Interview conducted by Taylor Huang-Boutelle & Lindsey Hayes
Published Winter 2016
From left to right: SANAI members Cristal Gonzalez, Raymond LeBeau, Erica Green, and Ashley Carrillo.
In our upcoming issues, TWANAS would like to showcase student organizations working to create better spaces on campus for students of underrepresented backgrounds. Recently, we heard from representatives of the Student Alliance of North American Indians (SANAI).
Co-chairs Cristal Gonzalez and Raymond LeBeau, and SANAI members Ashley Carrillo and Erica Green describe the importance of SANAI on our campus and the past and future of this student organization.
Individual Backgrounds AND SANAI
Cristal Gonzalez: My father is Indigenous of Mexico. It’s not like being Native here in the United States, but I think there are still a lot of similarities between our people. I was really interested in learning more about that part of my identity. Growing up, it was there, but I kind of rejected it because it was not the typical Mexican experience. My father’s first language was the Zapoteco language, it wasn’t Spanish. That’s what inspired me to get involved with the Native community here on campus and learn more. To widen my consciousness, and be able to hear other people’s experiences, especially Native folks in the United States. Because they are very different than mine or my father’s. There is also that complex of being Latino but also being Indigenous, because it’s a minority group within Mexico, but it’s not something often discussed because people think it’s in the past. Although that happens here, too. They think of Native students or Native people as in the past or non-modern.
Raymond LeBeau: I found SANAI my first quarter of my first year. I remember going to the first meeting and seeing some people I knew, like relatives of my family. At that moment, I said, “Okay, I feel comfortable here. If there’s someone here that I actually have a relation to, we can identify in that way.” It was something I hadn’t experienced yet anywhere else on campus. I guess the key to that was being able to identify with people, not so much because of the family relation. And in other spaces, it’s not to say that I always felt uncomfortable, it’s just there wasn’t that ease, and that peace, and that community.
The struggles of SANAI, as I’m sure a lot of other ethnic orgs or resource centers deal with, was the normal struggle that our people always have: representation and finding ways to mobilize and to try to get ahead. It’s always a struggle. But being a part of that struggle is a privilege in itself to me. And so, being in that space it’s where I found my home. I may travel through other, different classrooms or internships. But SANAI is my community, and I want to build that for other people. And it’s surprising to me to see that the other students who come through every now and then share that too. There is a whole other political side of things. But at the end of the day, what’s important is community and friendships and having that safe space. And also trying to educate.
Erica Green: It’s my first year here. I transferred from a four-year in Arizona. I lived in Phoenix, where there’s a lot more Natives in the community, which feels more natural. But I grew up in California, and in California, you don’t see as many Natives. It’s that kind of isolation. You go through school not really figuring out where you belong. Other Native Californians went through the same things as me throughout [their] lives. I think that is really what made me want to be a part of SANAI and try to help other students learn more about Native culture: because it’s not really seen in California.
At UCSC, we don’t have a lot of Native outreach compared to other UC’s. Davis, Berkeley, Riverside, they have Native American Studies programs, pow wows, [and] a lot of options for Native American students. UCSC doesn’t, and I want to be a part of changing that. In SANAI, we all care about creating a space within the university, and one that is known to other universities and to Native people in general.
Ashley Carrillo: I first heard about SANAI when I got the welcome events for freshmen schedule. Throughout the first week or two weeks after move-in, there were a lot of events for other ethnic resource centers. The American Indian Resource Center had a meeting a couple days later, and I remember being excited about being able to go. I joined SANAI to be a part of the community, and to learn more about what it means to myself and others to be Native.
Appropriate Terms for the community
RL: There are about 5 different terms which are acceptable politically and also as an identity: “Native American,” “Native,” “Native American Indian,” “Amerindian,” which is a more scholarly way to refer to American Indians, and “Indigenous.” And, in some cases, “First Nations.” If you really want to introduce an American Indian person, you could say, “Hey, this is Ray. Ray is American Indian.” Or more properly, if you know the person, to be respectful, you could include their tribal affiliation. So rather than saying, “he is an American Indian,” you would say, “This is Raymond and he’s from the Pit River Tribe.”
History of sanai
RL: SANAI emerged at the same time as other “Big 5” ethnic orgs, in the early years when it was probably one of the more political eras of UCSC. SANAI, along with the other big 5 orgs, predate the resource centers. One of the greatest contributions SANAI has [given] to UCSC is the mobilization to create the American Indian Resource Center (AIRC). As well as to create retention programs and more opportunities, resources, and representations of American Indian students and to promote, again, that visibility beyond just a student org, but as part of the institution.
The future of sanai
CG: When I first started, SANAI was not very structured. There are not a large number of Native students on campus. And so we just want to create a community and have small events to start off. We are hoping next quarter we can sponsor some type of Native artist to come to campus. Maybe a musical or something.
RL: We also want to work on outreach, to bring students to this campus, whether they are first years or transfer students. Retention is a part of community building, which is a part of a larger goal to create structure within the organization. We want to lay a foundation for future SANAI members and leadership to pick up where we left off, because we picked up where the people before us left us with all of the resources that we have now. And we are really blessed to be in that situation.
Another main goal is to continue to be a part of student government, and to fill those spaces that are open for us, such as in SUA and SUGB. Because we do have to claim our space, all kinds of different spaces. For example, the retrofitting last year. We campaigned to be moved into a space where we would have the resources we needed for us to meet and to have a safe place that’s accessible, rather than just getting thrown into [the Crown Pit] and forgotten about. That was a success, and a continued success.
Furthermore, we do want to reinforce positive representations. And that comes through visibility and through validating that we exist. And we are here. And we contribute our perspectives in all these different fields. We’re not living in the past. We’re not past tense. We’re not coming out of the woods. We stood up against appropriation on campus. And that was before we even had the appropriation talks. So we’ve been standing our ground for a while. Re-creating positive representations is important for creating the safe space.
AC: I think a big threat is not being heard and not having a voice. We need to make sure we’re not forgotten. It is important that the campus is aware that there is a Native community here and that still stands
EG: We aren’t just trying to reach out to Native students, but also to create allies within the student body. We’re a minority, but if we can spread our word loud enough, we can get other people to hear us, and hopefully they will just want to come and listen and understand more about our history here. And it’s an uphill battle but I think we’re definitely leaning towards it a lot. People do ask, “What is SANAI?” but I’m glad they [ask] because I can tell them a lot more about us and what we do.
AC: Not only has our culture and ethnicity faced adversity, but there have been a lot of other cultures that have faced adversity.
RL: I would say some of our greatest threats are a lack of representation and being validated as relevant to society in that we have knowledge to contribute. When you’re in a politics class, and no one mentions American Indian politics, as if it isn’t a sovereign entity, or isn’t its own form of tribal nation state, that’s a threat. Those threats are faced in ecology classes. They’re faced in philosophy classes. They’re faced all across the board. And it is intersectionality that’s left out of a lot of these discussions. That’s a threat too, to the American Indian community and not representing their perspectives, not validating that their knowledge can help.I don’t like the word “relevant,” but these issues are relevant to the topic.
When “little issues” come up, such as selling a headdress on the [Facebook] Free & For Sale page, we are going to get a lot of [negative] feedback from oppositional points of view. And that’s expected. All we can do is educate the community and tell them why this is important to address, and [why it] creates an unsafe space for American Indian students and further impacts retention rates and our communities psychologically. Both in the broader American Indian community and to a sense of colonialist settlerism.
For Native students to understand themselves, to see that they are smart and they can succeed, and are relevant to these discussions and all of these different classrooms requires a safe space. Just because they’re not being mentioned in a politics class doesn’t mean that American Indian politics aren’t important. Being at UCSC itself is an opportunity for American Indian students … and we need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way.
EG: People have that stereotypical mindset of what Native Americans look like. And you see, right before you, we are all Native and we don’t all look alike. I think that’s the hardest thing that Natives face: that we’re questioned about our race, our culture, what we are. I think that affects a lot of our issues in school and our retention [rates]. And that’s definitely something that we at SANAI try to work on. It’s very hard to change someone’s mindset if they have been taught throughout school, throughout their whole life, to “picture this as exactly what a Native American looks like.”
EG: Events sponsored by SANAI and the AIRC, specifically Dr. Adriene Keene’s presentation “Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Appreciation: Exploring the Fine Line,” inspire me to find my purpose. I definitely want to give back to the Native community already here in the San Francisco/Bay Area. It’s just really opened my eyes to other issues that I didn’t even know about. There are different tribes, different issues. Learning about the different cultural traditions from other tribes is really mind opening, and [has] widened my knowledge of myself and who I want to represent and give back to.
RL: All of the events with the [AIRC] have been inspirational. For example, Indigethanx with Dr. Melissa Nelson and Dr. Enrique Salmón, a talk on Indigenous food ways and decolonizing your food. I was in an ecology class at the time and realized there is this absence of traditional ecological knowledge from the classroom. Hearing about Native contributions, from these American Indian scholars, it’s like seeing your favorite movie star up there. It’s inspirational.
This is especially true of Dr. Kimberly Robinson’s talk. She told a creation story that highlighted the concept [leadership]. American Indians… our communities and our philosophies, our ways of thinking, religious or spiritual or whatever you want to call it, were rooted in creation stories tied [to] the landscapes. And that is how our knowledge is passed on a lot of the time. I feel like that’s such an important way of learning, [but] it gets forgotten in these institutions. But it is basically saying that every step is important and every form of leadership is important, and there’s not just one answer. So that helped me because I realized that anything I do—any way I try and contribute truthfully and wholeheartedly—will be the right way for me to be a part of that system.
AC: Seeing that there are people who have had this thought process and are actually doing something using education and their voice to make a change, that’s inspiring. That’s why I wanted to join SANAI.
AC: Regardless if you’re Native or not, feel free to come to SANAI meetings. A lot of the issues we talk about can be applied to other ethnic groups, so it’s good to bond and create allies.