Courtesy Lindsay France/Cornell University Photography
Jolene Rickard, director of the American Indian Program, kicked off the program's anniversary conference on April 12.

American Indian Program at Cornell Celebrates 30 Years

Gale Courey Toensing
4/19/13

 

The American Indian Program at Cornell University kicked off a series of celebrations marking its third decade with a 30th Anniversary Recognition and Two Row Wampum Renewal Conference.

The conference took place April 12-13 at the university’s Africana Studies and Research Center and featured American Indian community leaders, scholars, program alumni, faculty and administrators, the Cornell Chronicle reported.

The conference was the first of a series of events focusing on reciprocity that will take place during American Indian alumni reunion events in June and on reclamation and renaming the program in the fall.

With the focus on reciprocity as a theme, the year-long Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign was a natural partner for the conference. The Two Row Wampum belt is the symbolic record of the first treaty between Europeans and American Indians—the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy—and forms the basis for all other treaty relationships made by the Haudenosaunee and settler colonial governments. The belt consists of two rows of purple wampum on a white background. The two rows symbolize the Haudenosaunee traveling in their canoes and the Europeans traveling in their boat. The parallel lines never touch, symbolizing that each people will travel their separate path and not interfere with the other.

Cornell University is in Ithaca, New York, the territory of the Cayuga Nation, one of the six Haudenosaunee nations, which include the Oneida, Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga and Tuscarora nations. American Indian Program Director Jolene Rickard acknowledged the university’s presence on Haudenosaunee land. “The American Indian Program recognizes that Cornell is located within the homelands of the Cayuga people, and part of our larger mission is to educate the community about this and to encourage the students to practice reciprocity,” Rickard said.

The program’s website relates that Cornell reported a population of around 300 Native students in the early 1970s. But a group of students known as the Native American Student Association argued that number was inaccurate because the university counted any incoming student who checked “Native American” in the box on an application form.

“Many who checked the box assumed that it simply asked if they were born in the U.S.,” the site says. This controversy about American Indian students on campus was the catalyst for Frank Bonamie, a Cayuga chief living in Ithaca, to contact university officials, which led to the process that eventually established the American Indian Program.

Participants at the conference reflected on the program’s history and evolution. Jane Mt. Pleasant, director of AIP for 11 of 13 years from 1995-2008, said the program “rose from the red power movement” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Seventeen American Indian students were enrolled at Cornell by 1977 and a residential center, Akwe:kon, opened in 1991.

An indigenous student survey and a conference in 1999 pointed to the need for changes in the program’s structure; for recruitment and retention; outreach; resource generation; bridging the gap with the academy; and strengthening links with a national advisory council and alumni. “We achieved an academic identity and a program identity,” AIP alumna Rebecca Moore, Ph.D. ’02, said in a Skype presentation.

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Senior Associate Dean Max Pfeffer said the program helps Cornell fulfill its land-grant mission of inclusion and “serves as a champion, working through its ‘full circle’ approach to education, to help create a holistic framework that promotes the academic success, cultural expression and personal growth of Cornell’s students.”

Cornell has offered admission this year to 41 self-identified indigenous students across 13 majors, Pfeffer said. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and American Indian Program are developing strategies to attract more American Indian students with targeted recruitment and new interdisciplinary majors such as environmental sciences and sustainability.

Other issues discussed at the conference included indigenous globalization, current advocacy, and education and environmental preservation initiatives. The conference ended with a Haudenosaunee social.

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