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First Nations Student Union club creates space of belonging at Central Oregon Community College

Salmon on the end of wooden sticks roasts over a fire at the 24th annual Salmon Bake in Bend, Ore. on May 18, 2024.
Kathryn Styer Martínez
Salmon cooks over a fire at the 24th annual Salmon Bake in Bend, Ore. on May 18, 2024. The salmon was prepared by Sandra Greene and family members of the Warm Springs Confederated Tribes.

It was lunchtime on a Wednesday and a small group of college students were seated around a long brown table discussing books they’d been meaning to read and if anyone had gotten caught up on the FX series “Reservation Dogs.”

The meeting was the First Nations Student Union club at Central Oregon Community College, and it’s an important space for student Feliciana Conner.

“I feel like this group definitely serves to bring that sense of community that I don’t feel like you get off of the reservation,” she said.

The group is dedicated to uplifting Native American identities and cultures. Many of the members have tribal affiliations, but that’s not a requirement to join.

Conner’s been a student and member of the First Nations Student Union Club at the Bend campus for six years. She is part of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. She grew up on the Warm Springs reservation.

Four people sit around a table with serious expressions on their face. They are attending a First Nations Student Union meeting at the COCC Bend campus on Jun. 5, 2024.
Kathryn Styer Martínez
(from left) Jackie Currie, Jeremiah Rector, Seneca Kness and Feliciana Conner attend a First Nations Student Union meeting at the COCC Bend campus on Jun. 5, 2024. The club is dedicated to empowering Native American students and their identities and is open to all who want to join.

The club, she said, helps her stay connected to a community of Native Americans at the Bend campus, where only about 2% of students identify as Native American or Alaska Native according to COCC enrollment data.

Conner said having a place where she can exist without having to explain herself or the jokes she might make at home on the reservation matters.

In Deschutes County, the number of reported bias incidents and hate crimes has dramatically increased since record-keeping began in 2020. Both Bend and Redmond have had a recent spate of aggressions against Latino, Black, African American and LGTBQIA+ people.

The First Nations Student Union is a part of Central Oregon Community College’s commitment to creating safe spaces for students from all backgrounds, said the COCC’s director of diversity and inclusion Christy Walker.

Equity is embedded throughout the school’s strategic plan, she said. Walker’s department co-hosts a speaker series every spring, during what is billed as the Season of Nonviolence.

It’s during this time that she said the hateful phone calls and emails usually start up.

“We get hate mail. I’ve gotten some pretty nasty phone calls, which is why I tend to not answer my phone if I don’t know what the number is. I’ll wait for a message,” Walker said.

Bend Mayor Melanie Kebler has also noticed the increase in hate speech. At a March Human Rights Equity Council meeting, Zoom callers using suspicious names said antisemitic and racial slurs repeatedly during the public comment period. Kebler said an antisemitic flier was mailed to her home earlier this year.

“I think we really just need to be clear as a community that certain things are just not acceptable here,” she said.

People will be held accountable for their actions, she added, and the people harmed will be embraced: “You’re the ones we want to have in our community and we want to make sure you stay here.”

Helping Native American students stay and feel like they belong is part of Jeremiah Rector’s job as COCC’s Native American student program coordinator. He works to support, retain and graduate Native students. He also helps students transition from COCC to four-year universities, by connecting them with Native American or Indigenous student groups wherever they’re going.

Since moving to Bend, Rector has taken over the production of a beloved community event, a salmon bake.

In May, he organized the salmon bake for the second time. He recently moved from the Navajo Nation to take the job at COCC. For the second year in a row, he invited a group of Aztec dancers to perform at the event. Rector is Diné and part of his culture is highlighting the intercultural connections with Indigenous tribes in Mexico and parts of Central and South America.

A person in a brightly colored feather headpiece dances with a feathered prop in their hand. They are also holding their young son.
Kathryn Styer Martínez
Dayanara Velasquez (center) dances with son, Tonatiuh, at the 24th annual salmon bake in Bend, Ore. on May 18, 2024. Velasquez is a member of the MexicaTiahui Aztec dance group from Portland.

The MexicaTiahui Aztec dance group performed and highlighted the similarities some Mexica dances have with dances performed by various tribal groups north of the U.S.-Mexico border, like the rabbit dance.

To Rector, the salmon bake is an important community space of belonging and trust for Natives and non-Natives alike. It’s part ceremony and part celebration, he said.

“It allows folks to learn more about the culture that they’re interested in,” he said, “As for the Native American folks who are coming here, it’s an important thing in terms of culture.”

A brightly dressed person in traditional Native American clothing holds hands with attendees in a large circle. A ornately beaded butterfly and feathers are part of their headpiece.
Kathryn Styer Martínez
(center) A Quartz Creek dancer holds hands with attendees during a community round dance at the 24th annual Salmon Bake in Bend, Ore. on May 18, 2024.

Later in the day at this year’s salmon bake, the high clouds had cleared and the sun was out. By the time the Quartz Creek dancers from the Warm Springs reservation took to the grass to perform, about 160 pounds of salmon had run out.

People lounged on the grass, wearing their newly purchased salmon bake commemorative shirts, enjoying the exhibitions and trying to decide which of the emcee’s jokes to laugh at.

Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Kathryn Styer Martínez