UM student promotes Native American culture on campus

Allison Cawthon, founder of the Native American Heritage Month Committee, hopes to teach others about her culture and grow the community on campus.
Student portrait for Native American Heritage Month

Four years ago, Allison Cawthon left her home in Plano, Texas, to begin her studies at the University of Miami. As the music education major began her first fall semester, she quickly realized that the population of indigenous people was smaller than she had imagined.

“My freshman year, I was looking forward to embracing and celebrating my culture with others in November [National Native American Heritage Month] and was disappointed to learn that there weren’t many Native American students here to connect with,” said Cawthon, currently a senior.

Cawthon is a proud member of the Choctaw Nation. In fall 2017, she founded the Native American Heritage Month Committee (NAHMC) to promote an awareness of Native American heritage among the broader student body population at UM. This is the first and only student organization that represents Native American students on campus.

“It’s hard to share an entire culture with 10,000 students when there’s only two Native Americans on campus [who are active in the organization],” said Cawthon. “It would definitely help if there was more support on campus for Native Americans.”

Cawthon leads seven members of the committee, all of whom share a personal connection to her. Some are her Chi Omega sorority sisters, some friends, and some allies. Cawthon said she is constantly thinking of ways to promote the new club and her current focus is to work with departments to increase the recruitment of Native American students through scholarship opportunities. She is grateful for her relationship with the Multicultural Student Affairs (MSA) office’s leadership and guidance on her journey as president of the organization thus far.

Junior Pena, assistant director of MSA, said having a Native American committee on campus increases the visibility for people whose ancestors occupied this land long before colonization.

“I think it is incredibly important to have our Native American History Month Committee on campus and to highlight the story, histories, and realities of native and indigenous people in our country,” said Pena.

Cawthon said, “People have lots of questions about Native Americans but just don’t have anyone to ask. So, I’m grateful for the MSA and their help to bring awareness through events like the Dream Catcher Workshop that was hosted last year, to teach others about its importance.” The workshop allowed students to connect and create their own dream catchers. 

On Friday, Nov. 30, the Native American Heritage Month Committee hosted a Cultural Pop-Up on the Lakeside Patio from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. to engage in conversation about cultural appropriation, the real history of Thanksgiving, and share historical facts of different native tribes. 

Cawthon said one thing many students are surprised to learn is that not all tribes look alike, dress alike, or speak the same language. She encourages her peers to ask questions to get the facts, but in a respectful manner. The southeastern tribe member said you should never ask, “How much of a Native American are you?” She loves to talk about her culture and encourages others to visit native tribes’ official websites to gain more knowledge. 

“My tribe does not wear headdresses or have a medicine man,” Cawthon said. “Most people don’t know that we were one of the five tribes who did the Trail of Tears. Most of my tribe died on the walk, which was thousands of miles in harsh conditions – one of the reasons there aren’t a lot of us. Most people don’t know how much my tribe has been suppressed.”

Pena said, “I strongly believe that the more initiatives, visibility, and community we create on campus for native students, the more likely they will be to see the University of Miami as an inclusive destination that not only acknowledges their heritage, but strives to understand it without being offensive.”

With graduation around the corner, Cawthon is concerned about the future of the organization. She is unsure if any of the current members are willing to take on the responsibility of president, as they do not want to be seen as misappropriating another’s culture on campus. Cawthon said “it’s a hard line,” but she is working closely with MSA to hopefully keep the organization going once she graduates.

“Each year we plan to reach out and identify any native students who are interested in supporting and sharing parts of their culture they feel comfortable sharing with our community,” said Pena. “With this in mind, we will continue to increase visibility either through student specific initiatives or identifying and securing speakers, story tellers, and advocates for native issues to facilitate campus forums, workshops at the Students of Color Symposium, and ongoing conversations about the surrounding Florida community.”

Beyond founding the Native American Heritage Month Committee, Cawthon – also a Hammond Scholar – was recently awarded the Plus One Scholarship, which offers a tuition-free semester abroad for educational enrichment. She plans to study in Paris her final semester at UM before graduating in May 2019.