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Native community members want better representation on campus

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UB stands on traditional Seneca Nation land but not a single sign lets students know this. Only one building –– Red Jacket –– hints at UB’s indigenous past. On campus, American Indian students and faculty struggle to see themselves and their heritage represented and to have their stories told.

Seneca language courses aren’t currently taught at UB. Native student enrollment is low and in February, the only American Indian undergraduate club dissolved. UB’s Office of the Vice Provost for Inclusive Excellence recently began initiatives to include indigenous people at the university, but some faculty and students said they still feel underrepresented.

Theresa McCarthy, a transnational studies professor and an Onondaga member of the Six Nations, said UB should take more responsibility for indigenous inclusion on campus.

“We need this work to be done,” McCarthy said. “UB has a commitment to diversity and it’s important, but our concerns as indigenous people within that are specific. … A lot of times we get dismissed because [we] are a really small community, but we push back against that.”

The Seneca Nation is one of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Parts of New York, including UB, are Haudenosaunee territory. The territory is covered by the Dish with One Spoon agreement, estimated by ethnologist Horatio Hale to have taken place in 1459, and the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. The treaties acknowledge and provide the Haudenosaunee Confederacy land rights to these territories.

Only 59 of the 20,000-plus undergraduates enrolled this spring are of American Indian descent, according to Michael Randall, assistant vice president of the office of institutional analysis. In a lecture hall of 500 students, statistically, only one will be American Indian. Between 37 and 64 American Indian undergraduates have enrolled each semester since 2010.

This fall only 10 American Indian students joined UB, according to the university’s institutional analysis team.

The Tonawanda Band of Seneca and the Seneca Nation of Indians are the two federally-recognized Seneca tribes in Western New York. Two former Native faculty members, John Mohawk and Barry White, used to actively recruit at local reservations from these tribes, according to American Indian faculty members and representatives of the Tonawanda Band of Seneca. But Mohawk died in 2006 and White died in 2011. No one has actively picked up their roles, although McCarthy said American Indian faculty in UB often feel the responsibility to recruit.

“It was always going to come on the backs of the few indigenous people that are here to try to make this campus a more hospitable place, and that’s the structural piece that’s wrong,” McCarthy said. “There’s a whole infrastructure that needs to be put in place to better support indigenous students, and it just doesn’t exist.”

In 2011, the College of Arts and Science formed the transnational studies department to encompass minority studies like American studies. Donald Grinde, director of graduate studies in the department, said he believes this decision was a consequence of administrative budget cuts.

He said American studies has struggled to continue finding resources and funding to teach some courses. The university has not offered a Seneca language course in nearly a decade.

“We lost the language, and that’s a function of not being able to pay somebody to do that,” Grinde, a member of the Yamassee Nation, said. “[The course] is still on the books, but there are just no resources to [teach it].”

The transnational studies department is currently working with the Seneca Nation of Indians to bring the Seneca language course back. McCarthy said course offerings have been difficult, however, with limited support from the university administration.

“I just don’t feel like [indigenous studies] was valued anymore,” McCarthy said. “We watched [resources] all erode, lines in positions go away and never be replaced. We lost ground in indigenous studies from where we were 10 years ago.”

Only eight American Indian faculty members teach at UB, less than one percent of UB’s overall faculty, according to Institutional Analysis. The number has decreased from 13 faculty members in 2008. The amount of American Indian staff members has also decreased from 19 to 12 since 2008.

LuAnn Jamieson, a hawk clan mother of the Tonawanda Band of Seneca, said the lack of native faculty and staff is a concern. Jamieson said it’s challenging for native educators without proper credentials to teach a course at UB.

“Part of the problem with the education system is that they require Native studies teachers to be certified and to have gone through the education system,” Jamieson said. “For a long time, we didn’t have graduates or students who went to school and came out with a degree.”

Brandon Martin, Seneca language immersion director for the Seneca Nation of Indians, agrees with Jamieson. Martin is currently working on the initiative with McCarthy to teach the Seneca language at UB.

Martin said the U.S. government’s usage of boarding schools on Native students was an ethnocide against American Indians, and consequently led Natives to be wary of the U.S. education system. He said UB’s support for Native education would demonstrate support against the government’s past actions.

“If UB were to support developing the proposed relationship by accrediting local Haudenosaunee language adult immersion programs and offering Haudenosaunee language courses, it would show their support against government ethnocidal practices of the past, and for Haudenosaunee language and culture revitalization efforts of the present and future,” Martin said in an email.

Summer Hemphill, a forward on the UB women’s basketball team, belongs to the Seneca Nation of Indians. Hemphill said she has never met anyone from her tribe at UB and had to learn most of her heritage by attending classes at the Buffalo Native Resource Center.

Hemphill said the resource center gave members who didn’t grow up on the reservation the opportunity to learn cultural aspects and the language.

“Through my schools, they never offered any courses about indigenous [culture] or anything,” said Hemphill, a sophomore sociology major. “You just learned what’s in the history books and really focus on that.”

UB’s Office of the Vice Provost created an Indigenous Inclusion committee on the Inclusive Excellence Leadership Council and an inclusive excellence faculty fellowship program, according to Despina Stratigakos, interim vice provost for inclusive excellence. The committee and fellowship program began this past fall, according to McCarthy.

McCarthy is one of the faculty fellows of the program for the academic year. Her project aims to create indigenous inclusion programs on campus and in the local community.

She and other native faculty will present at UB’s Inclusive Excellence Summit Thursday and Friday to discuss indigenous inclusion at UB and SUNY campuses. McCarthy will also be hosting a UB-sponsored indigenous retreat at UB with the indigenous community later this month.

Judd Logan, a senior cognitive science major, said UB should reach out to nearby tribes to incorporate more cultural classes and activities on campus.

“Native representation could definitely use some work,” Logan said. “UB has a lot of cultural resources here that I haven’t seen [them] use, and it shows. UB needs to show that support through resources.”

McCarthy said UB’s Native student community was more apparent in her time as a Fulbright fellow at UB in 2001.

“It was a time where there was more representation, and there was a lot of activities going on with very big and active student groups,” McCarthy said. “I was just amazed that there was a graduate student group of Native students that had 30 people, but that [has] all changed.”

The Student Association recognized the Native American Cultural Awareness Organization as the first native club in May 1970, according to SA administrative director Mark Sorel. The club, renamed First Nations SA in 2013, provided a support system for Native members and helped to address Native students’ needs, according to the club’s first constitution.

But the club’s 48-year history halted in February. First Nations SA was officially derecognized during the SA Senate meeting on Feb. 21. The Senate, in a unanimous vote, derecognized the club due to inactivity. None of the club’s representatives attended the meeting.

Samantha Ray, vice president of the former club, said SA requirements were hard to meet with her busy schedule.

“[The club] is a lot of work for not a lot of people,” Ray, a sophomore psychology major, said. “There hasn’t been people that joined because there’s not a lot of Native students [here], and non-Native students get the idea that they can’t join.”

If Native undergraduates want to reinstate the club, students would have to start the club under a new name and become a temporary club for two years before receiving permanent status.

Barbara Weston, assistant director for lifelong learning at the Seneca Nation Education Department in Irving, New York, said a communal space on campus is necessary for Native students. These spaces provide the proper help to adjust to the changes of living away from home, she said.

“Our freshman students definitely need that support especially when they start at an especially large school because a lot of our kids come from a small close-knit community,” Weston said.

The Native Graduate Association is an alternative for native undergraduates seeking a sense of community. The struggle for membership, however, exists there, as well.

Club member Morgan Morningstar, a Ph.D candidate for American studies, said a decrease in membership in the last two years has affected the club’s ability to host the Annual Indigenous and American Studies Storytellers Conference. The first conference began in 2004 and was held annually, but will not be held this year for the second time in a row.

The conference featured indigenous scholars from across North America, with a banquet to address Mohawk’s community impact. Morningstar said fundraising and organizing the conference was difficult with too few members.

“[The conference] is a lot for three people working on Ph.Ds and master’s [degrees] to do on their own, and sadly that was what we were down to – three people who were full-time active students,” Morningstar said.

The burden of facilitating these Native clubs shouldn’t rely solely on students, McCarthy said. She’s working with the UB administration to recognize and contribute to the support Native students need.

“Indigenous students see no reflection of themselves when they come on to the campus. … There really is nothing, no indigenous space or support system that are available for people,” McCarthy said.

“When you’re completely invisible in an institution that’s in your homeland, that’s a form of violence.”

Wanly Chen is an assistant features editor and can be reached at wanly.chen@ubspectrum.com and @Wanly_Chen on Twitter.


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