Indiana University Breaks the Promise

Terri Miles

Editor’s note: The following was written as an open letter to Indiana University on behalf of a committee of the people who created and maintained the programming of the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center at Indiana University. They claim IU has created the same situation that Dartmouth did by turning over the FNECC to a pretendian and they hope IU will think better of the decision as Dartmouth did.

The First Nations Educational and Cultural Center (FNECC) has been a hard fought creation over the past 11 years with many Native American students and faculty putting in thousands of volunteer hours. Time and again we were told how important diversity is to IU, how impressive our programing and efforts have been, and that people were starting to understand the need for a place like FNECC to assist with recruitment and retention of Native students. All our efforts feel like a joke---that we’ve been punched in the gut---with the selection of the new director this past May.

Who whispered in your ear, “Hire Nicky, he’s our man”? More to the point, why didn’t you hire an American Indian to be director of FNECC? We are talking about the place meant to be the hub of Native activity on campus, the place where Natives can go to feel supported and receive guidance on navigating academia so they can leave IU with a degree in hand, the home away from home that will attract Native scholars and faculty and help non-natives understand our issues.

Why didn’t you hire a director who will be able to actively recruit Natives across the country, who has fresh ideas for programming, who has a measurable track record? There were better-qualified Native applicants who have done impressive work on recruitment and retention of Native American college students. Wasn’t that the point?

Let’s take a look at some of the applicants.

Beverly Smith, master’s degree in education counseling and doctoral candidate in higher education, assistant director of the Native American House at the University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign for several years. Proven success at recruiting and retaining Native students. Wow, she is doing exactly what we want someone to do here! Uh…what was wrong with her?

<Whispered: She’s Navajo.>

Okay, how about this guy?

Ryan Comfort, master’s degree in journalism/mass communication. Worked at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in recruiting, advising, retention and curriculum development in the School of Education, and worked as an academic advisor at the University of North Carolina. Again, right in our wheelhouse!

Only a master’s degree you say? The job posting said master’s degree; didn’t even mention Ph.D. It’s customary to have a master’s degree for the cultural centers. So what was wrong with him?

< Whispered: He’s Ojibwa.>

Not sold yet? All right, here’s a local, sort of.

Davina TwoBears, master’s degree from Northern Arizona University. Fourteen years as program manager of the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department. Doctoral candidate in anthropology at IU, DJ for the Native Spirit radio show at WFHB.

She dedicated many, many volunteer hours to programing at FNECC and Native community events. She did this in between raising three terrific children, hosting the radio show, and working on that Ph.D. she’s finishing up this year.

< Whispered: She’s Navajo… Dang, them Navajos are everywhere! >

But wait, there’s more!

Dr. Sean Gantt, master’s and Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of New Mexico, postdoc at IU, dissertation on cultural preservation---and somehow manages to operate a video production company on the side. He also volunteered his time on programming at FNECC and he’s a super cool dude. This is getting repetitive; so what was wrong with him?      

< Whispered: He’s a Choctaw descendant and that’s too close to Choctaw citizenship.>

And then the confus[ed]ing applicant who won the prize. If you wanted a Ph.D., why didn’t you advertise for one? The old bait and switch?

Dr. Nicholas Belle, master’s degree in anthropology and newly minted Ph.D. in anthropology from IU. His dissertation was on bustles. He likes powwows…a lot…beads better than your auntie. He volunteers for the IU Traditional Powwow.

Uh…the Powwow’s not going to happen this year. Not sure why, but if you’re going to do something that requires cooperation and goodwill you probably want to lie low for a while after pulling a stunt like getting hired as the director of a Native cultural center.

<Empty Space>

WAIT! Did you think he was Indian? That empty space up there is for real.

Now we’re starting to understand how our ire could be confusing. “Vice President and Dean James Wimbush (left) walks with Lakota and IU Bloomington Anthropology graduate student Nicholas Belle and Belle's daughter Tamsin.” You could have been under the impression he was Lakota. Dang…wouldn’t want to be the person(s) that whispered Nicky’s sweet nothings in your ear!

(Psst, if you ever need to know who’s Indian or not we can connect you to the proper Identity Police.)

The DEMA news is so blatant. Three pictures of Nicky Belle with him named as Lakota and you wouldn’t know that one of our committee is the woman who gifted you the blanket. You wouldn’t know because there’s no caption with her name and real citizenship listed. She has a card if you’d like to see it. Awkward.


So let’s recap. Nicholas Belle is (self?) identified as Lakota. He has the regalia; he dances so keen; he beads so pretty---and he claims he created the IU Traditional Powwow out of the ether. He hangs out on the Rez and he works with the language. Check, check, check those self-representation boxes.

You thought he represented us. How could you not? We let him stand in front of us, dance at your side, and speak with authority on who we were. But what should we have done? We liked him, he’s fun and his kids are so dang cute.

But, Nicky was playing Indian. Lots of people do it. The problem we have with this is you’re giving him our cake to eat. Nicky doesn’t intimidate anyone by his mere presence. He is allowed to sit at the big boy table, talk, and be heard. No one is worried he’s going to start an Idle No More protest over treaty rights, ancestral remains (there are currently over 5,200 remains still waiting to be repatriated at IU), lack of Native faculty, the abysmal Native recruitment/retention/graduation rate at IU, or the racism/microagressions that we face daily.

He did not grow up Ndn, does not live as Ndn, and his risk of being murdered/disappeared/raped/incarcerated/shot by police like too many Ndn’s is much, much lower. He doesn’t have to balance academia and his community because you gave him ours.

Sadly, in hiring him you broke the promise. You know, the one you made to bring equity to the Division of Equity and Multicultural Affairs. Every other culture center on campus is run by someone who is a member of the group it represents. You broke the promise by letting a bait and switch hiring happen to us…again.

You broke the promise by letting Nicky appropriate a leadership position for which he is not qualified, a leadership position in which he will become the voice of Natives on campus. He did this through his connections and the social capital with which he was born. Through playing Indian. Through ignoring everything we have ever talked about as a team. If you keep him in our house as “leader” you will break our house.

This may seem trivial to you, but we wonder who will gift an eagle feather to Natives when they have earned their degrees? Not that it's happened yet, but we were hoping one day. It can’t be Nicky, because non-Indians cannot acquire or possess eagle feathers by law. So the choices are that a real Indian acquires an eagle feather and slips it to the guy who is playing Indian leader or Nicky pulls a turkey feather off his regalia and assumes that will pass as easily as he does.

Terri Miles is a Muscogee (Creek) citizen, Sac & Fox family member, and Seminole descendant. Born and raised in Chicago, she moved to Bloomington in 2006 to pursue a Ph.D. in criminal justice. She volunteered at, held various offices with, and created programming for NAGSA and FNECC. She currently works for a social service agency in Bloomington. 

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