Syracuse University’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment (OIRA) was recently created through a merger of the Office of Institutional Research and the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment. The streamlined operation, located at 400 Ostrom Avenue, serves all members…
The Power of Being Native and the Strength of the Syracuse University Community With Lorna Rose ’11, G’21 (Podcast)
Despite growing up on Cayuga ancestral lands, one of the six nations that make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of Native Americans in New York, Lorna Rose ’11, G’21 never really identified with her Native heritage.
She was raised Italian American and always thought of her Italian roots when it came to her cultural heritage. But that perspective changed with the sudden passing of her older sister in 2020.
That loss sent Rose down a path that would lead to a spiritual reawakening, cultivating an affinity for both her Native culture and her Native heritage. From the depths of sadness, Rose immersed herself in her Cayuga culture, reacclimating and reacquainting herself with her Native roots. In the process, she rediscovered pride in belonging to the Cayuga Nation, the People of the Great Swamp.
“Being there with my sister’s kids and realizing they just lost their closest connection to their Native heritage, as one of their aunts it’s my job, my obligation and my responsibility to step up and reconnect with my heritage. Once I did, it was almost a visceral transformation. My body just felt so much more comfortable,” says Rose, who earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics and a master’s degree in communications from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
“I started to overcome a lot of the mental health issues I’ve been battling, building and growing my connection and my awareness of my connection to who I am as a Native woman, and reconnecting with my family and getting back into that community that I’d been removed from so long, being raised away from it. It was really life-changing,” Rose says.
The University community has come together during Native Heritage Month to amplify Indigenous innovation, celebrate Native communities and educate people surrounding the contemporary issues Native Americans and Native communities face.
Rose stopped by the “’Cuse Conversations” podcast to discuss her spiritual reawakening, the pride she feels through her Native heritage and culture and how the Syracuse University community helped her overcome depression and mental health issues. She also shares how she launched her own communications consulting company, Rez Communications, and why she’s eternally proud to be a Syracuse University alumna.
Check out episode 154 of the “’Cuse Conversations” podcast featuring Rose. A transcript [PDF] is also available.
01How did your sister’s funeral inspire this spiritual reawakening?
I went to her funeral, and I saw all these women that looked just like me, that looked like older versions of me or my sister. These are women I hadn’t seen since I was a little girl, because I was raised by my Italian dad and my white family. My whole life I was taught, “You’re Italian. You’re Italian. You’re Italian.” It wasn’t until the funeral that I got a stark look at, “Oh no, no. I am so much more than just Italian.”
I suddenly realized I’m part of this culture and now. I heard this quote: “Community is not just about who you claim. It’s about who claims you.” I started sending Facebook requests to all of my aunts and my cousins that I’d been separated from and culturally disconnected from for so long. They were there to greet me and welcome me with open arms. It truly felt like this needed to happen—my soul really needed that reconnection.
I’m a lifelong student so I dedicated myself to researching my heritage and my roots. I did a deep dive into where I come from, where my ancestors come from, and what I found was a strong connection to the Cayuga. I’ve always known I’m Cayuga, but what does that really mean? Who are the Cayuga? What language do they speak? I started researching how to say different things and what their language is like. It took off from there.
02What are some of the contemporary issues Native people are facing?
One of the biggest issues is the murder and disappearance of Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people. That’s an extremely important cause that not enough people are paying attention to. As a title holder in the Miss America Organization—I was Miss Finger Lakes 2009—I was a representative in multiple ways on multiple stages for this region, my home region, my ancestral land and my platform issue. The social justice issue I spoke about and advocated for during my year of service was domestic violence and sexual assault.
It was true then, and it’s still true now. One in four college women will be sexually assaulted. Now think of how very few Indigenous women we have amongst us in our communities. The representation is 1-2%, maybe, and then think how often Indigenous women get murdered and go missing. It’s highly disproportionate to the amount of us that are still here. That’s something that’s extremely important [to bring awareness to]. I’m very lucky to have survived some of the domestic and intimate partner and sexual acts of violence that have been committed against me. Many of my Indigenous cousins, sisters, moms and aunts aren’t.
03How cathartic was it for you to turn your experiences into something that could affect change when it came to your work on the beauty pageant circuit?
I truly believe my purpose in life is to serve others. The only way I can do that is to take my own experiences and find a way to turn them into a driving force for something better. That’s why I got my social work degree from Syracuse University. My senior year field placement was at Vera House. I have to give back and serve others, and part of that means I have to serve myself in the ways that honor my mind, body and spirit.
The Miss America Organization has been monumental in my growth as a person and as a professional. Recently I was emceeing the 25th annual Miss Finger Lakes pageant in Corning, New York. For the first time, we gave a land acknowledgment prior to the opening of the pageant, and I got to deliver it. I modeled it after the one that Syracuse University gives before all major events. It’s a great way to bring it all full circle. I’m using my voice in these spaces. This is how I thrive as a Native woman. This is my medicine.
04To the point that you're comfortable disclosing and sharing with our audience, what were some of the mental health issues you were dealing with, and how did the Syracuse community help pull you out from the depths of depression?
At the beginning of 2022, I was taking my third and final attempt at the Texas Bar Exam. Shortly after, I got a phone call from someone in my family regarding one of my nephews and one of my nieces, two of my sister’s youngest kids. Having grown up in a family where substance abuse and mental health abuse was rampant, this phone call was the scariest situation for me, one of my worst nightmares.
I flew back to New York to try and solve the problem as best I could, but it was a catalyst for my landslide as everything that could possibly go wrong began to go wrong. As somebody who had always managed to overcome and find a way, when I found myself in a position where I couldn’t find solutions for these problems, I didn’t know what to do. It was a blow to my spirit and affected me in ways that I don’t think I could have ever anticipated.
When it happened, I fell apart harder than I ever realized I was capable of falling apart. I’m a person who spoke out about domestic and sexual assault based on personal experiences, and when I tell you that was the darkest place I’d ever been, it was terrifying. I truly didn’t think I was going to survive.
Then, the Syracuse fan base started pouring in help and support through a GoFundMe. I was homeless at one point and all these $44 donations started coming in for an Amazon wish list of basic items, cleaning supplies and a mattress to sleep on. With everybody’s help and support, I was able to get a studio apartment in Rochester, New York, and I just tried to set up the next chapter of my life. People say social media ruins everything, but I think it depends on how you use it and when you use it this way to do good, it is one of the most beautiful things. People can find community in places that they would’ve never been able to access. I never thought that next chapter was possible without the Syracuse community.
Note: This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.