Woman Warrior

Named Activist-in-Residence by University of Oklahoma’s Center for Social Justice, Sarah Adams-Cornell and a diverse cohort of demonstrators ask fellow Oklahomans to dig a little deeper.

interview by Tyler Barron

Since publishing this interview with Sarah Adams Cornell in Issue #5, she and her community of activists have accomplished so much. In August of 2018, after two rejections by the state Board of Ed, the Sovereign Community School was approved as a charter school. It's expected to eventually serve 500 Oklahoma City students, from sixth through 12th grades. Two months later, after determined work by many, Oklahoma City joined many other cities by replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day. Some claimed both would never happen in Oklahoma, despite one of the largest Native populations in North America, yet here we are. And it's about time.

All of North America is facing a cultural sea change, and Oklahoma is a part of that much larger conversation about race and equality thanks to engaged folks like Choctaw citizen Sarah Adams-Cornell. Named Activist-in-Residence by University of Oklahoma’s Center for Social Justice, Adams-Cornell and a diverse cohort of demonstrators ask fellow Oklahomans to dig a little deeper.

Tell me about your approach to activism. 

It always starts with a need. Somewhere someone has been hurt or is experiencing some kind of injustice. Traditionally, when (Native peoples) lived together, if there was somebody hungry or grieving a loss, (the) community would lift those people up. You can always find a way, regardless of your skills or gift, to help others—this was taught to me. Stepping outside of your comfort zone is essential.

Does being a mother affect your activism? 

Definitely. First, you have joy through these phenomenal little people. Children recognize when injustice is happening and they are not afraid to talk about it. When there is someone on the street corner, their natural reaction is to give, not to look away. They keep you accountable. I’m from a matrilineal tribe, so the leadership is in our women. We are life-givers and responsible for making sure that there is equality in the tribe. For example, when your child is being taught horribly inaccurate things about Native people, your mother-bear instincts kick in and say, “This is wrong; we have to correct it.”

photo by Bo Apitz

Why are Native mascots seen as such a divisive thing?

I understand it’s a hard topic, but it starts with the fact that…Native people have been marginalized. (Without) a seat at the table, they have never been heard. Ingrained racism started generations ago, and when it becomes normalized, people stop understanding why things are offensive. It’s not because they were never offensive.

Countless studies have shown mascots and Columbus Day are harmful to Native children’s self-worth and feelings of inclusion. 

The fact that we have youth with suicide rates twice the national average—it all connects. Thankfully, we now have concrete data that backs up these claims and support from the White House, both of which say, “Yes, these are contributing factors to the success of our kids…. It doesn’t matter anymore what you think about it; it’s harming them and now we have to act on this.”

What do you believe is the biggest misunderstanding for mascot supporters? 

Some say, “You’re too politically incorrect and this country is falling away to all of this sensitivity.” However, PC and social justice are two totally different things...there are actual lives being impacted, and a lot of them are children. There is no reason (for it) when it is within your power to do something good.

What do people need to know about Columbus Day and efforts to have it changed to Indigenous People’s Day, especially locally?

They picked the wrong guy, and the Italian-American population deserves better. I learned one of our (City) Council members was open to hearing about Indigenous People’s Day. Media already had been talking about it. We thought, “Now is the time to open up this conversation.” (OKC City Council) had nothing to lose. There was not one person who came to argue for Columbus Day. City Council mentioned (changing the holiday) was divisive. How is Columbus Day not divisive? He was the father of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade….

photo by Bo Apitz

Native mascots are finally being rejected in the most progressive cities. Why now? 

We are a minority; we are the original people of this continent and a respect has to be shown. We are finally starting to see that. Communities of color are strong enough and feeling empowered. The digital age—the fact that we can share information quickly and a lot of our communities were isolated before—gives us hope. We can share information on how (to) accomplish the same mission. You can turn away, but unless you’re living under a rock, you are going to hear what’s happening. When someone comes to you and says “this is hurting me and my people,” and you say “that’s not my problem,” that’s a major problem.

Lead photo by Brittany Phillips.