Q&A: Mvskoke faculty member shares experience during Native American Heritage Month

A marker stands outside the Helen Marie Taylor Museum of Waco History and commemorates the lives of Native Americans who once lived on those lands. Grace Everett | Photo Editor

By Avery Ballmann | Staff Writer

Fall is full of national holidays such as Halloween, Thanksgiving and Columbus Day, but these can loom over Native Americans because of opportunities for appropriation and misconstrued narratives of their culture.

Mariah Humphries, director of parachurch partnerships and alumni relations at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, is of Mvskoke descent. With November being Native American Heritage Month, she said this time of year can be frustrating but also beautiful because people want to learn.

Did you grow up knowing and celebrating your heritage?

Humphries grew up in Lawrence, Kan., where her mother was a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University. Her mother is Mvskoke, and Humphries grew up around her tribal nation and others. She said growing up around other tribes exposed her to different languages and cultures.

“I was very knowledgeable in my own history, and also even a couple of other tribal nations’ history,” Humphries said. “So I was very fortunate in that — to be able to have that growing up.”

Since moving to Waco, have you been able to connect with other tribal nations?

Humphries said she has not been able to connect with her own tribe or others because they are not located in Waco. However, she said she has found outlets to connect with her roots.

“As I am separated from my own people, I stay very intentional on those topics that are important to me, and I want to make sure that I am staying up to date on what’s happening within my own tribal nation,” Humphries said. “So again, I’m very intentional about staying connected as far as following newsletters and what’s being said, what’s being talked about, and just making sure that I am staying as knowledgeable as possible so I can just be a good citizen at large.”

Since Humphries’ tribe is located in Oklahoma, she said she uses social media to remain connected.

Being far away, how important is it to you to share your heritage, whether it be with your family or in your day-to-day life?

The topic of being Native American is a common conversation in Humphries’ household. She said since her children are also physically far from their tribal nation, it is important for them to stay updated on current issues and conversations.

“Around the 1860s, Native Americans just kind of drop off our pages of books of history; we just kind of phase out at that point,” Humphries said. “So there’s a lot of things that have been missed over the generations — important things that have happened that need to be talked about.”

Humphries said she can be intentional with her peers by being the voice that brings awareness and using #WeAreStillHere regarding the atrocities and beauties Native Americans have experienced. She also said she participated in a storytime last week at the Mayborn Museum by reading “We are Water Protectors” by Carole Lindstrom and “Fry Bread” by Kevin Noble Maillard.

How did you feel personally before this month was dedicated nationally?

Native American Heritage Month was not recognized nationally until 1990, when Congress and former President George H. W. Bush signed it into law.

“You have Halloween, Thanksgiving, Columbus Day — all of these different days within about a month and a half, that is heavy on Native Americans, either appropriation or to talk about Native American history,” Humphries said. “There was always that presence there during this time of year, and then whenever it became a National Heritage Month, then that just became more official to what was already happening for most Native Americans growing up anyway.”

What terminology do you prefer?

There are many terms in regard to Native Americans, such as Natives, American Indians and Indigenous Peoples. Humphries said in every generation and community, different terms are used.

“We just have to work extra hard to be able to honor that shift in language and respect that,” Humphries said.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the term “American Indian” is used as a race category. Humphries said “American Indian” is a government category often used in paperwork and sociology statistics and even by the Smithsonian. However, she said she mostly uses “Native American” or “Native.”

How do you handle appropriation when you see it?

The fall months are the most prevalent time for appropriation of Native Americans, whether that be through Halloween costumes or reenactments of the first Thanksgiving. However, Humphries said this is not the only time appropriation occurs; it’s ingrained in society.

“It’s the long game,” Humphries said. “It’s not going to be changed in a year. It’s not going to be changed with a sports team name. It’s not going to be changed with stopping a Tomahawk chop. Those things are not going to change a society that’s kind of become OK with the appropriation of a Native American. I try not to get too sidetracked with the discouragement because I need to focus on being encouraged on the people who are listening to people who are changing.”

One way Humphries noted change within the community is Baylor’s land acknowledgement from earlier this month. It recognized numerous tribes — such as Waco and Tawakoni of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, the Tonkawa, the Nʉmʉnʉʉ (Comanche), Karankawa and Lipan Apache — which lived and prospered on the university land before they were pushed off by colonizers.

How do you think students and faculty — or people in general — can celebrate this month respectfully if they are not Native American?

“There is a term that a friend of mine shared with me: There should be no conversation about us without us,” Humphries said. “I think about that this month, that there’s a lot of people who may talk about Native Americans, but it’s really important to have somebody there who has that lived experience and that knowledge that’s beyond the book, that’s beyond the pages that we read. It’s really important to be able to listen to an actual voice, because that’s a reminder that we are still here — that we are present even on Baylor’s campus.”

Although Baylor and Mayborn Museum events for Native American Heritage Month have already passed, people interested in learning more about Native American history in Waco can visit the Helen Marie Taylor Museum of Waco History located at 701 Jefferson Ave.

“The more I’m staying on top of our topics, the more I step into those educational spaces and have to share or represent,” Humphries said. “I take every opportunity that I can to be able to talk about that because it’s important for me. It’s important for my children to see me do that. It’s important for those around me to hear it.”