Celebrating Indigenous People's Day with Sarah Adams Cornell

We sat down with Sarah Adams-Cornell from Matriarch, an intertribal native women's organization, regarding Indigenous People's Day and the recent decision by the Oklahoma State Board of Education to authorize Sovereign Community School, after several denials from local school boards. The school is a community-designed charter school free and open to all kids and families with a specific mission to serve and impact the intertribal Indigenous community of Oklahoma City.

Here is a transcript of the conversation: 

MC: Thank you for talking with us. There are a few things I'd love to get your thoughts on, but first of all, congratulations.

SAC: Thank you so much.

MC: Oh, my gosh! I can tell you this, I genuinely felt like I was in an Erin Brockovich movie when I went to this hearing (Sovereign Community School Decision)... I had never been down there (Dept. of Education) before and I'm like, this is the most moving thing I had ever seen in my life. And then, it was a happy ending, which I was a little nervous about.

SAC: Yeah, it was definitely one of those times where I was really hoping that they would really listen. Sometimes you go into those situations and you feel like they've already decided before you walk in a room and I felt like they were really listening, and discussing it, and bringing things up. The conversation, while sometimes it was really frustrating, felt at least open and that was a nice change of scenery for us. It had felt very much in other situations like, "Well, we were coming in. They knew what was gonna happen." They took a recommendation when they never even looked at our application. It's so good to come out on the other end and go, "Let's get to work. Let's get this school started." Now we're in the fun phase.

MC: That's exciting. Well, I've got a couple questions. I want to get back to the school, but I guess the big thing coming up on Monday is - it's World Indigenous People's Day and I think if the mayor, which has been different from past mayors, is trying to recognize it or has recognized it?

SAC: Yes. We've been actually working to get Indigenous People's Day recognized in Oklahoma City for four years. And so it's a culmination of four years and a whole lot of people working on this project throughout these four years. It had been something that we had been trying to get passed through the city council and we just never had enough votes. That was always very surprising because it feels like low hanging fruit.

Like, this is easy… and it also is really important to reexamine our history about the people we celebrate like Columbus. Granted, the city of Oklahoma city doesn't recognize Columbus Day, so they wouldn't actually be taking anything away. We were asking them to add Indigenous People's Day. We heard things from the former mayor like, "Well, we're just not ready yet. I don't think is the time." Other people said that it would be divisive and I felt like, "So, Columbus Day isn't divisive?" I mean, he was a mass murderer and the father of the transatlantic slave trade. Tell us how that's not divisive for a whole lot of people. And so it was just kind of stonewalled over and over.

This year was really different. We knew that the mayor was not going to be running for reelection, and so we had all these new candidates running for his seat. We really got to work and talked to two candidates and we talked with Mayor Holt before he was Mayor Holt-while he was a candidate. He was really open. He's Osage, which was really nice. It was just this totally different deal where he said, "Well, let's talk about different ways to achieve the goal." And so, what we did differently: instead of going to the city council where we knew we really wouldn't have enough votes, he said, "Well, I can make proclamations. I can do it. I just need somebody to ask me to do it." And then, we decided on language and how to roll it out together, and that's what we did.

It was fantastic and it felt like we were working together, as opposed to struggling against each other. That was incredibly different. He listened to us when we said, "we really want something like missing and murdered indigenous women added to this. That's really important to keep that in the language.”

We said indigenous, as opposed to Native American. It was really important to us to be inclusive of all indigenous people, not just the 39 federally recognized tribes or just the people in North America because we're all brothers and sisters.

He was super, super great to work with. And then, he will be reading the proclamation on Monday. We have an event at Oklahoma City University Monday at noon at the Chickasaw Sculpture Garden. Mayor Holt will read and then there will be an honor song.

I think Reverend David Wilson's going to say a prayer and Choctaw Nation chief Gary Batton will be there to say a few words. And then, at 6:00 PM that evening we have an educational panel for the whole community.

They're both for the whole community, but on the last one we have some heavy hitters who are panelists to talk about indigenous people. Kind of historical information, but also what are the issues we're facing now and why is it important that we have Indigenous People’s Day, and all the many contributions that our people have made to this community. That's what we're looking forward to on Monday. Everyone is invited.

MC: You talked about being a friend to the indigenous community. We know that obviously, it's not monolithic. How do we come alongside different groups of people in the indigenous community and be a friend, a supporter, an ally?

SAC: Important question. I think allyship is incredibly important and there is a way, in my mind, to do it right and there's a way to get it wrong. The best allyship that I see happening is one in which people who have privileged platforms open those up to other communities who don't have the microphone.

You hand it over and you let them tell their story. What do they need? What do they want? What is important to them? And then, you get behind that when appropriate, whatever action that is. But, that community sets the tone.

And so, my recommendation would be first you have to educate yourself on that community. Learn their values, how they communicate, what's appropriate conversation for an ally, and most of our communities of color or oppressed communities are very open to having those conversations.

We want to teach, we want to partner, we want to grow that allyship. So, think about us. Coming to events like the Indigenous People's Day panel. It's great to come to the proclamation and be a part of that celebration but come to the part that talks about why it's important.

Why do we need Indigenous People's Day? I think it's really a great opportunity when you see free events in the community. Anytime you see the ...well, I'll just speak for the indigenous community…when you see us doing work or holding events, obviously it means enough for us to mobilize around them.

So, come support it with your dollars. If you can't, with your talent. Everybody has something to contribute. Just ask if help is needed and if it is, ask what you can do and say, "Here are the talents that I have. How can I use those to benefit what you're doing, if appropriate?"

MC: That's awesome. Thank you so much. Okay. One more thing and it's kind of a twofold question, so maybe it's two things? If you could briefly just tell us a bit about Matriarch. How we can be a good ally and get behind it. Is there anything we can do community-wise, in general, to get behind the school?

SAC: Yes. Okay. Matriarch is an inter-tribal native women's organization that meets twice a month in both Oklahoma City and in Tulsa. We're on year three right now and we have full classes, which is great and every year it has grown. Like, the second year it doubled and this year is even bigger. And so, it means there's a need. Right? Those things don't increase in that way if there's not a need and we know that. It really started because we were seeing mental health crisis in our community, especially with our kids.

There were suicide attempts and there was a lot of mental health crisis. Just a lot of things happening that we didn't feel ... we felt really helpless. A lot of the moms just felt like, "Man, we have to go to western medicine to figure this out. Why do we have to rely on these colonized ways to get healthy?" That doesn't make any sense to us, because most colonized concepts have really taken us to a place of not being well. And so, we knew that there is this collective knowledge in our community that holds the keys to our health.

And so getting back to that place, we have a different topic every meeting. We feed everybody every meeting. Food is super important to a lot of different cultures, but certainly to ours and we bring all our kids along.

Most of us can't afford to have a babysitter for an evening, so we make sure that our kids are learning beside us. And so supporting Matriarch could look like donating a meal. It could be cooking for 30 women in either Oklahoma City or Tulsa, it could be donating gas cards to kind of alleviate that transportation issue for some of our women. It could be donating gifts that we give away. It could be laundry detergent, it could be gift cards to the grocery store. Those things are helpful. A lot of our women live below the poverty line, we all kind of struggle together from time to time.

Those are a few ways to support what we're doing, because we don't have grants at this point. Where a 501(c)3, but we don't have any grants. We're kind of shoe-stringing it, which is fine. That's what our communities do. We figure it out and we make it work. We do potlucks if we need to.

The other project, Sovereign Community School. Super excited. Right now we are needing help getting the word out about our school sharing the links to sign up your kids, to pre-enroll for next school year. So, we will be enrolling sixth graders and ninth graders for the 2019-2020 school year. We also are looking for a principal. If you go the Facebook page there's a link to our website and a job description, there's a link to apply.

And then, at some point, we're going to put out lists to sign up to be allies to help with building renovation, to help with different projects we're gonna be working on. So check out our Facebook page. We put a lot of information there.

MC: Okay. Thank you so much Sarah. I'm so excited about everything coming up!

Check out Monday’s Events:

Indigenous People Day in Oklahoma City is Monday, October 8, 2018.

The Proclamation Reading: 12:00 pm, noon at the Chickasaw Sculpture Garden on the Oklahoma City University campus.

Panel: 6:00 PM at the Tom and Brenda McDaniel University Center,  at Oklahoma City University, The Great Hall

Dinner:  5:00 PM (free Indian taco dinner prior to panel)


Kim Bandy