Since 1972 inception, Native and Indigenous studies, programming expand

The Native American and Indigenous Studies department and the Native American Program have seen substantial changes throughout their history.

by Cassandra Montemayor Thomas | 8/31/22 5:30am

by Emil Liden / The Dartmouth Staff

This article is featured in the 2022 Freshman special issue.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Native American studies program — now known as the Native American and Indigenous studies department —  at Dartmouth. The relationship between Dartmouth and Native communities, however, is as old as the College itself. When Dartmouth was founded in 1769, its original charter made a commitment to “the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land.” Despite this promise, the College largely ignored its agreement for the next 200 years, until the College President at the time, John Kemeny, rededicated the institution to its original mission in 1972. As a result, Kemeny founded the Native American Program to assist Native students at the College and oversaw the development of the Native American studies program. 

Since that rededication, the field of Native American studies at Dartmouth evolved to achieve department status in 2021, began recruiting more Indigenous students through the Indigenous Fly-In program and recently launched the Tribal Services and Solutions Project, a four-year pilot program aimed at connecting Dartmouth students with tribes to improve sovereignty, healthcare and economic development on tribal lands.

These developments have benefitted both Native and non-Native students, according to Native American and Indigenous Studies department chair Bruce Duthu ’80.

“The study of Native peoples [at Dartmouth] means that for 50 years, we have been producing a better-educated citizenry,” Duthu said. “It’s not just Native kids who have been better educated to understand their history and their place and their aspirations. It’s two generations of college students who have now had the benefit of understanding U.S. history so much better than their parents and grandparents ever did.”

The NAIS department offers between 16 and 22 classes each year, teaching 500 to 600 students, according to Duthu. He also said that the department has seen a steady increase in the matriculation of Native first-year students in recent years.

Jessica Meikle ’23 said that she has enjoyed seeing “how far the community has come” during her time at the College in terms of the increasing numbers of matriculated Native students. Meikle added that she applauded the advancements in academic resources available to the Native community.

“[NAIS] finally being established as a department has been really awesome because we were able to get our own fellowships, funding and things like that,” Meikle said. “Academic-wise, we have amazing professors in the program who offer a lot of resources.”

In addition to expansion of academic resources for Indigenous students, Mabelle Hueston ’86 was recently appointed as assistant director of the Native American Program. Hueston described her role as one that ensures students “thrive on campus and have all the help they need on the way to graduation.”

While similar in purpose to the general student affairs office, Hueston said that the Native American Program has unique responsibilities and goals due to historical racism against Indigenous students at Dartmouth. Dated traditions like the College’s Indian mascot and caricatures of Natives drinking “festered” at a time when Dartmouth was a majority-white, all-male school, according to Hueston. When Native community began to grow after Kemeny’s recommitment to Dartmouth’s charter, Indigenous students took action against these intolerant practices.

“The program was created when Native students here on campus were witnessing a lot of racism and bigotry and ignorance,” Hueston said. “They basically were fed up and they asked the College to understand what it’s like to be bombarded by these kinds of traditions and behaviors.”

While the NAP has made strides towards improving the wellbeing of Native students on campus, the office has experienced high turnover in directors in recent years that has led to what Meikle described as a lack of guidance for Indigenous students.

Hueston acknowledged this issue, adding that one of her goals in the first year of her tenure is investigating the causes for leadership turnover.

Alvin Warren ’91, who served as co-chair of the Native American Visiting Committee — a committee of both Native and non-Native alumni that advises the College President on Native issues on campus — for seven years, echoed concerns about the instability in NAP leadership as one of the greatest challenges that Dartmouth’s Native community faces. Warren, an active leader of the Santa Clara Pueblo tribe, said that Dartmouth’s alumni network could become an important resource for promoting Native student wellbeing on campus and passing on tribal knowledge.

“It can be difficult, especially for alums who had a mixed experience, to return to campus,” Warren said. “But we need to be a more proactive institution and embrace the role that alumni can have in Indigenous education. If students can be connected to alumni with traditional expertise and a range of different roles, the entire community stands to benefit from the strengthening of those ties.”

Looking forward, the NAIS department has other initiatives aimed at improving Indigenous student wellbeing on campus and promoting tribal sovereignty around the country. In May, the NAIS department announced the launch of the Tribal Service and Solutions Project as a part of the College’s The Call to Lead fundraising campaign. 

For NAIS and history professor Colin Calloway, the Tribal Service and Solutions Project is a step towards a more mutualistic relationship between the College and Indigenous communities. Calloway said that this initiative is necessary in a political climate where Indigenous sovereignty is being actively infringed upon. 

“The next 250 years need to involve more collaboration and partnership with Native communities,” Calloway said. “We’re at a time where people in positions of power and state legislators are actively hostile to [tribal sovereignty]. They would interfere with and even limit our ability to teach the things that we do [at Dartmouth]. This is a fight we should be in.”

Ahnili Johnson-Jennings ’23, co-president of Native Americans at Dartmouth, said that the leadership of NAD would like to increase the group’s political engagement by mobilizing for tribal sovereignty. She also said that during this upcoming year, she and her co-president Aaní Perkins ’23 would like to breathe new life into intra-community student groups within NAD, such as reviving subgroups for queer Indigenous students and Indigenous living languages, as well as creating a group for Alaska Native students.

“We’re focusing on bringing back a lot of things that fell apart, a lot of intra-community groups that we lost over the pandemic,” Johnson-Jennings said. “We’re wanting to see a unity — not one versus the other, but really trying to strengthen them all together and from within.”

Especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately hurt Indigenous communities, Johnson-Jennings said that the Native community at Dartmouth will take the 50th anniversary of NAIS as an opportunity for revival. 

“The spring Powwow was a really great moment for the Native community on campus … We experienced a lot of loss and a lot of hurt during the pandemic,” Johnson-Jennings said. “So this fall and the rest of the year will be kind of a rebirthing moment — continuing that momentum that we experienced during the 50th Powwow celebration.”