Naelyn Pike’s connection to the earth is intertwined with the long line of women in her family. A Chiricahua Apache from San Carlos, Arizona, she visited St. Catherine University on March 8 with two other young Indigenous activists for “Justice as a Way of Life: Stories From Young Indigenous Activists.” Organized in honor of International Women’s Day by Student Senate and the Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women, the panel event was part of the 2021-23 Integrated Learning Series focusing on Indigenous thought leadership.
Pike, a student at Mesa Community College in Arizona and secretary of the chairman’s office of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, told the audience about how the women in her community held a traditional sunrise ceremony to celebrate her first menstrual period.
“I was able to be the first girl to have a ceremony off the reservation boundaries in over 150 years,” she said. “That was breaking barriers in our community. Since then, we’ve had other girls have ceremonies on our holy lands.”
Left to right: Jasilyn Charger, Naelyn Pike, and Charitie Ropati
The experience bolstered Pike’s deep belief in the connection between Native people and nature, igniting a lifelong commitment to protecting Native lands and the Earth.
“I always say you cannot take away the sacredness from the environment,” Pike explained to an audience gathered online and in person for the event held in Coeur de Catherine’s Rauenhorst Ballroom.
Alumna Mary Kunesh ’85, a Minnesota state senator and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, introduced Pike and the other panelists, which included Jasilyn Charger, member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and co-founder of the 7th Defenders, and Charitie Ropati, Yup'ik and Samoan environmental and education advocate and member of the Native village of Kongiganak, Alaska.
Kunesh emphasized that the strong commitment to protecting the environment, shared by herself and all the panelists, is underscored by strong familial connections. “I am a daughter, sister, mom and — most important — a grandma, and also a graduate of St. Catherine,” she told the audience. “I come from a long line of Katies going back to my grandmother.”
“The knowledge, resilience, and community of Indigenous activists, especially Indigenous women, is crucial to building a better future for all,” said President ReBecca Koenig Roloff ’76. “We are honored to have been able to welcome these remarkable Native women activists to St. Catherine University, which sits on ancestral Dah’kota homelands. The wisdom they shared is important in our journey together working toward dismantling these unjust systems."
“Diversity is all of us," says Student Senate President Audrey Kudzai Mutanhaurwa ’22, who facilitated the conversation between the panelists. "It’s about having to figure out how to walk through this world together.” Mutanhaurwa and Student Senate played key roles in developing the event, with Tomi Ola ’23, Morgan Batiste-Simms ’22, and Sydney Johnson ’22 presenting a land acknowledgment and facilitating audience questions.
"Indian rights are human rights"
Ropati discussed the discrimination she faced growing up in Anchorage, and how it only strengthened her determination to make life better for young Native people coming of age after her.
“One of the things we’ve always known was discrimination,” Ropati said. “In the classroom, from preschool to high school, we always faced things where our intelligence was questioned.”
Though she said classmates told her “that my people were homeless and biologically destined to be alcoholics,” Ropati excelled in school. Now an undergraduate studying civil engineering and anthropology at Columbia University, she works to help build stronger pathways to higher education for Native students. “I do this work because I don’t want my younger siblings to go through what I had to in order to get to where I am today,” she said.
Growing up in the foster care system, Charger shared, fuels much of their own activism and appreciation of their Indigenous roots. As Native Americans, said Charger, “Our fight begins at birth. That’s where mine began, bouncing from foster home to foster home.”
After aging out of the foster-care system, Charger found that they “did make more family in an adopted way,” they said, expressing gratitude for “the strength and love that Indigenous people have for each other.” Much of that new family grew out of their environmental activism in the Standing Rock Sioux community: “The Standing Rock community took me in.”
During an open discussion period, audience members asked the panelists a variety of questions, including, “What does meaningful allyship look like today?“
“Give us the opportunity to tell our own story,” answered Pike.
Ropati agreed, emphasizing the importance of white and other non-Indigenous allies respectfully stepping back and giving Native people space to speak. “It is okay to listen to us!” she said. “Just learning to be quiet and step back is something allies can do.”
As the panel wrapped up, Kunesh stepped to the microphone with a smile. “My heart is just pounding,” she said, turning to the three young leaders sitting onstage. “Thanks for sharing your experiences, your passions, your advocacy.”
Then Kunesh faced the audience. “Indian rights are human rights,” she said firmly. “On International Women’s Day, it is so important to recognize that Native folks are here because our women persevered. You need to fight back with us, allies.”
- The REDress Project at St. Kate's
- Panel of local Indigenous people discuss Native American Food Sovereignty
- Holistic Health Studies alumna offers Indigenous practices for healing at Native American Community Clinic