A native of Wadsworth, Thomas is part Northern Paiute, part Western Shoshone and part Hopi. As a college student, she took a class in native languages and discovered an appreciation for learning the customs, dress and beliefs of her people. In studying her own world, many others have opened up to her.
“I never would have thought I’d have the opportunities I have had because of sharing my language and culture,” she said.
One of those opportunities was traveling to the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium, held in Cuzco, Peru, earlier this month. She traveled there as one of 15 Native American ambassadors, meeting with educational and cultural affairs leaders in Peru and with representatives of other indigenous peoples from around the globe.
One of the issues that was discussed while she was there was the contrast between how the indigenous Peruvians and indigenous Americans carry their heritage.
“These people won’t even claim their ancestry because they wouldn’t be allowed to sell their stuff in the street and will be discriminated against,” Thomas said. “I see all our struggles here and then see how far behind they are (in Peru).”
Native Americans such as Thomas have found the strength to be proud of their heritage, and one of the things she found striking was the inability of some native peoples to embrace their cultures in their home countries. Thomas said she saw shadows of her own people’s past in the current lives of the indigenous people of Peru, who currently are struggling with acceptance and human rights just as Native Americans did when Europeans came to North America.
Some of the native Peruvians were anxious to see and speak with the Native Americans, possibly looking for clues as to how they might better their own situations. During a bus ride to Lima, the group Thomas was traveling with went an hour out of its way up into the Andes Mountains to visit with people from a town who wanted to see them. The Peruvians held a special ceremony for them and showered their guests with food and gifts.
“These people are so poor but you’d never know it,” Thomas said. “They give all they have.”
Thomas said she also learned that some poor native peoples of Peru work as a community to send some of their young members to receive an education. One such young student would have to travel great distances by boat and air to return to his community in the Amazon, Thomas said. The people of the village support the single member’s education and, after their education is complete, it is the duty of the student to support four people back home, Thomas said.
Thomas found motivation and inspiration for her own goals from the determination of the people of Peru. She plans to become an orthodontist and take her services back to rural Nevada. Though free dental care is offered on reservations, she said, the waiting can be horrendous — sometimes as long as a year to receive basic care. This is in part due to people flooding the Reno clinic because services in rural areas have been cut in the struggling economy. Thomas said she hopes to offer her services in the outlying areas, thereby doing her part to help restore service to her own people.
“Just because you come from a small reservation doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” Thomas said.