The University of Utah celebrated a historic night as the U's American Indian Resource Center (AIRC) recognized the contributions of some of the state's most distinguished Indigenous community members at the inaugural Native Excellence Gala on June 22.
The event hosted by the AIRC at the Cleone Peterson Eccles Alumni House on the U campus gathered “Tribal Nation heads of state, community partners and members, educators and students to celebrate changemakers and leaders who are making a positive impact on behalf of the Indigenous community.”
"The COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on our community. It also brought to our attention that there was not a signature event in Utah that celebrates the leaders and changemakers who are making a positive impact in our community," said AIRC Director Samantha Eldridge. "The Native Excellence Gala is an opportunity to reconnect with our communities and celebrate Native excellence. This is our way of honoring and thanking the award recipients for their leadership and service. We hope this event also inspires and empowers Native youth to return to their communities and reciprocate transformational change."
The gala also served as a fundraiser for the Native Student Scholarship initiative that offers financial assistance to meet undergraduate Native student tuition and fees not covered by scholarships and grants from other sources. Native Student Scholarship awardees must be enrolled at the university as full-time students in degree-seeking programs and be a Utah resident or qualify for resident tuition rates.
In all, there were 11 honorees recognized for their efforts to lead and uplift Indigenous communities statewide. Among them was Jenna Murray of the Eastern Shoshone Nation, a medical student and doctoral student who received the Changemaker award for her work to improve health equity for Native Peoples.
”My research focuses on Indigenous mothers and substance use, and using tradition as a positive thing to help people achieve sobriety and recover from substances,” Murray explained. “(Receiving this award) is a huge honor. This really is my passion and I'm lucky to have so much support behind me and be able to achieve things that I've been able to achieve over the past year.”
She hopes to be a role model for other Native students who want to pursue their goals in higher education.
Stephanie Benally (Diné) received recognition for Native Excellence in the Community, specifically as the Native American specialist in the state foster care system, where she works to recruit for Native families for Indigenous children in foster care.
“I go into the community and raise awareness that there's a need for more Native homes for kids in care right now,” she said. “It's really important that our kids stay in the Native community, so they have that connection to their culture and language.”
“I'm very honored to be recognized for the work. It's not just me, it takes everyone to come together to bring awareness of the need of more homes,” she added. “And it's also the foster parents, too, that open their homes and their hearts to take care of our kids.”
Another honoree was Calvin Crosby, co-owner of the King’s English Bookstore in Salt Lake City and a member of the Cherokee Nation, who was recognized for Native Excellence as a Community Partner. He works in conjunction with health clinics at the Navajo Nation to provide books to school-age Native children.
“When the kids come into the clinic, they get their wellness check-up and, on their way, out, they get to pick a book of their choice. We have many Native authors telling Native stories,“ he explained. “The idea is that the books are not organized the way they are in a library or in the bookstore so the kid without judgment can find the book that speaks to them.”
For Crosby, receiving recognition from his peers in the Native American community is extremely fulfilling.
“This is work that I've dreamed of doing my whole life, so to get the attention now will only further and expand the work we can do,” he said.
Other honorees included Lifetime Achievement award winner Ronald Wopsock, Patricia John for Native Excellence in Pre-K through 12 Education, Malcolm Lehi received the Knowledge Keeper award, Heather Tanana was recognized for Native Excellence in Health Equity, Faith Bowman was honored for Native Excellence at the U, Elizabeth Kronk Warner was recognized for Native Excellence in Higher Education, while Rupert Steele and Alexander Tallchief Skibine each received posthumous awards for Lifetime Achievement.