“I think since I’ve come to UConn, I’ve come in with a pretty loud voice. And sometimes it’s a voice that people don’t necessarily want to hear, but I think I’ve kind of made it my job to make sure they do hear it,” says Sage Phillips ’22 (CLAS). For her activism here on behalf of Indigenous communities, the rising senior was recently rewarded two elite national honors, the Truman and the Udall scholarships.
In April, Phillips was named one of just 62 college students across the country to win a Truman Scholarship for demonstrating outstanding leadership potential, a commitment to a career in government or the nonprofit sector, and academic excellence. A month later she became one of 55 students nationally to win scholarships from the Udall Foundation, which honors Arizona congressmen Morris K. and Stewart L. Udall’s lasting impact on this nation’s environment, public lands, and natural resources, and their support of the rights and self-governance of American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Phillips, a native of Old Town, Maine, is a political science and human rights major with a minor in Native American and Indigenous studies. She plans to pursue a joint law and graduate degree in American Indian Law after graduation. At UConn, she founded the Native American and Indigenous Students Association (NAISA) “to show prospective students that when they get here, there’ll be a place they can call home.”
For the latest episode of the Brave Space podcast series, we spoke with Phillips about her recent awards, fighting against Native mascots in Connecticut, and why she thinks UConn should join the University of Maine in making reparations to Indigenous students through tuition reimbursement.
Lisa Stiepock: Hi, my name is Lisa Stiepock, and you're listening to Brave Space, the platform for honesty and presence, where we invite diverse perspectives on how the University and our society can do the work of becoming a truly welcoming environment — not just on paper, but in practice. Today, we're talking to rising senior Sage Phillips who has been a champion of indigenous rights from the moment she stepped foot on campus. She's a native of Old town, Maine, a political science and human rights major who has been recognized recently with two highly prestigious national awards, the Truman and Udall scholarships. Sage, only a handful of students across the country get those awards. Why do you think they chose you?
Sage Phillips: Well, thank you for the wonderful introduction. I'm not fully sure. I think I'm still trying to process that myself and just let it sink in a little bit. But I think since I've come to UConn I've come in with a pretty loud voice. And sometimes it's a voice that people don't necessarily want to hear, but I think I've kind of made it my job to make sure they do hear it. So I don't know. I guess they must've seen something. I think my applications and my passions are pretty unique and especially being at UConn — I don't think I've come across anyone with the same particular interests and goals that I have. I think most of all, it was all for my ancestors. And I think my ancestors were with me and that really pulled me through the competition.
Lisa Stiepock: You've mentioned that it's your father and grandfather in particular who give you that sense of heritage as so important. How does that sync up with the things that you've accomplished?
Sage Phillips: I think I really center myself in community. From a young age, being raised in the Penobscot culture and among the Wabanaki people, you always go at things with a sense of community and selflessness, and that's just how I've been raised.
So the scholarships really, I guess my name is on them, but they're not for me. They're for the future generations and ancestors to come. That's what my work is really centered in. I think my grandfather has really instilled that in me. I've kind of grown up learning everything I know about my culture from him and my dad. They've always told me you're here because of the ancestors and they're the reason you have the opportunities you do. So carry that with you. I feel like not a lot of people have that understanding. My culture has definitely given me that.
Lisa Stiepock: You told me a while ago that you knew, even before coming to Storrs, that you would have that loud voice and that you wanted to create more opportunities for Native American students. One of the things you did was found the Native American and Indigenous Students Association. What has that done?
Sage Phillips: NAISA was born out of NACP. NACP is the Native American Cultural Programs. I knew we had a lot of students who identified as Indigenous. So there's, you know, there's the distinction between Native American and Indigenous, which I won't get into, but we needed a space where those students feel comfortable and NACP wasn't necessarily completely inclusive to them, or at least it is, but they didn't feel like it was just because our title lacked it.
So NAISA was born and we had students coming from all over and it was amazing. The response was just unreal and unprecedented. NAISA is just a place where we can all gather and share culture, traditions, history, but also we welcome allies and people who just want to learn a little bit more about where we come from and our very diverse backgrounds.
This year was our first year with NAISA. It's very new. And at the end of it, all our students came forward and they said, thank you for giving us a place on campus where we can feel comfortable in sharing who we are and we can also just be in community. I mean, the biggest thing about being Indigenous, to me anyway, is having a community where you can share what you know, and maybe what you don't know. A lot of us are still reclaiming our cultures and our Indigenous identities, and the students were just very appreciative for the opportunity to have a space where they can do that, especially at a place like UConn. So NAISA has really been something this past year, and I'm glad that it was successful, and we'll definitely be moving forward this fall.
Lisa Stiepock: Do you think it makes sense to maybe share with us the difference between Native American and Indigenous?
Sage Phillips: So Native American a lot of times refers to the people indigenous to North America. For instance, we have people in NAISA who don't use the term Native American because they're not from North America or their peoples aren't from North America. So a lot of the times you find they prefer Indigenous, which is more comprehensive. But I will say anytime that you refer to us, you'll find that we prefer our specific tribe or our specific clan or people. It's the most respectful and it makes us feel appreciated because these terms are kind of generalized. A lot of times people have this misconception that we're just Native Americans across the country, but really our cultures are very diverse across each tribe, each people. And just one recommendation, you know, I would never feel offended if someone asks, “what is your tribe and then they refer to me as that. That's like the most respect you can give. So I hope that clears that up a bit, but it's really just a preference thing and where you come from
Lisa Stiepock: That's very helpful. You’re Penobscot, right?
Sage Phillips: Yeah.
Lisa Stiepock: You are working on a project right now gathering data about the seven local tribes that UConn obtained its land from. What would it mean for UConn to provide reparations for those whose land it occupies?
Sage Phillips: So the project itself is assessing the land UConn occupies, but also how UConn came about getting this land. We're going through the Morrill act and allotment data. We're also looking into the tribes that were affected when, for instance, all of UConn came about because of the land theft from tribes in the West. And they were allotted this thing called script. And that's how they exchanged for the land. So the project is very wide in scope.
I talked about reparations a lot in my Truman policy proposal, actually. And I think the first way we can come about it is tuition waivers. We need to get more Native and Indigenous students into higher education. Start with tuition waivers. I come from Maine and the University of Maine does just that. So it's not impossible, you know, it happens elsewhere.
Lisa Stiepock: I was hoping you could talk a bit about the efforts you're involved in to ban American Indian sports mascots in Connecticut. that's important to you personally, right?
Sage Phillips: Yeah. So I attended a predominantly white high school. They used to be the Indians and it was changed to the Coyotes. That happened 20 years before I even entered. And I still lived the negative repercussions that these mascots carry. There's this big mural left behind in the gym. Kids would pick at me and poke at me and say, “Well, you don't look like that. So you're not Native yourself.” And I think that really speaks to what these mascots do to us, especially as Native youth. It's now our duty to reclaim a lot of our culture and that's just, that's harmful to the whole process. People told me, “Oh, I wish we were still the Indians, we'd have so much more school spirit at football games. And I said, “Well, what does that look like?” They said, “Oh, just imagine us with like tomahawks. And we could wear headdresses to the football games and my response every time is, “Would you have any other race or ethnicity, any other group of people as your mascot? Would that be deemed okay?”
And everyone always just, you know, they get kind of quiet, and I'm like, “So what makes it okay for us? And they're like, “Well you know, it already happened?” Yeah, but we're trying to undo that. You have to listen to the people who actually belong to these groups and value and respect their voices.
Maine became the first state in the country to ban the use of Native mascots. And I hold that really close to me because my tribe put a lot of effort, a lot of work into that. Cousins of mine really invested their time in making sure that this happened. And I wasn't necessarily super involved in Maine, but when I came to UConn I knew I wanted to carry on that fight myself.
I actually just submitted a letter to I think it was North Haven. They still have the mascot, so I tried to guide them in the right direction. I've written quite a few letters now. It's an important fight and it's a fight that I think is valuable to us as youth — demolishing stereotypes and misconceptions as we go.
Lisa Stiepock: From your perspective, what is UConn doing well when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and what do we need to do better?
Sage Phillips: I think the students do a really good job of holding the University accountable. And I think that's where the error is. You know, sometimes the University responds well to the requests and the voices of students, but at the end of the day, it shouldn't be the responsibility of the students to be holding the University accountable. If they're going to rely on the students to hold them accountable, I think they need to invest in the students and really listen to what they have to say. And it can't be done in the form of damage control , you know, I think a lot of times we have these bias incidents happen on campus and the University sends out an email and, to me and others that I've been in conversation with, that looks like a form of damage control. Recently the University has done an okay job at holding students accountable in these incidents. But I think, for me, it all comes back to community and the University needs to invest in student communities and really build relations with them. It just comes down to investing in student voices, like I said, and hopefully the University finds itself at a point where they can hold themselves accountable and not have the students do so.
Lisa Stiepock: Thank you. We're calling this interview series Brave space. Who do you admire as a model for bravery?
Sage Phillips: I have two, if that's okay. First and foremost, my grandfather who just exemplifies everything I want to be, ever. He has used his voice in so many different spaces, advocating for our people. That's not easy and he makes it look easy. And to me, that's bravery — to be able to put yourself in front of the federal government, especially as a Penobscot individual, is a big step, and it takes a lot of courage in my eyes.
My other role model in that sense is my cousin, Maulian Dana, who is actually our ambassador for the tribe. She led the mascot fight and she experienced a lot of discrimination and prejudice, and really trauma, in that fight. She came out stronger than ever, and she still carries this forward. She knows the risk and it doesn't seem to bother her. I try to carry that level of courage with me. She's a champion for our tribe truly, and I can only hope to be half of that one day. She is so brave in so many different arenas, but the mascot one, especially.