Courtesy of Kyrie Ransom '18

A group of Cornell students participated in a protest for Indigenous People's Rights in Washington D.C. on March 10.

March 16, 2017

Indigenous Students Strive for Visibility on Campus

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What does it mean to convince the world that you cannot be erased?

For Kyrie Ransom ’18, it means getting on a 6-hour bus headed to Washington, D.C. in the early hours of a Friday morning.

This past Friday, Ransom and six other Cornell students left the University at 1 a.m to join thousands of Native Americans and allies streaming in from all corners of the country to march against the government’s actions in Standing Rock.

Inspired by the words of Standing Rock Sioux tribe Chairman David Archambault, who visited Cornell’s campus a month ago, students went with the intent of contributing to the mass protests against Trump’s recent approval for the pipeline project.

“A lot of the messaging that we saw in the march that happened is showing that we exist, that we are still here,” Ransom said. “It’s all of these indigenous communities, but also their allies coming together to say ‘look, this isn’t right. This is not what should be happening.’”

This type of activism exists across a national platform, but it is also intensely localized, according to Ransom, who sees parallels between the events happening in Standing Rock and those happening right here in Ithaca.

“When we’re looking at these issues, all of these emotions tie into the bigger picture,” she added. “You have allies on campus that are sensitive to that history, and they want to find a better way to engage in finding that way forward.”

The University’s Role

Despite perceived allyship among the Cornell community at the Standing Rock lecture, the fundamental grievances against the University from the Native American community began with the University’s lack of recognition that the campus is on Cayuga land.

“My first critique of the University comes from the lack of acknowledging that Cornell occupies the traditional homelands of the people, a nation associated with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy,” said Laura Lagunez ’16, an active member in the Native American community on campus. “It has been over a year-long battle with the administration to formally recognize this fact.”

Though some Native students are hopeful that the University will soon formally recognize that Cornell occupies Haudenosaunee land, that recognition has been a long time in the making — and many are not holding their breath.

However, beyond administration, Ransom said that students and student organizations on campus could be an instrumental component of this sort of institutional change.

“How do you get an institution to change?” she said. “Sometimes it’s just getting a few groups here and there to start getting into that habit of being like, by the way, we need to recognize that we’re on Cayuga Land. There were indigenous people that once were here.”

For Lagunez, who cited a public art installation on Libe Slope from last semester that “ignored contemporary indigenous Haudenosaunee communities in New York state,” the University administration deserves to be questioned.

“[I] question the leadership of certain individuals at the administrative level and the surrounding issues of racism and appropriation of culture when things like this happen at my school,” she said. “Although I applaud Cornell for placing an emphasis on ‘any person, any study,’ it is my opinion that this ‘person’ or ‘study’ only fit within the narrow contexts of western doctrine and epistemologies.”

The creation of an Indigenous Peoples’ Day is also in the works — and has been for over a year. After the Student Assembly passed a unanimous resolution to approve the motion for the day, the resolution also passed Cornell Faculty Senate — though the vote was not unanimous — last week.

Benjamin Oster ’17, who sits on the Academic Calendar Committee, noted the positive advancement of this change.­

“The Academic Calendar committee will make a recommendation to the Provost on Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year as part of the overall new calendar recommendation,” he said. “For me it was a unique process … because it’s a discussion that is happening around the country and is something that people are just starting to learn about.”

The American Indian and Indigenous Studies program was also celebrated by the Native students for its commitment to their needs as a minority community.

“I think the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program is the vital resource for Native students transitioning to Cornell,” Oster said. “Having faculty and staff from Native communities gives us people to speak to who we feel better understand what we are going through.”

The program, according to Ransom, often brings in local Cayuga leaders and youth, and provides support for indigenous students where the University at large may not.

“I can say with a deep and genuine fondness  that the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program has become a part of my extended family,” Lagunez said. “Both the faculty and staff of AIISP have given me such tremendous support that I can’t even begin to articulate.”

The Idea of an Indigenous Identity

The identity of Native students is not as straightforward as other identities, according to indigenous students and professors, and this can pose serious conflicts that elude the typical struggles of other students.

Prof. Carol Warrior, English, admits that, although all students face issues adjusting to college life, Native American students face particular challenges that may be easily overlooked.

“Native Americans are continually racialized or perceived by others as Native, White, Black, Asian or really, any ‘race,’” she said. “To really interrogate the way law and policy constructs Indigenous identity differently from any other race or people group — and to learn how these laws continue to shape Indigenous political and social realities — is a difficult process that’s both intellectual and emotional, especially when you begin to connect the dots and recognize the multitudinous ways it affects you and your family.”

Ransom, who attended a cultural immersion school in her Akwesasne community until sixth grade, feels a strong grounding in her culture — but as the co-chair of NASAC, she recognizes the balance of identity is not always so simple for other Native students.

Oster added that indigenous students often feel they lack a voice as other students struggle to understand their identity.

“Being Native on Campus is unique because while it is a small community, it is often an invisible one,” he said. “Native Students definitely at times feel voiceless because we are such a small sect on campus. People are surprised when they learn we are Native American and ask questions like ‘What percent are you? What tribe?,’ which are problematic and have complex answers.”

For Emerson Shenandoah ’20, one of the students who attended the march, there is an inherent duality of attending Cornell while still having ties to his Onondaga community.

“It’s kind of stepping into two worlds,” he said. “When I’m here and I’m at Cornell, I have to do my studies, I have to have my friend here, and things like that. But back at home, I have my responsibilities and duties to my community. … Sometimes while you’re here it feels like you’re not helping them in any way. You feel like you’ve let down your people.”

Shenandoah’s cultural responsibilities — including learning his language and assisting his community — can be difficult to negotiate with school responsibilities while he’s at school.

“Being here, it feels like I’m not helping them, I’m not learning anything to help sustain how we live,” he said. “I do my best to keep progressing in both worlds while I’m here.”

Allyship and Moving Forward

In response to the “touching” turnout at the Chairman Archambault’s lecture, allyship on campus seems to be growing, according to Shenandoah.

“When I got to the talk, I saw a whole bunch of friends that I hadn’t even told about it,” he said. “I didn’t think they would be interested. It was pretty touching — it felt good to see all of my friends there who wanted to hear about what was going on.”

For Warrior, the push for indigenous rights and support is a collaboration both within and without the Native American community.

“I see a lot of Native students offering each other support in ways that are mutually beneficial, regardless of their backgrounds,” she said. “This support is necessary when — even in educational institutions like Cornell — most of the people around you have no knowledge or experience of Native American history, cultures or ongoing presence as neighbors and original caretakers of these lands.”

Ransom emphasized the role of allyship as the fight for indigenous rights moves forward.

“Part of the role of an ally that I’ve seen is recognizing that sometimes in this reality of government today, we as indigenous people don’t have a voice,” she said.

“We can march, but we get media blackouts. We can do what we’re trying to do and have a lot of people show up, but at the end of the day, our voices aren’t heard. [The voices of] our allies are,” Ransom added. “So part of it is working with those allies, and… using their voice to get our message out there.”