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"It Gives Them A Sense Of Being Home": Utah State Blanding Celebrates First Indigenous People's Day

Photo of a Navajo man wearing a black cowboy hat stands in front of a sign that says "Indigenous People’s Day."
Kate Groetzinger
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KUER
Musician and actor Pete Sands speaks to students at USU Blanding. He grew up in Montezuma Creek on the Navajo Nation.

Students at Utah State University Blanding rose before dawn this morning to greet the sun with corn pollen in the Navajo tradition, before embarking on a 5k run to kick off the college’s first Indigenous People’s Day. 

This year’s celebration was a reaction to questions raised by students on this day last year, according to Jessica Rouche. She is a student activities director at USU Blanding, which serves the highest percentage of Native American students of any college in the state. And while the school has not acknowledged Columbus Day in the past, it hasn’t done anything for Indigenous People’s Day either. 

A photo of a woman in Navajo dress plays a hand drum made from animal skin.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
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KUER
Singer and activist Radmilla Cody performs a song about family. She is half Navajo and half African-American, and a former Miss Navajo.

“I noticed on my social media feed there were mounds of students who were like, ‘Come on Utah State, you are in the Four Corners, and you guys aren’t celebrating Indigenous People’s Day?’” Rouche said. 

In response, she surveyed the student body and put together a lineup of events including sheep butchering, beading, flute making, and guest speakers who grew up in the Four Corners region. 

A photo of a woman sitting behind a table with beaded lanyards and earrings on it.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
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KUER
A Ute woman displays traditional and nontraditional beadwork at the USU Blanding Indigenous People's Day flea market.
A photo of a woman holding a beaded storm trooper in her palm.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
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KUER
USU staff member Alina Begay shows students a non-traditional design she executed with traditional beadwork.

Third year student Hunter Warren is one of the students who encouraged USU Blanding to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. He is from the Navajo Nation, and he organizes cultural events, like traditional Navajo games, for students throughout the year. 

“It’s been amazing,” he said. “I know the students appreciate it, because it gives them a sense of being home and being with their culture. So that makes me proud to be doing this.” 

Warren helped butcher a sheep this morning, which was served along with fry bread, potatoes and blue corn mash for lunch. 

A photo of students taking mutton ribs off of a grill.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
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KUER
USU Blanding provided students and guests a free lunch of mutton and fry bread. Navajo families often butcher a sheep to mark special occasions.

A photo of a woman wearing a traditional Navajo squash blossom necklace stirring a pot with a ladle as potatoes are added.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
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KUER
Joquel Begay-Haudley cooks vegetables in a pot for mutton stew. The ribs were grilled, and the rest of the sheep became stew.

Students who aren’t from Native families or who didn’t grow up on the Navajo Nation can benefit from these cultural activities too, according to third year student Carmen Phillips. She is half Navajo, but grew up in Provo. 

“I was raised in the city, and I never got the chance to be around a sheep butchering,” she said. “I get to learn so much being here.” 

A photo of two female students working on wooden flutes.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
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KUER
USU Blanding students Natalie Hunter (L) and Carmen Phillips learn the art of flute making from Ute elder Aldean Ketchum.

A photo of a man using a knife to carve a hole in a bamboo-like shoot.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
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KUER
Ute elder Aldean Ketchum learned how to make flutes from his grandfather. He uses a plant called river cane.

A photo of t-shirts and buttons that say "We are Navajo" on a table.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
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Utah Navajo Health Systems runs a website called WeAreNavajo.org to provide information about health and mental wellness. A representative tabled at the flea market.

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