Celebrating Native American Heritage Month Throughout November
When Louis Tafoya headed off to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, he was eager to broaden his world view, which was shaped by what he calls his “urban Indian” upbringing in the Denver metropolitan area.
Many years ago, Louis’ grandparents had chosen to distance themselves from their Puebloan history and assimilate to the dominant culture—but more recently his parents wanted to reconnect with their ancestry.
His father’s side of the family has Taos Puebloan ancestry, while his mother’s side is from San Ildefonso Pueblo—both in New Mexico. Louis also has Irish, Spanish and Jewish roots.
Summertime Cultural Exploration
Louis grew up in Denver and Thornton, but in the summers, his parents took the family to New Mexico on an annual pilgrimage to participate in the Corn Dance and Feast Day with his Puebloan family members.
“These experiences gave me a new understanding of my life as someone of Puebloan descent and have really guided how I live my life,” says Louis. He chose Fort Lewis—where about 45% of the students are Native American or Alaska Natives—for the opportunity to connect with indigenous people from all over the United States.
“I wanted to study political philosophy beyond democracy and political structures, so I earned my bachelor’s degree in humanities with a primary in sociology and two secondaries in philosophy and political science.”
Finding His Way to FRCC
Louis graduated from Fort Lewis in 2014 and returned to Thornton, where he worked in retail while thinking about eventually returning to graduate school to become a mental health counselor. By 2022, he was ready to go back to school, but had switched gears, discovering an interest in information technology applied sciences.
“I’ve always enjoyed computers and came across the cybersecurity associate degree program at FRCC, which I was familiar with as a good school in the area to advance your career,” Louis says.
He started classes in spring 2023 and will graduate next year. In addition to being a student, he has a work-study position in FRCC’s IT department at the college’s Westminster campus.
A Growing Momentum
At Front Range, Louis has found a place of community for people from many different backgrounds, cultures and identities. He senses “a growing momentum” at FRCC of people seeking to understand their own identities and feeling comfortable doing so.
“I have a deeper philosophical understanding of what it means to be indigenous,” Louis says. “To me, it means being myself.”
“Colonization affected indigenous people and the propaganda created by European colonists shaped so much of how those people were treated. There were many years of horrible struggle and even now, there are juxtapositional structures of who is considered ‘Native American.’”
“But I always remind myself that this is my homeland. It is a land of refugees too, and I choose to be compassionate to people finding refuge in Turtle Island, as well as those who have made this their home over many generations.”
Cindi’s Journey of Self-Discovery
Coordinator of Career, Academic and Student Programs Cindi Stephenson says that researching her family history as an adult has conjured up many emotions: heartbreak, shock, but most of all, pride.
Her grandfather was Cherokee, raised in Oklahoma at a time when Native American children were mandated to attend Indian boarding schools in the name of assimilating them into Western culture. The trauma of being taken from his home—forced to do manual labor, abused and starved—scarred him, and he struggled with alcoholism until his life ended in homicide.
Cindi’s father had a difficult upbringing as well, but enlisted in the US Army and landed in Colorado thereafter. He met Cindi’s mother, a first-generation American with European parents, and the couple were married until Cindi was five years old. Alcoholism and other health struggles led to her father’s death in his 50s.
“I always wanted to know more about what being Native American meant, because I didn’t understand that as a young girl,” says Cindi, who graduated from Thornton High School in 1982. So, she uncovered some of the dark history of her father’s childhood and the atrocities against her ancestors. That enlightenment has been painful at times, but it’s also made her a compassionate person.
Proud of Her Heritage
Rather than dwell on the tragic parts of her ancestors’ persecution, Cindi has embraced forgiveness and chosen to share with others all of the beautiful aspects of Native American culture.
“Native American people believe they are one with the earth and when they die, they replenish the earth, and I’ve adopted that belief,” says Cindi. “I am so proud of my heritage and background and all of the good that indigenous people have done.”
“There is so much to learn from all of these tribes and how they lived. It is difficult to digest how Native Americans were treated so poorly for so long, but holding on to that hatred and anger for generations ruins people. I think we have to learn from history and try to make things better.”
Spreading the Word to Young People
A 1995 FRCC alumna herself, Cindi has worked at the Westminster Campus since 2017. She coordinates a variety of programs for students, from student clubs to the food pantry.
For 23 years, she has also worked part time as the manager of the Thornton Community Center, which is currently undergoing a complete rebuild. She now oversees The Spot, which is a safe after school hangout for youth ages 17 and under—it remains open while the community center is being rebuilt
Her message of positivity is one she shares with young people at FRCC and The Spot.
“I work around a lot of teens and children who have ancestors that struggled like mine, and I think it is so important for them to hear about the traditions and art and incredible successes of our people,” she says.
“I have so much pride in being Native American, and I want today’s children to have that too.”
November is National Native American Heritage Month
During National Native American Heritage Month, we have an opportunity to shed light on the history of indigenous people in the United States. Much of it is appalling, and much of it is inspirational. Learning and sharing the many amazing contributions of Native Americans to our country can help to heal the historical wounds of these resilient people.