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Student aspires to work for Native American rights

Saturday, December 8, 2007
Student aspires to work for Native American rights
Jason Graves, a political science major with a minor in criminal justice, and member of The Honors College, believes Native Americans need a champion, someone in the spotlight who is an advocate for their rights. As the president of the Native American Student Association, Graves may be that person someday.

On target to complete his undergraduate degree in 2008 – in three years instead of the typical four – he’s headed to law school next year with plans to concentrate in indigenous or advocacy law. As a lawyer, he hopes to work with the tribes to help make a difference. “They have given me funding to go to school; I would like to give back to them,” explains Graves, who is 25 percent Potawatomi Native American from the Citizen Band Potawatomi of Shawnee, Okla.

He is troubled by the challenges that Native Americans continue to face. “It’s easy for legislators to change Native American laws that pertain to us because the tribes are scattered throughout the United States,” he says. “For example, there is a bill going through Michigan Congress taking away state funding for Native American college students. People don’t know about it, so they don’t have to care about it.”

Graves has been a part of OU’s Native American Student Association since it was formed in 2006 to increase awareness on campus about the culture and heritage of Native Americans. Last year, he was the secretary and this year, he’s serving as president. The club is growing in popularity as more students, many of whom are not Native American, are drawn to the group to learn more about powwows and other Native customs.

The club’s 2007 Summer Solstice Celebration featured a basket weaving workshop and traditional reservation food such as buffalo burgers and wild rice.

Members also attend powwows throughout the state together, where they learn more about native practices and can purchase handmade wares, native materials and the four sacred herbs: sage, sweet grass, cedar and tobacco. “There’s also dancing at powwows, where people dance to tell their stories or dance for competition,” says Graves.

In addition to his work with the Native American Students Association and his studies, Graves serves on The Honors College Council as a student representative.

He recently attended a literature and law conference to help research his Honors College thesis about the Iroquois Confederacy.

“I was able to see how people perceive Native Americans and the perception of the attorneys and judges who influence Native American law in our constitution,” he says

He plans to travel to Six Fires Reservation in Canada, where the Iroquois Confederacy is still functioning with its original constitution, to continue researching his thesis. He is curious to see if the people there strictly follow it or if it’s more of a symbolic document. “I hope to see how their constitution, which hasn’t been amended in 807 years, interacts with their daily life,” he says.

While his time at Oakland University winds down, Graves knows there’s much work to be done.

“You’d be surprised how many times our spiritual elder in the organization, Allan Gabriel, is asked if we still do human sacrifices. Although we honor the old traditions, the biggest misconception is that we’re a backward indigenous people,” says Graves. “I’m committed to educating people about Native Americans. Through my career, I want to be a champion for them. I hope to make a difference.”