Native American Heritage Month opens with indigenous voices

Oct. 31 may be Halloween, but the Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Compliance (EDIC) held a different kind of celebration at the Arch with the opening proclamation for Native American Heritage Month. The event featured President Cindy Jebb’s opening proclamation, then transitioned to a discussion on the Munsee language and culture with a member of the Munsee Lenape tribe. A flute and dance performance with a member of the Redhawk Native American Arts Council concluded the event.

Nicole Morgan Agard, Ramapo’s chief equity and diversity officer, noted in her opening speech that Native American Heritage Month is especially meaningful this year because Jebb gave an official land acknowledgment statement at Opening Convocation to Chief Dwaine Perry of the Ramapo Munsee Lenape Nation, which can be found on the EDIC website.

“We must also continue to honor and pay respect to the contributions, the courage and sacrifices of the Ramapo Munsee Lenape people and their ancestors,” Jebb said in the opening proclamation.

After the opening proclamation, EDIC’s Associate Director Rachel Sawyer-Walker welcomed Steven “Owl” Smith, a member of the Ramapo Munsee Lenape tribe. He is a member of the Deer Clan and gave a prayer to the Ramapo community in the Munsee language. He also broke down the prayer line by line to explain what his words meant and highlight some important cultural meanings.

“There’s an interesting New York Times article that said there are 800 or more languages spoken in this region, centered in Manhattan which is a Munsee word. Which makes this region of the world the most linguistically diverse region on the planet,” he said.

He explained that Munsee has not been an active language until recently. It was with the help of the Munsee Delaware Nation in Canada that the language was brought back to this area.

“Our last first language speaker probably died about 10 to 15 years ago. But fortunately, we have people dedicated to bringing the language itself back… It gives me great pleasure to be able to speak the language on the lands where the language emerged from,” Owl said.

“I think it’s important to realize that while we may not all be indigenous to this land here, we’re all natives of planet Earth,” he added when summing up the first line of the prayer.

An important idea Owl touched upon was manёtu, which translates to “spirit.” Everything in the tangible world has manёtu even if we cannot see it, like electricity.

“Sometimes I think a better translation of manёtu is energy… When you have that formula E = mc2 that is the equivalent of energy and matter… Matter is actually a type of energy. They’re not entirely distinct separate things. They’re interrelated,” Owl said, explaining an alternate interpretation of manёtu.

He also placed a line of objects in front of him, explaining their connection to either the prayer or Native American culture. These objects included iron ore from the Turtle Clan area in Ringwood, water from the Ramapo River and tobacco.

The word Ramapough is a Munsee word and roughly translates to “sweet water.” Part of the prayer was thanking Mother Earth for her water.

“With water, it’s not so much we have rights to water, which any good legal governmental system recognizes. We are water. 60% of our bodies are water,” Owl said.

Owl also said giving thanks to creation is a common thread that runs across many Native American nations. The word he used throughout the prayer was “anushiik.”

“There’s over 500 nations north of the Rio Grande River. But not all communities are the same or do things the same way. However, a common thread that runs through most, if not all of these communities are prayers of thanks, recognition of thanks to the world which we emerged in,” he said.

The event closed with a performance from Cliff Matias, a member of the Redhawk Native American Arts Council, a nonprofit group founded and maintained by Native American artists who seek to educate the public on Native American culture through the arts. Matias played a song on a traditional love flute and told one of the creation stories of the love flute involving a cedar tree and a woodpecker, which also explains why this type of flute has six holes. After the performance, the audience joined Matias in the Robin Dance to close out the event.

A full list of activities for Native American Heritage Month can be found on EDIC’s website. Some highlights include “Decolonizing Thanksgiving” and the Native American Heritage Month Closing Ceremony, which will feature discussions on how to better support Indigenous peoples.

Photo by Matthew Wikfors.