January 8, 2024
Finding Strength in Community
Growing up as a Chehalis Tribal member in the predominantly white town of Olympia, Wash., Tiera Garrety struggled to connect with her peers. She felt isolated in schools that lacked Indigenous representation, and her grades began to suffer.
“I even got to a point where I really felt like, in elementary school, that being Indigenous was shameful. It wasn't something that I was supposed to be proud of,” she says. “It was something that I had to erase.”
Now a University of Oregon senior majoring in Native American and Indigenous studies and pursuing minors in legal studies and sociology, Garrety is working to improve the academic experiences not only of the current generation of Indigenous students like herself, but for the generations that will follow.
Although drawn to the UO for its strong Native community, Garrety was hesitant at first to major in Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS), or any kind of ethnic studies, due to the perception that it isn't a “helpful” degree.
But after considering the impact the program has on its students—including the power of seeing themselves represented in their curriculum and schoolwork—she decided to pursue the NAIS major.
“I chose it because not only was it the best choice for my physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, but it was also going to make an impact far beyond me,” she says. “It was going to show other people majoring in ethnic studies that it's not about how ‘helpful’ it is. It's about putting yourself and your community first."
A prominent figure in Native programs both on and off campus, Garrety serves as co-director for the Native American Student Union (NASU), resident assistant for the Native American and Indigenous Studies Academic Residential Community and programming team leader for the Indigenous Curriculum Alliance.
Throughout her time at UO, she has worked to increase Indigenous representation on campus, organizing powwows and awareness events.
When a “This is Kalapuyan Land” sign was defaced to read “This isn’t Kalapuyan Land,” Garrety and her friend, Marisol Peters, organized a Taking Up Space awareness event to showcase what NASU means on campus and to stress the importance of having a physical Kalapuyan land acknowledgement.
After the event, participants gathered outside to form a large prayer circle that took up most of the sidewalk.
“It was a moment of recognizing how powerful it is to have all of us together in one space, and knowing that despite facing adversity, we will always be a family, will always come back together, and we always be one there for one another,” Garrety recalls.
After graduation, Garrety plans to follow her passion for Indigenous education and curriculum development in a master’s degree program focusing on tribal governance or public policy. She’s also considering law school to later practice Tribal law.
Hearing about her younger brothers' experiences at the same schools she attended, Garrety was disappointed to realize not much has changed regarding Indigenous representation in the classroom. Preventing them, and the younger generation at large, from feeling the same pain, isolation and shame she endured is what drives her to succeed, both academically and professionally.
“I always say that they're my inspiration for everything,” she says. “They're my guiding force. They're the people that I love the most in this world.”
—Harper Wells (public relations, ’26) is a communications intern for the College of Arts and Sciences.