MISSOULA — A special week is underway at the University of Montana with American Indian Heritage Days taking place through Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.
It's a celebration of Indigenous culture on campus that includes everything from supporting your favorite Native artist to hiking to the M in honor of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP).
Inside the Payne Family Native American Center at the University of Montana is the office of American Indian Student Services (AISS). It’s a place where community thrives which is why they're putting on Heritage Days.
Tiara Walks, a student who is Crow, told MTN, “I probably come over every day to the office and it just feels nice to be like around other Natives.”
O'Shay Birdinground is also Crow who spends a lot of time with other Indigenous students at AISS.
“There’s been a couple of students who have just come in to learn about their culture that they’ve been separated from," Birdinground shared.
Heritage Days is a week-long celebration of Indigenous culture on campus that includes everything from supporting your favorite Native artist to hiking to the M in honor of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP).
Aurora Liberty-Dupuis is Bitterroot Salish and grew up on the Flathead Reservation. She enjoys seeing all the unique Indigenous-made pieces people have been wearing.
“People wear their stuff to classes and we have events out on the oval and where other people can see it, then people can recognize it’s honoring who we are,” said Liberty-Dupuis.
Since Montana is a primarily white state, it is very important to the Indigenous students and staff that their culture is visible.
“We make up 7.1% of the overall population here at the University of Montana. We do our best to showcase who we are as a people and demonstrate the different tribal affiliations and the uniqueness to our culture," Birdinground explained.
Director of American Indian Student Services Michelle Guzman calls this week a recognition of Indigenous people in their place.
“Especially at the university level we get a lot of students who are from out of state. Especially students from back east, they don’t even know Native Americans still exist today," Guzman said. "So, they always think of us in a historical context.”
Zachariah Rides At The Door, who is Blackfeet as well as Aztec, highlighted that Indigenous people and communities are alive and well.
“We are a people with a past not a people lost in the past,” he stated.
The week of events boosts the visibility of Native people on campus. Liberty Dupuis shared, “It feels really good to me that we actually get to be seen.”
The students find it important to themselves to share their languages, stories, clothing, songs, and dances. “It’s healing for me.”
Rides At The Door and Birdinground will get to raise flags and sing on Friday morning as part of the Kyiyo Singers.
The Kyiyo Singers is a recently resurrected Indigenous song and dance group at the University of Montana.
Rides At The Door explained that an old drum was found which then ignited the desire for students to bring the singers back.
“It’s healing for me," shared Rides At The Door, who has been singing since second grade. He continued, "It grounds me... my mentality is a key part of that, to be in a good heart and good space. What I've been told growing up, what I give to it is what is being brought out to everyone else."
For Dillon Pretty On Top, who is Salish and Crow, dancing and singing is "an honor." He's taking what he's learned growing up around his uncle's drum group and using that to fuel his performances with Kyiyo.
Michael King III, who is Nakota and Northern Cheyanne, is the President of Kyiyo. He grew up singing and dancing. Getting to singing again is filling in a missing piece in King III's cultural life.
Other Friday activities include craft vendors, a proclamation, ethnobotany tours, planetarium shows, and a round dance.