Between September 2011 and September 2020, 710 Indigenous people from Wyoming were reported missing, according to a Statewide Report from Wyoming. Their names rarely made national news.
Yet on Sept. 11, a 22-year-old white woman from New York disappeared in Wyoming. The next day, Gabby Petito’s name was already making headlines. Soon, her name became known throughout the country. #JusticeForGabbyPetito trended on Twitter. The disappearance of one white woman had captured the attention of a nation.
As Denise Isom took the stage on Oct. 14 at the public opening of Cal Poly’s Native and Indigenous Cultural Center, Gabby Petito was on her mind. Isom said it took weeks after Petito’s case for the attention of the American public to shift from the publicized story of one white woman to the hundreds of stories of Indigenous people rendered invisible by American media.
The new center addresses the need for visibility and support of Indigenous people, specifically at Cal Poly. The Native American and Indigenous Cultural Center resides in the yak titʸu titʸu residence hall on Chumash land. The opening fell on the week of Indigenous People’s Day and proceeded Native Heritage Month in November.
The celebration included speeches from students, faculty and staff and the unveiling of a mural painted by an Indigenous artist that spans one wall of the center. The mural reads, “Native Knowledge.”
Isom, the Interim Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, said for weeks, she saw the news coverage of Gabby Petito everywhere. It was a matter of a couple of days before her Facebook page began to change.
“It began to be filled with posts and memes talking about the numerous— the countless— Indigenous and native girls and women who have disappeared without us knowing their names and without there being a national story to follow the case,” Isom said to gatherers at the opening of the center.
Isom said the suffering of indigenous people often goes unacknowledged, but so does the joy and pride.
“What’s also rendered invisible is the brilliance, the cultural resilience, the power, the voice,” Isom said. “I love a lot of things about this center. One of them is a physical and symbolic space to speak against the invisibility.”
Ethnic Studies Professor Lydia Heberling said that the visibility the center brings to Indigenous people matters because Indigenous people have historically experienced exclusion from U.S. society. This visibility is a good first step to invite native students onto Cal Poly’s campus, she said.
“To be able to come into a place where [Indigenous people] are welcome and included and held is power, at a place at Cal Poly especially, where they are not the majority,” she said.
The center makes native identity visible on campus, although there are still a lot of institutional and structural shifts needed to invite native students to Cal Poly, according to Heberling.
To non-native students looking to come to Cal Poly, this center signals that Cal Poly values native knowledge and native identities, Heberling said.
The Native American and Indigenous Cultural Center is the newest addition to Student Diversity and Belonging, a collective of campus resources that support diverse populations of students at Cal Poly. There are three centers for gender and sexuality. The new center will be the fourth cultural center for race and ethnicity.
Agriculture and environmental plant sciences senior Alex Reyes said when he first came to Cal Poly he felt lonely, and he felt like he didn’t have a community— he felt invisible.
However, the establishment of the center offered him a space to find a family.
“It’s just a wholesome, positive and full of love experience for me,” Reyes said.
The chair of the ethnic studies department Jenell Navarro said that this center is a dream in the making for at least the last ten years and serves as a dedicated space for Indigenous people and Indigenous scholars.
“It will make our Indigenous students feel seen and heard and loved, as they are,” Navarro said at the center’s opening. “This space is a love letter to them.”
Electrical engineering senior and president of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society Wyatt Kohler said that because the American Indian presence at Cal Poly has always been so small, he originally wasn’t aware that there was an Indigenous community at Cal Poly at all.
According to Cal Poly’s 2020 Institutional Research, 0.12% — about two dozen — of Cal Poly’s student population reported their ethnic origin as Native American.
Kohler said the fact that the center exists serves as a paradox to American ideology in the past.
“The fact that there’s even an Indigenous cultural center on campus is a sign that genocide didn’t work,” he said.
Kohler said he hopes the center serves as a beacon: people who are Indigenous can learn the joys of being Indigenous and those who are not can learn how to begin making amends.
“Having this center, it feels like it’ll be the flame that will guide all of us, and hopefully it’ll bring in more Native students who won’t have to spend time wondering where everyone is because we’re right here,” Kohler said.
Lead student assistant for the Native American and Indigenous Cultural Center and ethnic studies senior Cheryl Flores said she hopes students can come here to study and feel like they’re at home. She also said she hopes that this space will allow Cal Poly to raise important issues surrounding Native visibility on campus.
Vice president for student affairs Keith Humphrey said that student affairs is proud to add the center to the growing number of cultural spaces on campus. He said while it’s the newest effort to support Indigenous students at Cal Poly, it will not be the last.
“I know this place will be filled with laughter, tears, deep conversations, brainstorming sessions and all-nighters,” Humphrey said. “I know our students will do what they do best and make this place their home, and as they do that, we will learn from them.”
Correction Nov. 16: A previous version of this article said Wyatt Kohler was president of both the American Indian Students Association and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. Kohler is not president of the American Indian Students Association.