Guest speaker discusses Native American culture, current issues

By Tyra Wooten

Native American activist Sarah Adams-Cornell approached the podium wearing traditional Choctaw tribal dress and motivation in her eyes.

More than 50 attendees gathered in the University Museum Auditorium in Faner Hall on Friday evening for the Oklahoma activist’s presentation, titled “A Mile in My Moccasins: Issues Impacting Native Americans.” The discussion was the first in a series of events hosted by the university in observance of Native American Heritage Month.

The presentation covered a host of issues Adams-Cornell said continue to disproportionately affect Native Americans, including sexual violence against women, youth depression, cultural appropriation and legislative discrimination.


A member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, she cautioned those in the audience of appropriating the aspects of Native Culture as their own. As an example, she compared the practice of wearing a headdress as part of a costume to wearing a purple heart without earning it.

The sacred headdresses, she said, are made of eagle feathers to communicate certain attributes of a person, such as respect and honor.

One of the most widely used and sanctioned occurrences, Adams-Cornell referenced popular sports mascots, often employed by both franchise teams and public school districts, can also offend some Native Americans.

The use of such racial slurs and crude depictions, she said, is never OK.

“It’s incredibly insensitive and takes a group of people and dehumanizes them,” Adams-Cornell said.

Back in Adams-Cornell’s home state, she said she also collaborates with activist organizations that represent other minority groups.

“We’re seeing a lot of movement with the Black Lives Matter movement and Muslims because of what’s happening in the presidential election,” Adams-Cornell said.


She mentioned the importance of picking elected officials to pass legislation that would correct the high rate of indigenous women who are kidnapped, sold into sex trafficking or abused.

“We have to hold our legislators accountable about how they vote,” Adams-Cornell said.

One in three Native American women are raped, according to a U.S. Justice Department study. Because tribal lands operate independently of U.S. regulation, red tape kept tribal law enforcement agencies from prosecuting those who entered reservations and committed crimes of sexual violence. In 2015, a law was passed by Congress to correct what has been referred to as a loophole in the system exploited by Americans.

“White men and non-native men know they could go on reservations and rape a native woman and not be held accountable for it,” Adams-Cornell said.

She also discussed the educational system and the lack of appropriately describing struggles and contributions Native Americans have had in history. She used her daughter’s history book as one of the poor examples because of how it described the Trail of Tears.

“We have to demand that our institutions of education are offering accurate history,” Adam-Cornell said.

After the event, Marcus Abston, a graduate student in zoology who is the interim president of the university’s Native American Student Organization, said he was grateful for the conversation topics and the spread of awareness of Native American issues.

“It’s a real privilege to have her here,” he said. “She’s doing so much in the community.”

Staff writer Tyra Wooten can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @twootenDE.

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