Institutional Discrimination Against Indigenous Culture

Dwanna L. Robertson
March 13, 2013

“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.