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Institutional Discrimination Against Indigenous Culture

Dwanna L. Robertson
3/13/13

“There is no better place for a vibrant Indigenous and Cherokee Studies program than NSU, which serves as a monument to the intellectual history of the Cherokee Nation.” — Wilma P. Mankiller, “Memo to Dr. Don Betz,” January 19, 2010.

During the Spring 2013 semester, Oklahoma’s Northeastern State University (NSU) cancelled three 1-hour-credit college courses based on Indigenous culture: Stickball, Maskmaking, and Storytelling. According to internal sources, the Department of Languages and Literature Chair, Dr. Audell Shelburne stated these classes do not have the educational merit necessary for college credit. The Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Dr. Phillip Bridgmon apparently agreed with Shelburne.

Yet, Billiards, Ballroom and Western Dancing, and Ceramics have enough educational merit to remain in NSU’s curriculum schedule.

NSU began in 1846 as the Cherokee National Female Seminary, 61 years before Oklahoma reached statehood in 1907. Located in Tahlequah, Cherokee Nation’s capital, NSU serves nearly 9,000 students annually and boasts a 30% rate of Indigenous students. Its alumni list includes Miss America Shawntel Smith (1996), American Idol winner Carrie Underwood, and Kimberly Teehee who currently serves as the senior policy adviser for Native American affairs for President Obama.

I questioned Director of the Center for Tribal Studies, Dr. Phyllis Fife, about the cancellations. Fife couldn’t speak specifics, but said, “Overall, if classes are canceled, they are generally cancelled on low enrollment. We are a small state, regional college suffering like everyone else across the nation with the economics of the time.” Yet, according to two professors, one college adviser, and three students, at the time of the cancellation, Stickball, Maskmaking, and Storytelling all had full enrollments. Financially, Indigenous culture classes are more sound than the not-cancelled Euro-American culture classes with non-capacity enrollments like Walking for Fitness (10 out of 25 spots filled) or Sculpture I (7 out of 15).  Guest lecturers and Elders who teach the classes usually do so for free, even though students pay college tuition and fees to take the classes.

Fife extolled NSU’s state accreditation of the Cherokee Education BA. Due to NSU’s efforts, Fife said the Cherokee language is now classified as a “world” language, not a “foreign” language, and is offered “in lieu of” a foreign language requirement. But NSU also cancelled its Cherokee Language Immersion II class this spring via a written communication from Shelburne, along with his promise of more cancellations of Cherokee courses to come. Cancelling classes at the last minute harms students and their ability to graduate in a timely manner. Immersion II was eventually reinstated (after being offline for a week). One student complained, “By that time, most of us had already gone on to other classes.”  

Native American Literature II—a required sequential course for Cherokee Cultural Studies BA—was also cancelled this spring. Its scheduled teacher, NSU Assistant Professor Kimberli Lee (Hunka-Lakota) confirmed she was re-assigned to teach English Comp I. Interestingly, NSU hired an adjunct to teach American Literature II, whereas English Comp I is a basic class that any English adjunct could teach. Why demote the Indigenous Assistant Professor?

How does a college, originally founded as an Indian school, cancel classes based on Indigenous culture, but keep equivalent classes that reflect Euro-American culture? These decisions are not made in a bubble. Some propose NSU’s administration, consisting of predominantly white men with no ties to Oklahoma, cannot understand the significance of culture in Indian Country.

Cancelling Indigenous culture classes, without prior notice and explanation, does suggest that Shelburne and Bridgmon might not realize the immense disrespect they’ve shown to Indigenous Elders and Community Leaders, who volunteer their time, talents, and expenses to teach for free for NSU.  Can NSU discern the breach in relations such actions cause? When so few Indians serve as college administrators, these judgment calls may always go against Indigenous cultures.

NSU’s Assistant Director of Communications and Marketing, Jennifer Lynn Zehnder, states NSU employs approximately 1700 faculty members (including adjuncts).  When asked how many Indigenous faculty NSU employs, Zehnder didn’t know. This seems odd since NSU readily boasts about its 30 percent Indigenous student body.  Three different sources verified that NSU employs only 11 Indigenous faculty members. Most Native folks employed by NSU are grounds keepers and other support workers. Zehnder is unaware of any discrimination issues, but states the Center for Tribal Studies plans to offer sensitivity training to faculty, staff, and students in the future. 

These few instances are but a tip of the iceberg of the discrimination Native people face in academia. Indigenous faculty, staff, and students are left without voice to protest because if they do, there’s an underlying threat of degree, job, or tenure loss. Several professors maintain that attempts to discuss institutional discrimination at NSU results in being treated dismissively by the administration. One source said, “It’s the same old story: White people know best about what’s good for Indians.”

If true, how can NSU take advantage of all that the Cherokee Nation offers yet treat its students so poorly? How do you market yourself as “Indian-friendly” in an environment that seems anything but to Native faculty?

*My calls to Dr. Shelburne and Dr. Bridgmon were not returned.

Dwanna L. Robertson is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, writer for ICTMN, and a public sociologist.

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Two Bears Growling's picture
There again, these snakes show just what they STILL think about our people! The best way to deal with this is through boycotting anything this institution promotes. Boycott through your wallet. Don't enroll or allow our people to have their tuition paid for IF they STILL choose to attend there. That's the best way to let these places know we know what they are up to whether or not they admit their wrong. We need our OWN colleges where our cultures & our interests will be taught to people. Until we completely have control of & build our own teaching facilities, schools, etc., our ways will never be fully implemented to the degree they could be: From preschool through university education. Make that dream come true, people in Indian Country. Show your sincerity with your wallet open or checkbook writing those checks. I know we have some VERY wealthy individuals & tribes out here. Show ALL you are proud of your Native American roots! Hoa! Now lets see this dream achieved in our lifetime!
Two Bears Growling
Anonymous's picture
Dwanna, they do have stickball, Maskmaking, and Storytelling. NSU forget to tell you they moved it to the anthropology department, under ethnographic and archaeology. Its called the Study of Amerinds.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I'm Cherokee and I would just a soon see my own children, nieces, and nephews go elsewhere. Not only because of the above, but because NSU has become academically weak in general.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
In an email, I was recently accused by Dr. Bridgmon of *poor journalism* because he claims that he was never called and that I've got everything wrong. First, it would be helpful for him and others to know that I'm not a journalist. I'm a public sociologist. I call attention to societal patterns of inequality and injustice, and then call for positive social change. But Dr. Bridgmon believes that I'm a liar and I'm wrong about these things I'm "supposedly lying" about. Actually, I called both Dr. Bridgmon and Dr. Shelburne and even complained to the other people I cite in this article that neither the dean nor the chair had called me back. They had plenty of time to do so--approximately 3 weeks, in fact. Why lie? That being said, I did not even touch the tip of the iceberg with this story. I have loads of documentation from all parties involved--students, administrators, faculty, community members--that all say the same thing. I spoke with so many people. White culture is ALWAYS privileged over Indigenous culture, which for me isn't the problem because that happens daily all across the US. Furthermore, I'm not a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. I'm Mvskoke and a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. This isn't some personal vendetta. This is about the welfare of our Indigenous students and faculty--no matter their tribal affiliation. For me the problem is that NSU-OK capitalizes on the fact that it's Indigenous student population is high, but seems to hire people in power who have NO idea about Native culture or the history of NSU or Oklahoma, in general. They promise and promote one thing, but do something else! They're in the capital of the 2nd largest Indigenous Nation and it seems that they could care less about hiring Indigenous faculty. NSU-OK is clearly disconnected from cultural respect and the ideas of decolonization. So, I don't care that I'm being called a liar. I really care (like stated above) that NSU takes advantage of ALL that the Cherokee Nation offers yet treats its and the CN's students so poorly. It markets itself as “Indian-friendly” in an environment that seems anything but to Native faculty, families, and students. I hope the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and all of you care as well.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Good investigative reporting piece.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I am a Native faculty member at NSU. Things are bad. So much so in fact I have resigned my position.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
This is very disappointing.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Although I have no idea what documentation you might have, you don't have any quotes or information directly connected to the Cherokee Program Instructors themselves? The office is located in the same building as the dean, chair, and Native Literature professor. I'm curious as to whether they themselves feel the way that you do about the 'discrimination' that seems rampant at NSU. I am a Native student and part of the Cherokee Language Program and while I see issues that are continually being addressed, I see similar issues with most of the programs NSU has to offer.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
If the storytelling, mask making, and stickball classes are still available then they failed to inform the students who were originally enrolled. I was enrolled in all 3 classes and they helped make up my full time status this spring semester. I'm a Cherokee woman and have never had the opportunity to take advantage of indigenous classes at NSU before so I was really looking forward to these. I was informed 2 days after the add date, the date to add classes, that these classes were cancelled and I had to drop them. I spent the next 2 days scrambling around, making calls, and visiting professors to try to get in to a 3 hour course so I could keep my full time status. I attend NSU on a scholarship, so I have to be enrolled full time. If the classes were cancelled before the semester started, why was I not notified until 2 weeks later when I could no longer add classes?
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Shelburne is an awful person. Check out his history of sexual harrasment and sexual liasons with undergraduate students at his former university in TX. I can't believe Northeastern made him Department Chair. He is not even smart or well-published.
Anonymous

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