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Speaker puts students in touch with heritage

Native American Heritage Month 2014
During the speaker event for Native American Heritage Month, there were also tables displaying items from Taíno culture, such as the blanket, necklaces and maracas seen here.

Many students attending Dr. Monika Ponton-Arrington's presentation on the University of North Georgia's (UNG) Gainesville Campus left with a thirst for more information about their heritage and a better understanding of Native Americans.

Ponton-Arrington is executive liaison of Indigenous Affairs-North American Division for the Interfaith Peace-Building Initiative to the United Nations in New York, and is a descendant of the Taíno culture. She spoke in honor of Native American Heritage Month, an event that she said is often overlooked at a time of year filled with holidays and events.

Molina and Ponton
Ryan Molina and Dr. Monika Ponton-Arrington.

"I wanted to speak to students because not many people know about Native American Heritage Month. I chose to speak with them about the history and misconceptions of Indians and who we are," Ponton-Arrington said. "Many of the students in attendance were of Latino heritage, so they could identify with some of these groups when I painted the differences between Spanish and indigenous peoples. For example, the words iguana, maraca and huricán (Spanish for hurricane) are not actually Spanish words — they are from the Taíno, an indigenous people of the Caribbean."

Ponton-Arrington said many students approached her after the presentation with questions about tracing the history of their own families. She also talked about Columbus and the conquistadors, and the progression of Native American culture in the U.S.

"I explained the true history of Columbus and the conquistadors," she said. "Many of the students were unaware of the extent of the violence exhibited by these groups against the natives they encountered. I also pointed out to the students that Native Americans are the only group in the U.S. required to have a card confirming their heritage if they wish to be identified as Indian. Overall, the event was about raising awareness, and I was gratified to hear many students expressing their wish for me to spend more time speaking or to come back."

Ponton-Arrington was invited by UNG student Ryan Molina, a sophomore communications major with Taíno and Lakota heritage. Molina is an advocate for Native American culture and indigenous sovereignty, and frequently participates in pow-wows around the state and the nation.

"These meetings are about preserving and spreading our culture; sometimes thousands of people show up from many different races and ethnicities," Molina said.

Molina has organized events at UNG for Native American Heritage Month for the past three years. The events have included many speakers from nations such as the Cherokee, and hands-on events such as setting up an authentic teepee.

"Through these events I hope to change perceptions to help improve our reality," Molina said. "There are many students with Native American heritage who don't feel like they should be proud or participate in these events just because they don't practice the culture. We want them to be proud of the blood they have, be it 50 percent Native American or 2 percent."

Molina, who often speaks about these topics as a member of the UNG Debate Team, has also received three awards for musical performance. He was named Debut Artist of the Year at the 2013 Native American Music Awards, and this month received the award for Best Instrumental Recording at the 2014 awards ceremony. He also was the 2013 winner of the Aboriginal People's Choice Music Awards for Best Flute CD.

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