Fantasia Painter, Julian Brave NoiseCat and Tristan Moone are all members of the Native American Council at Columbia University (Photo by Cliff Matias)

Native Students Struggle for Space at Columbia University

Cliff Matias
January 04, 2013

Not since its founding in 1754 has Columbia University in New York City offered the Native American community a permanent residence on campus. It’s a difficult part of the university’s history for Native students who walk the grounds each day. After all, the school was founded on Native homeland at the start of the French and Indian War that ended French influence in North America, which could not have been accomplished without the support of the tribes of New York State.

In early 2011 the Native American Council of Columbia University came together for a common purpose, the need for a permanent space for Native students on campus. They looked into special interest housing, but the university was no longer accepting applications, so six members entered the student housing lottery and got a space in what they called the worst housing on campus.

“We love it, it’s not a permanent space for us but for now it’s our home,” said Fantasia Painter, a freshman from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. They soon heard of three brownstones on 114th Street that would be open for applicants, which would be an improvement over student housing. Being in a brownstone would be permanent housing for Native American students not only within the Native Council, which has over 30 active members from more than 40 different nations but all Native students on campus.

A brownstone on campus would not only provide a space for the Native community to meet, live and share ideas but it would fulfill the promise recruiters made to its Native student body, a commitment to building its Native American community on campus.

“Bench marks have been made, Yale has a very strong Native program so does Stanford and Harvard. We were sold to come here on the idea that Columbia wanted to be on that same level,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, a Shuswap sophomore from Bristish Columbia.

Native students at Columbia called their potential space the “The Manhattan House” in honor of the Mannahatta people who were pushed off the island over 300 years ago. The application was 10 pages long and included questions like, why they want the space and how they would use it in a way that would contribute to the entire community. The students said it would give them a permanent presence on campus, a venue to hold cultural gatherings, and meeting space where students can come together and talk about Indian country. The space would also make it easier for other groups on campus to locate and meet with the Native community.

“Our visibility has increased tremendously over the last few years and although we may be few in numbers, the Native community has many allies on campus,” NoiseCat said.

“We come from communities where informal learning and innovation are very important, this would be a space where students from different indigenous communities with different perspectives and areas of expertise can come together,” said Tristan Moone, Navajo.

The Native Council ended up with a strong application and were among six groups selected to move to the next round. But they came in fourth, so one of the three brownstones is not in their immediate future.

The council called a meeting with Columbia officials to ensure the university still stands behind the promises it made to students in wanting to grow the Native community. They also discussed needing more support for Native students in general through an advisor, but most importantly through recognition of the Native community. The students want the university to recognize the history of the area and that the university is in what was once Lenape territory.

“We may be small in number but Native American students are an incredibly important voice in higher education on this campus,” said NoiseCat. This year we are calling our powwow “Taking Back Manhattan” and it’s all part of giving indigenous people more visibility on campus, and not forgetting the history of the people who once called this home.

But it’s back to square one as far as applying for new housing. In the meantime, the Native Council is working hard to remain visible on campus. These young people are steadfast in their commitment to growing the indigenous community they were told Columbia wanted to see and most importantly the community Native students want to see.

“This is not just about us, it’s about creating a space for Native students for generations to come here at Columbia,” NoiseCat said.

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