Updated: Jul 18, 2021
By Nia Brown
“I’m worried about my swimming test,” Julian NoiseCat, CC ’15, says. “Maybe you should put that at the beginning—that I am concerned I won’t graduate because I might not pass the swim test.”
When I arrived at Butler Lounge to meet the history major, Spectator editorial board member, and president of the Native American Council, he was craned over his laptop, working on his thesis. It’s about indigenous nationalist politics and culture in British Columbia in the mid-20th century; incidentally, while he was writing the thesis, his first nation (“I am from Canada, where ‘tribe’ is generally perceived to be an outdated and somewhat racist term,” he says) was in the midst of negotiating a treaty with the Canadian government. NoiseCat sees the agreement as a “bribe” that originates in colonialist legacy. He is trying to raise support against the signing, which the nation will vote on in the fall of 2015.
NoiseCat’s work led to the founding of the Special Interest Community (SIC) Manhattan House, which aspires to be “a community for indigenous students and their supporters,” in spring 2013. Here, his suitemate, Mariah Gladstone, CC ’15, says that he has license to be “just goofy and ridiculous.” Some quotes from the “Julian quote list” she keeps include, “I’m a fan of putting mission statements on things,” and— relatedly—“Hi everyone, we’re the Native American Council and we’re here to take back our land.”
NoiseCat is also committed to his first nation in Canada. He was nominated to be chief, which would have required that he live on the reservation and drop out of college. He chose to stay—working at Columbia, too, is part of his desire to “play a part in making life better for our people,” says NoiseCat. NoiseCat tried to get the administration to recognize the Lenape people and to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day.
His activism led him to his job at the Bronx public defender’s office, gathering evidence and providing assistance to those who can’t afford legal counsel. Going in, he said, he knew how “the criminal justice system has been abused to disenfranchise the poor and people of color.” He found that “even if you’re the public defender, you are still participating in the system. It’s easy to get carried away with idealisms and that sort of thing … you come to realize that, in the day to day reality of fighting for what’s right for the people you want to fight for, it’s a lot more complicated than that.”
For one project, NoiseCat interviewed a young man at Riker’s Island. The man, in his 20s, had spent a month in solitary and was facing an additional year. The interview lasted as long as prison restrictions would allow—“mostly because he didn’t want to go back to solitary confinement and, you know, I wanted to help him not go back to solitary confinement,” says NoiseCat.
The two had even talked about playing hockey, a big part of NoiseCat’s life and something the young man had once done. NoiseCat, president and captain of the Columbia University Club Hockey team, earlier had called hockey “like the least political thing I do.”
After graduation, NoiseCat hopes to eventually attend law school. In the meantime, he’ll be spending nine months at Oxford, studying Global and Imperial history with a Clarendon Scholarship and running a men’s health workshop with a friend on a reservation in South Dakota. That is, if he can pass the swim test first.