At the first joint meeting between UC Berkeley’s Native American Theme Program and the Afro House cooperative, writer and filmmaker Gyasi Ross led more than two dozen students in a discussion about history shared by the two cultures and strategies to respond to injustice.
Ross and the students talked about the way cultural controversy can play out on college campuses, citing a 2012 play by the campus department of theater, dance and performance studies about Ishi, a Native American who was an object of study at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology beginning in 1911. The play sparked backlash from the Native American community, prompting the department’s then-chair Peter Glazer to issue an apology.
African American and Native American/Alaskan Native students constitute two of the smallest minority groups on campus, representing 3.4 and 0.7 percent of the total freshman enrollment in fall 2012, respectively, according to campus enrollment data.
Ross — self-described as a “rez boy,” meaning he grew up on a Native American reservation — challenged students to ask difficult questions about identity and the need for social change. Instead of fomenting revolution, students should be engaging in frank cross-cultural discussions, Ross said.
His motivation comes from wanting to speak for what he calls his underserved and underrepresented community and hoping to influence others to do the same.
“I don’t just want one of me. I don’t want five of me. I want a million mes,” he said. “I think together we can move mountains.”
After the event, students noted the importance of having Ross and other speakers provide spaces where students can discuss issues of race and culture, especially so those students can learn about potentially offensive behavior.
“We have had a lot of problems with negative cultural appropriation over the last year,” said Kashawn Campbell, a UC Berkeley sophomore and Afro House resident who attended the event. “We need to have more spaces like this where people get together from all different backgrounds, because this is the eye-opener for people.”
In addition to his talk, Ross screened a short film called “Universal VIP,” for which he was a co-director and co-executive producer, based on his short story, “Unworthy.” The comedic film features a style Ross described as “Indian humor” focuses on a Native American woman who yearns to have a child but can’t because she is barren.
The film will be screened at the American Indian Film Festival on Friday night in San Francisco.
“It really showed a modern side of Native American culture that you don’t normally get to see in widespread native films that make it out to the public,” said UC Berkeley freshman Karina Redding, who is a member of the theme program and of the Choctaw tribe.
Contact the Jose Hernandez and Michelaina Johnson at [email protected]