The urgency of the moment: Duke must take action to support Native American students

“I really see it as a healing opportunity first and foremost. That’s the point here, not to shame them in any way, but an opportunity to heal … and not with words but with actions.

– Myron Dewey (Paiute / Shoshone) 2019 Professor Lehman Brady at Duke University Center for Documentary Studies

The Duke Native American Student Alliance (NASA) writes an open letter to Duke University. In this letter, we explain how Duke University has failed to adequately support Indigenous students. Next, we outline the ways in which Duke can best achieve his goal of becoming an anti-racist institution. This would benefit not only the Native American students of Duke, but also the native communities of North Carolina.

Duke University ranks 12th among the best universities in the United States, but lags far behind many institutions in supporting Indigenous students. Duke does not have an Indigenous Studies program, Indigenous Cultural Center, Adopted Land Recognition, or other academic and financial support programs for Indigenous students.

21 of the top 25 schools in the country provide better support for Indigenous students. The Duke Native American Student Alliance conducted research on resources for Native students at the top 25 schools in the United States, according to the US News ranking. Of these schools, 19 institutions offer substantial support (Indigenous studies programs, Indigenous cultural centers, additional support programs) and 2 offer limited support. Four schools offer minimal support: Duke, Vanderbilt, Rice, and CalTech. These schools only offer organizations run by students or alumni.

We are even more alarmed because North Carolina has the largest Indigenous population east of the Mississippi River and is home to eight recognized tribal nations. Additionally, Duke was once home to the Cherokee Industrial School, a boarding school that aimed to eradicate Cherokee culture. Given these facts, we believe Duke has an even greater obligation to support Indigenous students.

Duke University has taken few initiatives to support Indigenous students. Since the university only has one Indigenous faculty member, Duke made a commitment to hire Indigenous faculty in the spring and fall semesters of 2021. However, that process ultimately got flawed. The dean of Trinity College has dismissed a prominent Indigenous professor despite the Indigenous group’s history department and hiring committee unanimously backing her hiring. Duke’s administration also didn’t involve Indigenous students during the hiring process, although NASA laid the groundwork for leasing Indigenous clusters.

The Duke Native American Student Alliance does not seek to shame Duke University. Instead, we invite Duke to work with Indigenous students to better achieve the university’s goal of becoming an anti-racist institution. Duke University must work with Indigenous students to take action and set an example for institutions nationwide.

We, the Duke University Native American Student Alliance (NASA), ask that:

  • Deans, Directors of Undergraduate Studies, and Native American Cluster Hiring Committees include Indigenous students in the hiring of senior Indigenous faculty who can support the goals of our organization.
  • President Vincent E. Price, Provost Sally Kornbluth and the Dean of Trinity College work at establish an Indigenous studies program with the participation of Indigenous students, faculty and staff.
  • Mary Pat McMahon, Vice-President, Student Affairs and Student Affairs Officers create a Native American center with the participation of Native students, teachers and staff. And that in the meantime, Duke Student Affairs is hiring a Native American Assistant Director at the Center for Multicultural Affairs with contributions from Native students.
  • The Deans of Duke University and the Office for Institutional Equity adopt land recognition, currently being drafted by NASA students and a Land Reconnaissance Committee, and distributing it to faculty for syllabuses.
  • The Vice-President, Undergraduate Studies meet with NASA to discuss college scholarships for Indigenous students as a remedy for Trinity College Cherokee Industrial School.
  • The office of the rector and the office of the secretary of the university meet with NASA to discuss the inclusion of Indigenous alumni on the board of directors and the creation of an Indigenous and Indigenous Presidential Council.
  • The Undergraduate Admissions Office take steps to recruit and retain more Native American students with the participation of Native students, faculty and staff. OAU establish a college preparation program on the Qualla border in Cherokee, NC in conjunction with the EBCI Department of Higher Education and Repair Training at Trinity College Cherokee Industrial School.

The Duke Native American Student Alliance believes that these are not special considerations, but rather the bare minimum necessary to produce equitable results and to hold Duke University accountable for its participation in settler colonialism.

Indigenous teacher speaks out

“It hurt when the students were so far away from home and they didn’t have that support. They are not like other students. The historical trauma is embedded in the actions of the university they attend. And invisibility is part of this trauma, ignoring that it is part of this trauma, ignoring that it is part of this trauma. Duke needs a center for these reasons.

– Myron Dewey (Paiute / Shoshone) speaking about his experiences as Professor Lehman Brady at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies

In the spring of 2019, Myron Dewey, a well-respected Indigenous documentary maker, was selected as the Lehman Brady Professor at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies, a one-semester position. The Duke Native American Student Alliance was able to speak to Mr. Dewey about this letter.

Mr. Dewey remembers many positive aspects of his time as a professor at Duke University. He remembers being treated with great respect by the teachers who went out of their way to help him feel welcome and empowered. However, Mr. Dewey was surprised by the school’s lack of resources for its Indigenous students. He recalls, “It just surprised me that the school was hundreds of years behind other schools in contributing to Indigenous education, and the students had to really struggle to get support from the. university. “

Native students at Duke have always had to advocate for basic accommodations in their school. When Mr. Dewey was a professor, Indigenous students were the only group on campus with no space at the university’s Multicultural Affairs Center. Former NASA President Shandiin Herrera (Diné) published an article detailing the difficulties faced by Native American students. After Shandiin’s article and Mr. Dewey’s support, Indigenous students were finally given their own space in 2019.

Mr. Dewey is best known for his activism around the infamous Dakota Access Pipeline (NODAPL). After witnessing Duke’s resistance to welcoming Native students, Myron realized, “Being that Duke is a former residential school, it didn’t surprise me the patterns we were going to go through … has become a different front line, an academic front line. “

Mr. Dewey points out that Duke University needs to offer a Department of Native Studies with a curriculum designed by the many accomplished Native academics in the Indian country. In addition, this department should operate in collaboration with a dedicated indigenous cultural center. Based on his knowledge of universities across the United States, Dewey is confident this could be accomplished with a budget equal to that of any other university department.

Duke University needs to make drastic changes to the way it engages with Indigenous students. Since the publication of Shandiin Herrera’s article in 2019, Duke has responded to few requests from NASA. But neither the Duke Native American Student Alliance nor Mr. Dewey are trying to shame Duke University. Instead, we invite an institution we love to unite with Indigenous students in the healing process. As Mr. Dewey firmly repeats, the focus is always on healing: “There are so many opportunities the school can offer in healing if it chooses… not in words but in actions. “.

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