Honoring Native American Heritage Month

Author: Caroline Ashworth, Ally Clark, and Meg Kelleher

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Notre Dame

On Thursday, Nov. 16, the Native American Initiatives (NAI), the Hesburgh Libraries and the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi hosted a “Superday” to celebrate Native American Heritage Month on campus.

The University of Notre Dame has a complicated history with Native American representation. In 2017, the Native American Student Association of Notre Dame (NASAND) peacefully protested the display of Luigi Gregori’s murals depicting Christopher Columbus and Native American people. On January 20, 2019, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. announced the decision to cover the murals without removing them from the Main Building as he explained that attempting to move the pieces would likely damage or even destroy the art. Shortly thereafter, Jenkins created the Columbus Murals Committee to decide how to best cover the art.

One student, Zada Ballew, was particularly impacted by the decision to cover the murals. Before graduating from the university in 2019, she shared how much Jenkins’ decision meant to her as an enrolled citizen in the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi.

“I began my education journey here seeing the Columbus murals as the only display of Native Notre Dame history,” said Ballew. “By the end of my time at Notre Dame, the administration had made a decision to cover those murals with Pokagon Band of Potawatomi art and so that moment really stands in my mind as one of the turning points in which I was like ‘Okay we can make a difference here. We can tell more Native American stories at Notre Dame.’”

Just four years later, Ballew has returned to the university in a new role as part of the Native American Initiatives (NAI). “I made the decision to come back this year because of the administration’s commitment to focusing on and highlighting and centering Indigenous art, specifically Pokagon Band of Potawatomi art pieces, but also their commitment through the Native American Initiatives to conduct an inquiry into Notre Dame’s history with Native peoples starting at the founding and continuing on through the present,” said Ballew.

Though she is also a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Native American history, Ballew is spending the academic year at Notre Dame to serve as both a historical consultant and cultural liaison to the NAI, as well as partnering with the university archives to research the Native American history of Notre Dame.

“Since I have returned to campus, I just feel like there is a sense of urgency and excitedness around Native American stories and experiences and history. It’s really incredible that this is happening in such a short amount of time,” said Ballew.

Ballew began her professional tenure at Notre Dame in August 2023, but she “really didn’t know what to expect to find in the archives” when she started. Since beginning in her role, Ballew has “found literally hundreds of examples of the Indigenous history of Notre Dame ranging as far as before the founding, continuing on into those early days of the university.”

Beyond research, Ballew has partnered with other faculty members in the NAI, notably Tara Kenjockety. Kenjockety currently serves as the undergraduate community engagement librarian and anthropology librarian at the Hesburgh Libraries. Kenjockety is a member of the Ho-Chunk and Seneca Nation and founded the Indigenous Faculty and Staff Employee Resource Group at Notre Dame.

Most recently, Ballew and Kenjockety collaborated with the NAI, the Hesburgh Libraries and the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi to host the first-ever “Superday” in celebration of National Native American Heritage Month. “Superday,” held on Nov. 16, invited almost 20 members of the Pokagon Band to campus to tour the university archives and learn how to navigate the resources available.

“What was most important to me was that [the members] not only see the documents and collections that we have in our archives but that they know how to access those materials for themselves after ‘Superday’ was over,” Ballew said.

Following the tour and the tutorial, Dr. Blaire Morseau, an enrolled citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and an anthropologist at Michigan State University, gave a lecture on her current research endeavors. Subsequently, David Martin, the Initiative on Race and Resilience’s 2023-2024 artist-in-residence, offered a tour of his studio, where he is working on a mural inspired by his Pokagon upbringing and Indigenous traditions. The day concluded with a dinner at Kankakee Grille located inside Four Winds Casino, which the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians owns.

What started as an idea to “just tour the archives, turned into this super day,” said Ballew. Kenjockety shared that this “Superday” was born out of a desire to reinvigorate Notre Dame’s longstanding connection with the Pokagon Band and the Indigenous communities in the area.

In addition to bolstering the relationship between the Pokagon Band and the university, Kenjockety also works with the Native American Student Association of Notre Dame (NASAND) to support Native students on campus.

“I was a first-generation college student and I was part of my own Native American student group down at Indiana University. I just knew the benefits of a lot of these support systems for marginalized groups,” said Kenjockety. As finals week approaches, Kenjockety’s faculty group is assembling care packages for the NASAND students.

As National Native American Heritage Month comes to a close, Ballew compels students to take advantage of the opportunities available to learn about Native American history on Notre Dame’s campus, whether that’s through attending guest lectures, participating in cultural activities such as beading workshops or enrolling in courses on Native American culture. She said, “There's a really robust and exciting and complicated and beautiful indigenous history of Notre Dame that I don't think is always centered or appreciated in ways that it should.”