First Native American to win SUU homecoming royalty says she plans to be a social justice advocate

Mahala Sutherland is the first Indigenous student named Homecoming Royalty at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 21, 2021| Photo provided by Mahala Sutherland, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — As the first Native American to win Southern Utah University homecoming royalty, Mahala Sutherland said she plans to expand her role as a mentor and social justice advocate.

The first Native American student to be crowned Homecoming Royalty at Southern Utah University is Mahala Sutherland, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 21, 2021| Photo provided by Mahala Sutherland, St. George News

“In this role and everything that has come about in my path, my journey is overall being a positive role model in everyday life,” Sutherland said. “I work hard as a student, and I work hard to make sure that those I’m mentoring see me and make sure that they find themselves as leaders. It’s so important for people to have other people they can look up to.”

Sutherland served as a past president of the university’s Native American Student Association and said she hopes to create a multicultural competent campus. Through her work, she has been instrumental in arranging new land acknowledgment on campus.

“It is a statement that a committee put together at SUU that acknowledges that the school is on Paiute land,” she said. “It’s supposed to be read before major events. And it’s something that is going to be implemented.”

There are five Native American flags in the SUU student center that represent the tribal nations where students are from. The flags represent the Diné (Navajo Nation), Hopi Nation, Rosebud Lakota Sioux, San Carlos Apache and Paiute.

Mahala Sutherland is the first Indigenous student named Homecoming Royalty at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 21, 2021| Photo provided by Mahala Sutherland, St. George News

Sutherland said her passion for social justice grew after she took a modern social problems class in 2018. As someone who likes to take care of people, she said she initially attended SUU to go into nursing. Currently, Sutherland is majoring in sociology with a minor in psychology. She then plans to attend SUU’s master’s program in public administration.

Through her classes at the university, Sutherland has looked into sociological issues that affect the Native American community. During her first semester, the discussion of the mascots came up in class.

“I started looking into it more and deep-dived into sociological issues of different groups. Then I ended up just falling in love with it, and I changed my major,” Sutherland said. “But before I did that, I was told by one of the advisors of the nursing department that I should probably look into switching my major. So even though this person was supposed to be uplifting me with the first goals I had coming here, it gave me a moment to sit back and think about what I want to do.”

She decided it was crucial to come up with research for future generations, as a lot of sociology is based on white men.

“It’s a good way for representation for us to start in this particular field. So I went ahead and did that. And then I ended up falling in love with working with historically marginalized and underrepresented groups,” she said.

Personal roots

As part Wiyot, Wailaki and Diné, Sutherland’s personal background give her insight into her chosen field. She also has half Navajo and half African American siblings on her mother’s side. Her siblings on her father’s side are half Australian and half Navajo. Her older sister is Navajo.

While born in Cedar City, where her parents met when they attended the university, she grew up mainly in Gallup, New Mexico. Then her family relocated to Winslow, Arizona, where she graduated from high school.

Flags hang at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, Dec. 8, 2021 | Photo by Paul Dail, St. George News

While growing up, she said, she didn’t know much about her culture. Her parents and grandparents on her paternal side were sent to boarding schools. Sutherland’s grandfather was taken from his home in northern California and sent to a Native American boarding school in Utah. He met his future wife at the school. Then their children, Sutherland’s father and an aunt were sent to a Native American boarding school in the Window Rock, Arizona, area.

“My father doesn’t tell me too much about it. But he tells me stories here and there about how he was beaten, how they mistreated him during his time in boarding school,” Sutherland said. “He was going through a forced assimilation to be in Western culture.”

Her father and grandparents couldn’t express certain things about their culture. They weren’t allowed to speak their language or wear traditional clothing while at boarding school.

When her father attended SUU, he also faced challenges. People used to throw water bottles at him, tug on his hair, and get into fights because he was Native American, she said.

Her parents met at SUU and bonded over discussing issues they were facing being native American.

On the maternal side of her family, her great-grandmother hid in a canyon when people came to round up the children to send them to boarding schools, so she wasn’t forced to assimilate in that way, Sutherland said, adding that her great-grandmother only spoke Navajo for most of her life.

“I even have pictures of the Hogan that my great-grandma lived in,” she said. “A lot of us would go over there and stay there during the summertime.”

She said it still stings that both of her parents faced injustices.

“My parents both had to go through racism, not only in their first years of education but also in their post, post-secondary years. And they still go through those experiences today,” she said.

Recently, Sutherland said she was petted like an animal at SUU.

“I also go through people treating me like I’m less than them because of the way that I am. I’ve had to endure those things,” she said. “I’ve had to endure being treated like I was stupid. And I still get treated like that in some of my classrooms, by my peers.”

But winning the royalty at SUU allows her a larger platform to share her message of diversity and inclusion, she said and expressed gratitude for many people who came out to support her at the pageant.

“I work with a lot of different groups within the school, not just the historically marginalized groups,” she said, “but also with other groups, to overall create a multicultural, competent campus.”

Sutherland is also available to perform the jingle dress dance to showcase one of the dances of the pow wow circuit. She learned the tradition from her Cedar City Navajo relatives.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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