Aaniiih Nakoda College takes back naming rights

Feb 9th, 2012 | By | Category: 23-3: Technology and Culture, Tribal College News

In September, there wasn’t an empty seat in the meeting chambers of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council as people crowded in to witness history. “The importance of changing the name of Fort Belknap College is so we can recognize the two tribal nations that we (serve),” college president Dr. Carole Falcon-Chandler said to tribal council members. “This is an historic event for us.”

The council was asked to approve changing the name of the tribal college that has served the Fort Belknap Reservation since 1984. Identified with an old fort named for a U.S. war secretary with no ties to the area, the reservation was established in 1888 for two distinct tribes—the Aaniiih and Nakoda—which today operate under a consolidated government.

“When I travel, people always ask me about Fort Belknap, what tribe is that?” said Council President Tracy King. “Now our two tribes are present in the name change.” The newly renamed institution is Aaniiih Nakoda College (ANC, Harlem, MT).“This is a long time coming. It’s a start in the process of regaining our identity,” said council member John Allen, who is Nakoda. “It’s good to be proud of the Indian nations we represent.”

Many tribes have a history of being misnamed by outsiders, and this case is no different. The Aaniiih are the “White Clay people,” referencing the light-colored clay found along river bottoms in northern Montana. However, French missionaries mistakenly called them Gros Ventre, or “Big Bellies,” when they misinterpreted other tribes’ references to the Aaniiih as the “Water Falls People.” (In sign language, the word “waterfall” is expressed by passing one’s hand over the stomach.) Similarly, the Nakoda, or “Generous Ones,” were known as the Assiniboine, an adaptation of a Chippewa word.

When a college committee began looking at renaming the institution two years ago, faculty recognized the sense of disempowerment that occurred when Indian peoples had their own names taken away.

“They wanted to redefine us in a foreign people’s image, and part of that was through naming us,” said Sean Chandler, an American Indian studies instructor who is Aaniiih. “We had come to accept those misleading definitions … savage, uncivilized, domestic dependent nations, wards, and other names.”

Chandler spoke at a separate naming ceremony, a spiritual complement to the legal process of revising the college’s articles of incorporation. At the Ekib Tsah Ah Tsik (“Sitting High”) Cultural Center, the ceremony featured prayers by spiritual leaders Joe Iron Man and John Allen, Jr., one Aaniiih and one Nakoda.

There is a sense of reversing lost time at the college, which blends tribal culture and accredited academics. For about 200 current students, popular degree programs include health and natural resources.

The renaming day was one of celebration – with honor songs, gifts, and a community meal. The Aaniiih Nakoda College president used the opportunity to impart a lesson.

“Students, I want you to remember this (day),” said Falcon-Chandler, who is Aaniiih. “You were here when this college was named, and you can say that you were part of it.”

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