentation of folk and traditional art in the United States.” The tour included performers from a variety of Indigenous tribes in order to offer a wide range of art and culture to the students.
The event did not come together overnight — Nykiel highlighted the impressive efforts of NASAND, which ultimately made “From Plains, Pueblos, and Tundras” the largest event organized by the group at the time. Chad Harrison (‘95), president of NASAND, stressed that the goal of the celebration was to increase “recognition and awareness of Native American culture both at Notre Dame and in the South Bend community.”
If anything were to bring this goal to fruition, it would be “From Plains, Pueblos, and Tundras.” The event featured various performances from members of different indigenous tribes, combining a variety of elements to offer a rich cultural experience. Traditional instruments, indigenous dances and storytelling were among the featured performances highlighted by Nykiel.
According to performer Kevin Locke, the event aimed to “give voice to the beauty of the land and to help define the role of the human spirit in relationship to the immensity of the illimitable hoop of life.” Given Notre Dame’s somewhat complex relationship with Indigenous peoples, the excitement surrounding this celebration marked a rare moment of unity.