Although November is Native American Heritage Month, some members of Cornell’s Native American community say they are dissatisfied with the level of Native American recognition on campus.
While Cornell’s American Indian Program organized socials, dinners, symposiums and performances this month to highlight the issues facing Native people and cultures, many AIP members worried that Cornell was not familiar enough with their concerns.
Prof. Eric Cheyfitz, English, director of the AIP, said he considers Native Heritage Month a “gesture of tokenism by the federal government” and feels that “it tends to distract rather than inform.”
“Most Americans are ignorant of the history and current situation of Native Americans, of their philosophies and cultural practices, of how they fit into the global picture of 300 million indigenous peoples,” Cheyfitz said. “This is true of most Cornell students, who, for starters, are unaware that Cornell is situated on the traditional homeland of the Cayuga Nation, one of 334 federally-recognized Indian tribes in the United States.”
“There’s lots of creative thinking among Native peoples — thinking about solving social problems, environmental problems,” Cheyfitz said. “The U.S., which has a lot of problems, could learn a lot from this thinking.”
This month, the AIP is trying to remind Cornell’s administration that the University sits on the Cayuga Nation’s traditional land. Members of the AIP have met with President David Skorton’s representatives to discuss acknowledging this history at formal University events, including fall convocation and spring commencement.
The Cayuga Nation is a federally-recognized tribe, although it does not have a land base.
In 2005, the nation lost a legal case in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York that denied it a monetary settlement for land that was ceded to the federal government in two “fraudulent treaties,” Cheyfitz said.
The federal government generally does not give back land, but grants a monetary settlement. In 1980, the Cayugas brought their case to federal district court in New York, which granted them a monetary award in 2001 for lands taken by the state in fraudulent treaties in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
The Cayugas felt the award was too far below the accumulated value of the land, and they brought suit against New York State again for both the return of land and the monetary value of the land. In 2005, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York bundled the land settlement with the monetary settlement and denied both.
“Students should know where they are and the history of the place,” Cheyfitz said.
In his 2008 commencement speech, Skorton stated that Cornell was “on land that was once part of the Cayuga Nation.”
“I’d rather not have any recognition than [have] that because it detaches the University from the history,” Cheyfitz said. “The Cayugas have not relinquished their traditional relationship with the land.”
Akwe:kon, the Native American program house on North Campus, is the only physical testament to the fact that Cornell is on Cayuga land, said Kyle Coulon ’11, who is an Akwe:kon resident advisor.
“The dorm itself is beautiful and the house is so rich in symbolism,” Coulon said.
Coulon considers Akw:kon one of the most diverse places at Cornell and a community-oriented building.
Operating from Caldwell Hall in CALS, the AIP counts 165 self-identified undergraduate and 27 graduate students as members, according to Kathy Halbig, the AIP’s student development specialist.
Halbig estimates that between half and one-third of those students are enrolled in the American Indian Studies minor. About 20 courses are offered in the minor each year.
“I think [the AIP] is great at making everyone feel welcome regardless of their background,” Coulon said. “The fact that people are willing to learn and talk about these issues is really great.”
“[AIP facilitates] relationships between faculty and staff at Cornell and local natives and schools with high populations of native students,” Carol Kalafatic, associate director of the AIP, said. “Our goal is to support the priorities and aspirations of local native communities in particular.”
Native Heritage Month began at Cornell with a conference on Oct. 29 and 30 regarding sovereignty, indigeneity and law. The conversations on governance and the environment were very productive, Cheyfitz said.
A roundtable discussion about Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, the state’s controversial immigration measure, and its impact on native peoples took place on Nov. 3.
Coulon said the discussion was “incredibly informative.”
“We had Native folks come in and talk about Arizona immigration law,” Cheyfitz said. “The major implication is that it puts Native Americans and Mexican Americans under oppressive scrutiny. It creates a situation of surveillance and harassment.”
“It put the issue into context,” Coulon said. “They talked about what the law means practically for the people experiencing it. It’s really upsetting and unsettling.”
Cornbred, a Native American Music Award-winning rock band, also performed at the Townhouse Community Center last Friday.
The month’s final event will be a Harvest Dinner Celebration in Risley Dining Hall Friday night.