When the Office for Strategic Communications offered the Circle of Indigenous Students’ Alliance (CISA) resources to host an event commemorating Native American Indian Heritage Month in November, members jumped at the opportunity to increase Indigenous students’ visibility on Georgetown University’s campus.
Tianna Young (CAS ’25) came up with the idea for a showcase, titled Hózhó, featuring artwork created by CISA members and their relatives. During the event, students recited poetry, sang songs and performed other oratory works before displaying multimedia art, including one member’s grandmother’s woven baskets, a tšumaš baby cradle and different acrylic paintings.
An important goal of CISA was to host Hózhó in Riggs Library, the exclusive library reserved for high-level, university-sponsored events. Alanna Cronk (CAS ’23) said they were notified of an opening in Riggs just two weeks before the event, and they rushed to organize the showcase in that short time.
“I had an opportunity to sing a song in my native language, which was really beautiful to do in a space like Riggs,” Cronk told The Hoya. “It’s such a monumental amount of symbolism, and taking up space in the university’s most prestigious space, that meant a lot to us.”
The event marked a turning point in CISA’s outreach on campus and followed a significant overhaul of the organization.
The Georgetown University Native American Student Council (NASC) reintroduced itself at the beginning of the Fall 2022 semester as the Circle of Indigenous Students’ Alliance, beginning a rebranding that stretched beyond the organization’s name.
In the past year, CISA has restructured its leadership, hosted an art showcase and created partnerships with Campus Ministry, the Earth Commons Institute and the Smithsonian Institution. These changes have brought more recognition to Indigenous students on campus — with ambitious plans and greater visibility in the works.
Rebranding and Restructuring
Earlier last year, members of NASC unanimously agreed to change the organization’s name to be more welcoming to students of different Indigenous backgrounds and not restrict its membership to people native to the United States. Rachel Two Bulls (CAS ’24) suggested “Circle of Indigenous Students’ Alliance” to achieve this inclusivity.
Melanie Cruz-Morales (CAS ’23), a CISA member who identifies with the Mixtec people, an Indigenous community in southern Mexico, said she only joined this past year because of the change in name.
“The way that I got involved was primarily because of the focus of their inclusivity and their rebranding that not only centered northern Native Americans, but all Indigenous people throughout the globe,” Cruz-Morales told The Hoya.
Two Bulls, who is Lakota, said CISA’s expansion has allowed her to examine the similarities between the histories and interests of her Indigenous group and those of other groups.
“A really interesting part of this journey has been learning about people who are from South America, Central America, Mexico and what their Indigenous identities entail and how they’ve dealt with so much hardship getting here and how they’re trying to access their identity and how that plays into their lives,” Two Bulls told The Hoya.
“It’s definitely provided a sense of community, and understanding what community looks like, as an Indigenous person from a place where everyone is of the same culture,” Two Bulls added.
CISA’s rebranding extended beyond its name change. Cronk, then the vice president of NASC, also brought up an idea last spring to make all members equal.
“Everybody else who had usually been more on the quiet side seemed very engaged all of a sudden and very supportive of that idea,” Cronk said.
The organization then abolished its hierarchical form of leadership and replaced it with an executive board, stemming from the need to create a more collaborative and less administrative club culture.
“The idea of a presidency feels a little colonial, a little nontraditional,” Cronk said. “Each Native American nation, Indigenous group has their own unique style of governance. But the idea of a presidency is a pretty European or American settler construct, and I felt that doesn’t seem to match our cultural needs, either. And people seemed to agree.”
Given the tight-knit environment in the organization, which includes students from many different backgrounds, the hierarchy felt to some like a barrier to equal collaboration, CISA member Tristin Sam (SFS ’23) said.
“I was afraid with the hierarchy, too, that there would be a sense of too much leaning into one tribe’s traditions in regards to what we’d showcase and what events are held,” Sam told The Hoya. “So the transition away from the hierarchical structure has actually helped out a lot.”
In place of hierarchical positions, all members of CISA are on a single executive board, and most decisions are agreed on with unanimous consent. Members like Young have noticed more vocal input and closer relationships among members since the change.
“Everyone has an equal voice in how we plan things. We don’t do anything really without sort of a unanimous consent from everybody, and everyone is able to pitch in ideas and bounce off each other,” Young told The Hoya.
Navigating Indigeneity at Georgetown
Members credit CISA with providing a sense of community that allowed them to hold onto their Indigenous identities while at Georgetown.
“Originally, when I came to Georgetown, I really wanted to not be marked, or exoticized like that. I wanted to be known for the work that I put into getting here, the work I do here that does not have to do with my identity,” Sam said. “But my involvement with them over the years has made sure that I don’t forget about that identity and realize the importance of it.”
Forming a community on campus can prove difficult given the low enrollment of Indigenous students at Georgetown.
Data USA, a website that aggregates government statistics and data, reported that in 2020, less than 0.1% of Georgetown undergraduates identified as American Indian or Alaska Native and less than 0.2% identified as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders (NHPI). While Georgetown has a higher percentage of NHPI students than other comparable private universities, its percentage of American Indian or Alaska Native undergraduates is slightly lower compared with schools like Brown University and Columbia University.
Cruz-Morales’ tribe is not federally recognized in Mexico nor the United States, and she said she has to identify as Latino on the U.S. Census, in addition to American Indian or Alaska Native. At a Campus Ministry event last semester for Indigenous students, Cruz-Morales said the university had a hard time identifying the number of Indigenous students on campus because of the way the identification process works.
Students who identify as biracial cannot choose both American Indian or Alaska Native and another race, which complicates the identification of Indigenous students.
“That was a very sad event, because you could see how much lack of systemic support or inquiry or research or knowledge that this university has on its Native students,” Cruz-Morales said. “I don’t think that the university has done much, except I do think that Native outcry from students has increased a lot.”
As GUSA Senate speaker in 2021, Cruz-Morales introduced legislation alongside her twin sister, Sheila Cruz-Morales (CAS ’23), asking the university to provide more resources to Indigenous students. She is continuing to work with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions in this effort, including by collaborating with College Horizons, a nonprofit that aims to help universities increase their enrollment of Indigenous students.
Sam said that in the past, the university has delegated issues related to Indigenous students to CISA (and formerly NASC), including the creation of a land acknowledgement for Georgetown to use in university spaces and clubs.
“We learned to kind of take on what we can but transition away from being that to more so being a community and showcase our own events, versus trying to take on all of the problems related to indigeneity by the school,” Sam said.
CISA students have often called for the university to acknowledge Georgetown resides on Piscataway and Nacotchtank land.
A university spokesperson said Georgetown is open to engaging with the Piscataway tribe and is supportive of exploring programming and course options to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.
CISA members said the organization’s rebranding, combined with greater vocalized support for Indigenous students from the general public, has forced the administration to pay more attention to the fact that there are so few Indigenous students at Georgetown. CISA members hope to show students, faculty and graduates that they intend to not be ignored.
“This is not at all about calling people out or saying ‘you haven’t done enough,’” Young said. “It’s about us saying, ‘Hey, let us help you and let us cultivate relationships that we’ll continue to make. We understand your history, and we recognize that. And we’re glad that you do, too. Now let us work together to build something better for everyone involved.’”
Establishing Lasting Roots
This year CISA has formed several partnerships with institutions both on and off campus — and has multiple upcoming projects planned for this year.
“It’s very beautiful to see CISA’s expansion, its wonderful opportunities, that are coming our way since our rebranding,” Cruz-Morales said.
CISA has formed a stronger relationship with Campus Ministry this year and is working to create an Indigenous spiritual space on campus. In the meantime, the group has been planning a retreat for Indigenous students for the Fall 2023 semester, Young said.
As part of this effort to increase its spiritual presence on campus, CISA is working with both Campus Ministry and the Earth Commons to create a medicine garden on campus, which will be revealed April 21 at the Earth Commons’ Spring Festival. The garden will supply Indigenous students with plants that can be made into medicines used for different spiritual activities, such as smudging, the burning of sacred herbs.
CISA is also working with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s “Q?rius” exhibit to host an educational program in the fall centered around Native American art in the environment. Members took a tour this April to a Smithsonian off-site location, where they discussed anthropological research, museum ethics and repatriation efforts.
Each member received a packet with objects from their tribe on the tour and later were allowed to view more objects in individual cabinets. Cronk explained how they began crying upon seeing the objects from their tribe.
“There is an immense responsibility you can feel getting access. And there’s an ache. Something, to me, feels so wrong with these objects being so far from home, all alone out here,” Cronk said.
Seeing textiles made by his native Quechua people brought similar emotions to Carson Ramirez (CAS ’23).
“It brings a bit of sadness because it’s supposed to be in movement at all times — at least, from my viewpoint. It’s never supposed to just be hidden in just some location in the cabinet,” Ramirez said.
“But at the same time, it’s nice that something has been preserved there and really says a lot that we’re being seen from some other viewpoint besides a culture viewpoint,” Ramirez added.
Achieving greater recognition requires uplifting more Indigenous student voices, CISA members said — and the organization ultimately hopes to expand the number of Indigenous students at Georgetown.
“That would involve more hosting and meeting with high schools and trying to get more Native students to apply to Georgetown and see that they do have a place here and that this isn’t something out of reach that they can strive for, that is very much possible, and that when they do, there is a community here for them and that they will be welcome here,” Young said.
A university spokesperson said the Office of Undergraduate Admissions has been doing targeted outreach to Indigenous students for several years and that admissions staff members often work with students to help with recruitment.
Cruz-Morales said the admissions office only reached out to CISA to help in the recruitment process in February of this year.
“Two years ago, it was very, very hard to get attention from the Office of the Vice President, from administration in general. It was definitely something that seemed to be on the bottom of their list,” Cruz-Morales said.
“And so, with just — I guess — new interest that has arisen from the office of admissions, they’ve been searching to collaborate a lot with CISA members to figure out how we can create a safer and better space for current Native students, but also how we can attract Native students to Georgetown,” Cruz-Morales added.
Overall, CISA members are optimistic about their new direction and work moving forward, but they credit this year’s progress to the empowerment of having a space for Indigenous students.
“I think that it’s a beautiful thing when you can step into a room and be working in a team where we can all understand each other without having to fight for our identities and having to defend them and having to explain them,” Cruz-Morales said.
“I think that this year has been quite a turning point for Circle of Indigenous Students’ Alliance, from our structure to our name to our increased presence across campus, and now the greater D.C. educational spaces. And I think that’s just the beginning,” Cronk added.