Piscataway Student Wins Yale’s Indigenous People’s Day Essay Contest
With his essay titled “American Mestizo,” Sebastian Alenkwis Medina-Tayac, Piscataway, took first place in Yale University’s Office for Diversity and Equal Opportunity campus-wide essay contest to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day.
Sebastian will receive a $100 gift card and he will read his essay at an Indigenous People’s Day luncheon on October 14. Honorable mention winners were TlalliAztlan Moya-Smith, Nahoa, and Justin Riner, Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma.
By Sebastian Alenkwis Medina-Tayac
Ceremony. “We are standing on Indian land. We will always fight for it. Don’t give up,” Uncle Billy proclaimed, his back to a large cedar tree.
For him—for us—the Creator, that which connected everything in the Universe, was inseparable from the land. In the United States, the land is inseparable from money. Money is inseparable from politics. Thus, our chief’s sermons always end in this revolutionary diatribe. His call to action is weary; he has been making it since for almost half a century.
He passes the bullhorn to my mother. She translates. “Somos parados en tierra indígena. Siempre lucharemos por ella. No se… No se…”
My mother’s voice trailed behind the crackling bullhorn. The cool autumn breeze crinkled the Potomac River and blew her brown hair like the dry leaves grasping the trees around us. The burial grounds are beautiful in November.
“No se—“ she trailed again. I paused tearing up blades of grass from the ground. I knew this one.
“No se rinden!” I shouted. She smiled, and Uncle Billy continued.
From that point on, I was to be the translator for my uncle’s sermons. Over my lifetime, I saw his sermons double in size to accommodate the Spanish speakers that came to our ceremonies, often outnumbering the Piscataway attendees. I was both.
I grew up speaking Spanish with my father who is Colombian, so words that my mother was losing for lack of practice remained stored in the recesses of my memory, ready to burst out when someone else was talking but reluctant when I had something to say.
Colombians. The people of the Andes, the papaya pickers, the Cumbia-dancers, the mountain climbers, the people who pray with crosses.
Half a millennium ago, my father might have been a Muisca Indian. But Indians’ intermarriage with whites and blacks produced the heritage to which a majority Colombians now lay claim. Colombia is a mestizo (mixed) nation. My father’s Indian heritage hides in the variety of potato used to make the Ajiaco soup he makes on Christmas, and in the airy tunes he can manage on a pan flute.
Piscataways. The people of the Potomac, the paw-paw pickers, the Sun Dancers, the canoe-paddlers, the people who pray with tobacco.
Being among the first contacted, colonized and decimated by the English, there remain no purely Piscataway people nor communities. To be Piscataway is to be white and black, too—to be mestizo.
My father speaks of Bogota like I speak of Maryland. The indigenous experience is to be tied to a community tied to a land. My tribe is not a tribe of people who share last names or myths or stories, it is a nation of indigenous people from around the hemisphere, around the world. Sure enough, the circle of people seated around my uncle are Piscataway, Lakota, Mohawk, Navajo, Taíno, Nahuatl and Quechua.
Indigenous People’s Day reminds us that Columbus’s landing in Hispañola in 1492 represents all European conquests in the Americas, from the Pequot War to the Wounded Knee massacre to the Guatemalan genocide. We are only as strong as the solidarity we show other indigenous communities and movements across the hemisphere.
In the tongue Columbus used while conquering and raping the land of the Arawak, I orated Uncle Billy’s prayers to the Creator and supplication to Man to deliver us from Columbus’s legacy. Language is one of many arbitrary divisions forced on Indian people, like borders, citizenship and faith. But we assert on this day that the people who carry the blood of the Western Hemisphere are all related; we are connected by our attachment to the land our ancestors shaped and lived with, not on. The perseverance of a Maryland tribe, a Mayan village, and an urban community center are all celebrated on October 14th.
Our language may be different but our inheritance is not. And as Latinos, Spanish-speaking Indians, are the fastest growing demographic in the US today, it seems that the American mestizo is on the rise.
Sebi Medina-Tayac is a sophomore in Davenport majoring in American Studies. He founded and leads Blue Feather, Yale’s increasingly popular powwow drum group. He also serves as the events coordinator for the Association of Native Americans at Yale, the secretary for the Ivy Native Council, and works at the Native American Cultural Center. He is a reporter for the Yale Daily News city section, covering New Haven community news, and a member of the La Casa organizations MEChA de Yale and Por Colombia. He is a member of the Piscataway Indian Nation of Maryland and the nephew of current chief Billy Tayac, a prominent activist and spiritual leader.