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Empowering Native Voices

Left to right) LaDonna Brave Bull Allard presents at "Indigenous Knowledge Systems: Revitalization, Resistance, and Regeneration" on April 17, 2019. Curtis Zunigha, Director of Cultural Resources for the Delaware Tribe of Indians, discusses Lenape history and land acknowledgement. Margaret Bruchac (Abenaki), Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Coordinator of Native American and Indigenous Studies at Penn, moderated a discussion with the audience.

Empowering Native Voices

By Jane Carroll
Photos by Brooke Sietinsons

Last month, the Penn community welcomed a group of research partners from Native American and First Nations tribal communities for two days of meetings, workshops, and a lecture presented by the Penn Language Center’s Educational Partnerships with Indigenous Communities, or EPIC. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, founder of the first resistance camp at Standing Rock, joined Native American and First Nations language teachers for a two-day conference at Penn focused on the revitalization of Indigenous languages and culture.

Indigenous languages are central to Native cultures, but historically, Native people were forced by the U.S. and Canadian governments to stop speaking them. As a result, many tribes are now engaged in language recovery and rejuvenation. EPIC’s mission is to assist in this effort by sharing knowledge with Native nations while expanding the number of Indigenous languages offered for instruction at Penn. Established through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the EPIC initiative was founded by the late Timothy Powell, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies.

Christina Frei, who succeeded Powell as director of EPIC, hopes to continue empowering Native voices through productive relationships. EPIC currently works with members of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, the Tuscarora Nation in New York, the M'Chigeeng First Nation (Ojibwe) on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, the Fond du Lac Band (Chippewa) in Wisconsin, the Six Nations Haudenosaunee in Ontario, and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota.

“The April meetings marked the first opportunity for all of our tribal partners to come together,” says Frei, Executive Director of Language Instruction for Penn Arts & Sciences and Chair of the Penn Language Center. “It kicked things into motion, and we are now following up with a white paper for the NEH in which we will articulate our action plan for moving forward.”

The two-day program culminated with a talk by guest speaker LaDonna Brave Bull Allard titled, “Indigenous Knowledge Systems: Revitalization, Resistance, and Regeneration.” A member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a tribal historian, Brave Bull Allard founded the first resistance camp to the Dakota Access Pipeline on her family’s land along the Cannonball River in April 2016.

Prior to Brave Bull Allard’s talk, the nearly 100 attendees heard opening remarks from Curtis Zunigha, Director of Cultural Resources for the Delaware Tribe of Indians and founder of the Lenape Center in New York City, who spoke about the history of the Lenape people. (Delaware is the English name for the Lenape). Now based in Oklahoma, the Lenape originally occupied lands spanning from the Catskill Mountains in New York through eastern Pennsylvania, all of New Jersey, and into northern Delaware.

Zunigha’s presence was especially significant, says Assistant Professor of Anthropology Margaret Bruchac, since the University sits on Lenape land. “It’s crucial for educational institutions like Penn to not only acknowledge who these people are, whose territory this is, and what the history is, but to also find ways to bring them into the contemporary conversation,” says Bruchac, who coordinates Penn’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative and is a consultant to the American Section at the Penn Museum and the American Philosophical Society (APS).

The Penn Museum, too, is a vital resource for Indigenous people and an essential partner for EPIC, says Stephanie Mach, a doctoral student in museum anthropology, member of the Navajo Nation, and a staff member in the Museum’s Academic Engagement department. “The project is essentially about ensuring access to Native people’s own heritage,” she says. “The overall goal is cultural revitalization, knowledge recovery, and regeneration, and the materials stewarded by the Museum are an integral part of that process.”

To read the rest of the article, see OMNIA at the University of Pennsylvania.