Women work with textiles in the costume shop in Speech Arts on March 3, 2017. (Yezmene Fullilove/ The Collegian)

Native American culture sews students to their heritage

At Fresno State, you learn a lot about other’s cultures through lectures and presentations but tribal elders Corky Mills and Millie Richards Vela are literally putting tradition in your hands.

“The Shawl Project: Winyan Omnicha – Gathering of the Women” is a project that is taking place in the university costume shop in the Speech Arts Building, every Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. until April 7.

The project intends to bring women together over the course of six weeks and teach them about the Native American culture by creating traditional shawls. The shawls are traditionally worn by Native American women when attending a ceremonial powwow.

Not only are students learning to make shawls, but they are learning about culture, tribal history and stories from  Mills and Vela.

Mills, who is from the Cheyenne River Eagle Butte Agency of Eagle Butte in South Dakota said she moved to the Central Valley for the warm weather after experiencing her native state’s “harsh” weather.

“We are teaching the ceremonial shawl, how to make it and sharing culture and things that we experienced growing up – our histories,” Mills said.

She said the gathering is a mobilization of women that helps to continue tribal ceremony culture by gathering women of all ages – from infants to elders.

Mills said that typically when mental issues arise in the community, with elders and women gathering in the community to make shawls as a therapeutic way to help treat a mental illness.

At the university, Mills said most of the female students who have participated in the project have native backgrounds.

Jasmine Atkins, a sociology major whose ancestry comes from Chiricahua and Kiowa Apache tribes, said one of the main reasons she attended the class was because it is a tradition in her family.

“My mom and my grandma would come and teach us how to [make shawls] when we were younger, and my sisters would participate,” Atkins said. “So for me, it’s a piece of home away from home.”

Atkins said having Mills and Vela come to teach the class was amazing because it can teach other students the native culture they aren’t familiar with.

Aliyah Usochu, a pre-vet major who does not know her tribal origin, said she missed out on native culture because of family separations. What she does know is that her grandfather was a part of a Nigerian tribe.

“I came because I feel like I missed out on [the] culture, so might as well get into something that I could learn more about,” Usochu said.

Vela is a member of the Oglala Tribe of Pine Ridge in South Dakota and found herself in Fresno after her daughter married into a family that is from the Central Valley.

“I think it’s important to keep the tradition going,” Vela said.

She added, if there is one thing she would like those who participate in the project to learn, it’s respect.

“A lot of times [people] don’t respect us, and we just want respect,” she said.

Mills said anyone is welcome to participate in the project – Native American or not – and to participate to learn about a culture that has been misrepresented.

“Everybody is always curious about our ceremonies and I think TV and movies have done a lot to create different ideas about us,” Mills said. “So I think that in these gatherings, when they see us and they speak to us, they learn that we, too, are just people.”

She said it is important for young Native Americans to seek a higher education in the hopes of continuing the advancement of Native Americans throughout the country.

Mills said, “We are proud of everyone who seeks a higher education.”