Native students find community at NSU


“Even though I grew up hella native, I still have difficulty connecting with my … heritage because of the white supremacist idea that ‘(Native people) don’t exist anymore,’ ” said Rita Azul Huhndorf-Lima (Yup’ik), and co-leader of the Berkeley High School Native Student Union (NSU). 

The NSU was founded last year but many of its members graduated in the spring, leaving only Huhndorf-Lima and her co-leader Emiliano Santana-Thoele to continue the club this year.

“The sheer size of the school … makes it difficult to find each other, but I think the only thing we can do is just expand bit by bit by bit,” Huhndorf-Lima said. “And … let Native people around the school know that we’re here as a community.”

Huhndorf-Lima and Santana-Thoele have done just that, slowly building their club one member at a time this year. 

One of these new members is Jack Ibanez (Luiseño), a sophomore. They shared that the NSU has helped them connect to their heritage and culture. 

“Before I joined, compared to my cousins that grew up on reservations, I didn’t feel Native enough,” Ibanez said. “But being in this group made me feel a lot better about trying to get back in touch.”

During the NSU’s weekly meetings, members have conversations about their experiences, do research and create art. 

“I … want to learn more about my peoples’ history and other tribes’ cultures,” Ibanez said. “We haven’t had that much education about Native history that wasn’t super romanticized. I want to be able to teach people what they missed out on.”

Huhndorf-Lima also mentioned education, saying that history classes should include more information about Native people, as well as recognizing that Native people are still here, something that is often left out. 

“Ohlones, and only Ohlones, are mentioned very briefly, even though we live on their land. But they’re not the only Native people here in California whose cultures we actively intrude in,” Huhndorf-Lima said. “(Native people) are only mentioned like, ‘Oh, these people used to live here.’ Nobody used to live here. We all still live here.”

The NSU provides a sense of community and a shared space of identity for Native students.

“I think (the NSU is) a space to share a different part of yourself that is not always talked about,” Santana-Thoele said. “A place to denounce colonialism and talk about a culture that is, a lot of times, even within other brown cultures, shamed or frowned upon, and not very openly shared.” 

Before joining the NSU, neither Ibanez, Santana-Thoele, nor Huhndorf-Lima experienced having a place to share their experiences and identities as a Native person at school. All three expressed appreciation for the opportunity it had given them to connect with other Native students at school. 

Santana hopes that the NSU is a “prominent club” that is “more known and … talked about.” 

Huhndorf-Lima expressed her hope that the NSU continues welcoming space for all Native students at BHS. “I really just hope that all the Native people here can find a sense of community,” she said.