Truth and reconciliation

#6 – Sticks and stones can break your bones – but words can break your spirit

Hannah Balderas and Luis Calvo

Remember your first Welcome Weekend? Students being dropped off at the residence halls, meeting their roommates, attending various events, and maybe even attending a college party for the first time. Students are balancing between nervous yet excited for what the year will bring. But, it is not always just nervous excitement for all students.

Hannah Balderas, co-author of this article, is a senior here at The University of North Dakota, majoring in psychology/pre-med. Initially, she came to UND because it was the only college in North Dakota that offered the major in which she was interested at the time. Her heritage is Arikara, Santee Sioux, Little Shell Anishinaabe, Mexican-American, Irish and Italian.

When I was alone, I cried and contemplated whether I should stay at UND. It was, after all, my first official day here on campus and I felt so disrespected. I decided to stay because I knew there were other Indigenous students in the same situation.”

— Hannah Balderas - UND student

“I recall my first big day of being on campus and assuming that UND was going to be my new home, where I would continue my education. I remember being called to go to the Memorial Stadium to take a class picture, Balderas said. “As I was making my way to a seat, a UND Athletic Sports member called out to me using the word ‘squaw.’”

For those of you who don’t know, it is a highly offensive and derogatory term to identify an Indigenous woman.

“Initially, I didn’t know how to react because that had never happened to me back home in Twin Buttes, North Dakota,” Balderas said. “When I was alone, I cried and contemplated whether I should stay at UND. It was,  after all, my first official day here on campus and I felt so disrespected. I decided to stay because I knew there were other Indigenous students in the same situation. In other words, I stayed for my people and used the insult to inspire me to continue to improve my education in and out of the classroom.”

Balderas continued her education, took on leadership positions and while mentoring other students she encouraged them to also continue with their education when others made discriminatory comments.

An important takeaway from this incident is that the name-calling came from a UND student-athlete. Luis Calvo, co-author of this article, was a  four year student athlete and is majoring in accounting.

“I believe that student athletes are leaders in the UND community,” Calvo said. “Student-athletes take a higher profile by having their names and faces around the community through sporting events, media and even charity events. With the higher profile comes higher responsibility. There are young children in the community that look up to us and it is the student athletes’ responsibility to be aware how their actions affect others.”

After the incident, Balderas was self-conscious about her heritage and was not as open, but through the months she embraced her heritage and sought to know more about who she is. When asked if she had seen this happen to her peers she said “Yes, mostly on social media, especially during the school’s logo transition period. For example, a friend spoke up about the issues with the Sioux logo and was verbally attacked by other UND students.”

When asked what advice she could offer, Balderas responded, “Educate yourselves about racially charged issues. Get to know your fellow students so you don’t have to make assumptions about them. Ask them about their culture and heritage which is part of the core of an individual to learn about what is important to them.”

Sadly, incidents like this aren’t only happening here at UND. Just last March something similar happened at the University of Wisconsin. The incident involved several students rudely interrupting a healing circle, a ceremony aimed to support the healing of Native American sexual assault victims. A group of students yelled out stereotypical war chants during the peaceful ceremony.

A member of the Native American Student Association at UW – Madison, Emily Nelis, said, “It’s a good time for people in the university to wake up to these issues that are happening to our Indigenous students.”

This article was not written to single out wrongdoers or ignorance; but rather with truth and, especially, reconciliation in mind. Our first step is to acknowledge what has happened and then to realize that each of us can change for the better.

Perhaps just reading this article is a start to help heal and reconcile. May each of us make a conscious effort to approach one another in unity, peace and respect.