Students and faculty present research on Indigenous peoples at fifth annual CNAIR symposium


Russell Leung/Daily Senior Staffer

Columbia University Prof. Audra Simpson presents at the symposium. Simpson, the keynote speaker, discussed Canada’s past and present harm done to Indigenous people.

Russell Leung, Print Managing Editor

Feinberg fourth-year student Kayla Giger, who is Ojibwe, said she is the only Native student in her class — and there are none in the two classes above her. 

Out of the more than 21,000 students who graduated from medical school in 2022, only 193 self-identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, according to the American Academy of Medical Colleges. Financial costs, a dearth of available mentors and a lack of early STEM education pathways, among other factors, prevent Indigenous people from matriculating to and graduating from medical school, Giger said.

“It’s a very, very common experience of just the isolation of being the only one and the difficulty of cohort building,” Giger said. “(We should think) about how we can build a cohort across the country across new students at different schools to make some change.”

At the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research’s fifth annual symposium Thursday, Giger presented on a community focus group. The study examined the underrepresentation of Indigenous people in medical school and health care professions. 

Giger was one of several students who showcased their work during the symposium’s poster session. The symposium celebrates the work of CNAIR’s fellows and faculty members, while hosting Indigenous scholars from institutions across the country.

History Prof. and CNAIR affiliate Doug Kiel, a citizen of the Oneida Nation, gave the opening speech. He spoke on the symposium’s evolution over the years, from its origins calling attention to the anti-Indigenous history of Northwestern founder John Evans to now spotlighting the work of CNAIR fellows and affiliates.

“We’re all people who are united in the common endeavor of wanting to do research that is engaged with Native communities, centered on Indigenous priorities,” Kiel said. “That is really what brings our community together: a common set of discussions about how to do things appropriately and ethically.”

Dr. Caitlin Jacobs (Feinberg ’22), who is Lumbee, created a poster about her ongoing investigation into urban Native people’s experiences with reproductive health care. She said her frustration with health outcome data for Indigenous people inspired her study. 

“There’s a long history of medical racism against Native women and Native peoples, and that extends well into Chicago’s history as well. And there is limited access to care in this very segregated city,” Jacobs said. 

Weinberg junior Elizabeth Vazquez presented about the life of William Jones, a Meskwaki anthropologist who worked at the Chicago Field Museum in the early 20th century. She researched him last summer and later published an essay for Archive Chicago, an NU initiative highlighting the stories of Native Americans in the city. 

Vazquez said she chose to highlight Jones because she was interested in his work as an Indigenous scholar in a predominantly white space. 

“I was able to get very intimate and very close with Jones’ story because I was reading his letters to his friends and people he considered family,” Vazquez said. “It’s nice to humanize history.”

Medill graduate student Amelia Schafer created a poster inspired by her ongoing research on the media coverage of missing and murdered Indigenous relatives. Schafer, who is Wampanoag and has Brothertown Indian Nation ancestry, shared guidelines on how to respectfully report on MMIR cases. Her work is in part based on her own experience doing so in Iowa. 

While reporting, Schafer said journalists should consider how the content they put out affects the people they speak to and communities they report on.

“When reporters come into a community who aren’t familiar with the issues facing the community at all, oftentimes the stories can hurt more than they can help,” Schafer said. “The reputation that we as journalists have in Native communities is: ‘You’re only doing this because it’s a paycheck.’”

Third-year Ph.D. candidate in anthropology Syd González, who is Indigenous to the lands now known as Texas and Mexico, presented their current investigation into the material embodiments of masculinity within Latinx populations in Houston. 

In a 2021 project on the topic, González asked their interlocutors to photograph their personal interpretations of these embodiments. Many of the interlocutors highlighted specific aesthetics, including 1960s fashion and classic romantic comedies. They intentionally focused on how these communities found joy in demonstrations of masculinity.

Political science and environmental policy and culture Prof. Kim Suiseeya and McCormick Prof. and Georgia Institute of Technology Prof. Josiah Hester, who is Kanaka ‘Ōiwi, followed with a presentation on Indigenous efforts to preserve Great Lakes coastal wetlands where wild rice grows. 

Audra Simpson, a Kahnawake Mohawk anthropology professor at Columbia University, ended the day with a keynote address about Canada’s reckoning with its historical and ongoing anti-Indigenous practices. In her talk, Simpson previewed a chapter from her upcoming book “Savage States: Settler Governance in an Age of Sorrow,” which covers Canada’s “emotional history of plunder” –– specifically of its Indigenous peoples. 

She honed in on former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology to Indian residential school survivors who suffered abuse and violence. The apology, she said, focused on the state’s historical failure to “protect” the survivors from harm rather than its past and present oppression of Indigenous people.

Simpson cited University of Washington Prof. Dian Million, who said the state minimizes its role in continuing colonialism in favor of offering Indigenous people resources to mentally “heal” from the past. 

“This trauma supplants politics in the eyes of the state and forms the structure of a transitional therapeutic state, she says,” Simpson said. “So instead of land back, we get therapy back.”

Schafer said she hopes more people will become educated on Indigenous issues through symposiums like Thursday’s. González said talking about their project to scholars from different departments and programs made the symposium “really enjoyable.” 

“The poster session let people move through and see connections that we don’t even know exist across all of our projects,” González said. “CNAIR did such a good job at facilitating conversation amongst scholars from different disciplines.” 

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