This year not only marks the 10th anniversary of the Native American Student Community Center, but also the arrival of a fresh face: Melissa Bennett, the new program coordinator.
Coming into the position, one of Bennett’s main goals is to get Native students through the doors of the NASCC and involved.
“I was a student at a university that did not have [a] cultural center,” Bennett said. “I want to provide that kind of support. Bring students, faculty, the whole community together.”
Bennett recently finished her Masters of Divinity at Marylhurst University. Her undergrad education came from Evergreen State College, and she is a member of the Northwest Indian Storytellers Association, WordCraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, and the Portland Inter-Tribal Canoe Club.
Along with her experience, Bennett’s personal background offers her a unique perspective in this new position.
“I come from two worlds,” Bennett said. “I was adopted [and] did not grow up in the Native community, but I knew I was Native American. Ten years ago [I] found my birth family—I immersed myself in their culture.”
Her ancestry traces back to the Umatilla, Nez Perce, Sac and Fox nations.
Last August, Bennett finished a one-year post-grad residency at Oregon State Hospital in Salem. Part of her work with patients, 10 percent of whom were Native American, involved sweat lodges and group sessions aimed at resolving historical trauma.
“She has both the experience and skills,” Dessa Salavedra, a junior who has been working at the NASCC since last year, said. “She wants to work with students, so I think she’s a great fit.”
In addition to her time spent as a healer and resource to Native peoples, Bennett is a writer. She has multiple essays and poems published, including a poem in the upcoming Yellow Medicine Review.
Part of Bennett’s work in particular is dispelling common misconceptions about Native American society.
“People talk about Native culture like it’s one singular group, but it’s too diverse and vast,” Bennett said. “There are over 500 federally recognized tribes, each its own entity, with their own language. There are state-recognized tribes, and tribes not recognized for various political reasons.”
The NASCC, located on the corner of SW Jackson and Broadway, hosts events throughout the year. The purpose of the building is to be a place where students may build community, receive assistance in support of their academic goals, and explore and develop cultural identities and intercultural alliances.
It strives to provide a home on campus where Native American, Alaskan Native and Pacific Island students find academic and social support.
The center also serves the ninth largest Native American population in the country.
The next occasion after the center’s 10th anniversary will be a Thanksgiving reconciliation, scheduled for Nov. 18. Bennett hopes this will be a forum to take a wider look at the holiday.
“There’s a way we are taught it in school—the colonizers’ version of the story,” Bennett said. “We’re going to do some dialogue. We want the Natives’ perspective, the indigenous story of Thanksgiving.”
Coordinator for Diversity and Multicultural Student Services Dean Azule added that he thought Bennett would contribute an element of planning to the NASCC.
“Working with the students and staff of NASCC, she will host some entertaining events,” Azule said. “Her presence is much in need.”