Before Gwen Wolfe came to the University of Oregon two years ago, before she became an artist, a singer, a sister or a friend, she grew up a Choctaw Indian. The Choctaws are originally from the American southeast, but were forcibly moved to Oklahoma in the 1800s along the Trail of Tears, a system of forced relocation of Native Americans. This is Wolfe’s identity.
In conjunction with the national Indigenous People's Movement rallies happening around the country on Jan. 18, Wolfe has organized a march for Indigenous rights here in Eugene. The Eugene march will begin at 10 a.m. at the EMU amphitheater and will end at the Eugene Federal Courthouse with speeches from Native students and community members.
Although Wolfe has had the privilege of growing up with a strong sense of ancestral community, she’s long felt her Native identity threatened and minimized.
“There are Indigenous people, right now, who don’t have access to clean water,” Wolfe said. “Our lands are being abused and stolen from us to make pipelines that poison the earth. People are being forced to sell what little allocated land they have left because they go broke.”
According to Wolfe, Friday’s march holds special significance for the students of UO and Eugene as a whole. The Pacific Northwest has a long native history dating back well over a century.
“This is an institution that is majority white but built on Native land,” Wolfe said. “That should be common knowledge. College students are in a privileged position wherein they have the opportunity to educate themselves.”
UO sophomore Kata Winkler is from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. Winkler, who’s a first-generation college student, had a challenging time navigating higher education before deciding to pursue a degree that allowed her access to fields of study crucial to Native communities.
“It can be argued that the pressing issue that Native communities face right now is the incredible threat that global climate change and alteration of Native lands have as they continue to advance,” Winkler said.
For Winkler the march is more than an opportunity to stand in solidarity with Indigenous people around the nation. It’s an opportunity to be seen and heard that a lot of people around the world don’t have.
“Eugene is special, as much of the activism is often not accessible to minorities,” Winkler said. “This also translates into the university, where students, faculty, and community members continue to fight for recognition.”
According to the Indigenous People’s Movement website, there are currently 12 solidarity rallies set to take place at the same time as the Washington D.C. march. So far, the UO march is the only rally in Oregon supporting the Indigenous movement this year. The next closest march is in Washington state at Everett college outside of Seattle.
Wolfe, who’s been organizing and preparing for the march since December, hopes to bring attention to what she considers to be blatant bias towards Native peoples — bias hiding in plain sight.
“Maybe elementary school classrooms can stop making little feathered headbands,” Wolfe said. “I want to see history taught correctly — unbiased and honest.”
Lofanitani Aisea, a UO student from the Klamath Tribes’ ancestral homelands, hopes the march can help students and community members better understand the history of our state.
“I would like to see every person, professors, students, employees, community members, etc. to recognize that they are on Indian land,” Aisea said. “I hope that people will not only listen, but they will take action against injustice.”