This story is part of a series of profiles of students of Native American heritage at IU. This series is meant to celebrate Native American Heritage Month, which is dedicated to sharing the experiences of contemporary native culture, not just the history. You can read part one of the series here and part two here.
Senior Gaby Anderson can be seen around campus sporting handmade beaded barrettes, earrings and other jewelry.
Anderson, an apparel merchandising major, is using her education to connect her native heritage to her love for fashion.
“I’m very crafty,” she said. “I remember seeing my mom wearing beaded bracelets from family members when I was growing up and thinking, ‘I want to do that.’”
Growing up in Texas and Indiana, Anderson was never officially registered with the Kiowa tribe, which is mainly situated in Oklahoma. However, this does not stop her from strongly identifying with her Kiowa heritage, she said.
This was not always true, though. Because she was not registered, Anderson said she initially was afraid she would not be considered fully native, which hindered her from openly expressing her culture.
On top of that, her mother was discouraged from expressing her heritage by her own family, which affected Anderson.
Anderson’s grandfather, her mother’s father, would consistently berate her mother for expressing native culture.
“He was embarrassed to let us be native,” she said. “I felt like I couldn’t express myself because of it.”
Anderson’s mother was never allowed to attend a powwow, so neither did she. A powwow is a popular celebration to honor Native American culture, consisting of song, dance and the exchange of stories.
In November of 2015, Anderson was finally able to attend a powwow with the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center.
“It was the most amazing experience of my life,” she said. “It was a living example of how native people are still here, and it helped me feel okay in embracing my identity.”
Joining the FNECC her freshman year, Anderson was able to place herself in a native community for the first time.
“Besides my cousins, I’d never met another native person in my life that was my age before coming here,” she said.
Before she came to IU, Anderson was mostly familiar with the native culture she saw in her mother. At home, she and her family spoke English and Kiowa. But in school, she rarely saw any portrayal of native heritage. The little that she did see was misrepresented, she said.
One instance ingrained into Anderson’s mind happened during her eighth-grade year right before Thanksgiving, when she and her mother went to pick her little brother up from preschool. As the kids began to rush out of the building, she noticed all of them were wearing handmade pilgrim hats adorned with paper feathers.
“I remember my mom saying, ‘Please don’t have him dressed up as an Indian,’” she said, as they waited for her brother to arrive.
While Anderson said she was old enough to know it was a misrepresentation of her culture, experiences like these weighed heavily on her. In these cases, she would usually just sit back, observe and hope her mother would not have to see, she said.
As she got to college and involved herself with the FNECC, she began to feel a change as she became more comfortable in expressing her heritage.
"I’ve gotten a lot more vocal as I’ve gotten older,” she said. “The FNECC taught me to speak up for what I believe in."
FNECC program assistant Heather Williams said she has also seen Anderson develop as she has moved through her years at the center.
"I've definitely seen her confidence and her identity strengthen over the years," she said.
Williams said Anderson has been heavily involved with the center since she joined and plays an integral role to their programs.
"There would be a hole without her," she said.
In addition to participating at the FNECC, Anderson now makes a point to openly relate what she learns in the classroom to her native heritage.
“If we don’t share our native perspective, then how will people learn about it?” she said.
In addition, she said she has become more comfortable with sharing her culture with her family, especially her mother. As part of the Native American Heritage Month activities this year, Anderson was able to bring her mother and aunt to a ribbon skirt-making class, which they had never been able to do before.
“Through strengthening my identity, I’m able to turn around and help my family strengthen theirs," Anderson said.
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