Indigenous students on campus have launched a campaign to respond to Cornell’s founding — demanding increased funding, a land acknowledgement and a mandatory class.
Acting on a summer that saw rethinking of historical institutions, marginalized groups began to demand anti-racist change from Cornell: Students from Do Better Cornell, faculty, staff and graduate students and the Caribbean Students Association all published their own sets of demands.
Members of Native American and Indigenous Students At Cornell see their demands as dismantling Cornell’s “tradition of profiting from acts of colonial violence and Indigenous erasure,” the petition reads.
Native American students represent only 0.3 percent of the overall Cornell student population — in 2017, that meant just 67 students, according to NAISAC. But Cornell’s history is intertwined with Indigeneity, especially related to the dispossession of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ, or Cayuga, people.
One of the main demands in admitting more Indigenous students, up to 1.7 percent of the student body — equal to the proportion of Indigenous people in the U.S.
Beyond active recruitment, NAISAC also stressed the need for retention support, including hiring more Indigenous faculty, staff members and a mental health professional.
“The mental health struggles that affect Indigenous students specifically really can’t be addressed by a non-Indigenous person,” said Colin Benedict ’21, external relations chair for NAISAC.
Further support would occur through the American Indian and Indigenous studies program, which hopes to transition to department status within the next four years. The program hopes to achieve this status along with increased funding and the hiring of five new faculty members.
The petition also includes funding for students coming from communities displaced by higher education institutions — demanding a free education for them.
NAISAC started brainstorming its demands at the beginning of September, launching the petition on Oct. 12. Since then, over 800 people have signed in support of NAISAC’s demands, Benedict said.
They worked closely with faculty from the American Indian Indigenous studies program, who are also working to further examine Cornell’s history through the Cornell University and Indigenous Dispossession Project.
Both this project and the demands address Cornell’s status as a land grant university that received nearly 1 million acres of land through the 1862 Morrill Act, eventually sold to form the basis of the endowment.
“The endowment of Cornell University is built on indigenous displacement, dispossession and genocide,” Benedict said. Because of this sordid history, four of the 10 demands relate directly to land and the Morrill Act.
First, NAISAC calls for the renaming of Morrill Hall, the home to linguistics and other departments in the College of Arts and Sciences. Morrill Hall, named for the act’s primary proponent Rep. Justin Morrill, was declared a national historic landmark in 1965.
Beyond the name of a building, the petition also includes broader demands from the University: a land acknowledgement before all Ithaca-based University-affiliated events and a formal statement acknowledging the specifics of Cornell’s acquisitions from the Morrill Act.
The petition also calls for the return of Cornell-owned land in Ithaca not “immediately utilized for educational purposes” to traditional Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ leadership — a step to also develop relationships with the leadership to initiate the process of returning land to Indigenous people.
Finally, NAISAC wants Cornell to implement a mandatory introductory Indigenous studies class for all first-year students “to ensure that all students have a basic understanding of the gravity of Indigenous genocide and their own positionality on stolen Indigenous land.”
“Indigenous studies overlaps with almost every other field at Cornell,” Benedict explained of the proposed requirement. “No matter where you are in the United States, you’re on someone’s Indigenous land. Knowing how to navigate those relationships with the communities that historically lived in that area and still live in that area to this day is vitally important to conducting ethical research in that space.”
The Student Assembly is set to vote on a resolution in support of the demands on Thursday, which would pave the way for conversations with President Martha E. Pollack about the demands, according to Benedict.
NAISAC hopes that this path — plus the reinstatement of the University’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Native American Affairs at Cornell to oversee the demands — will begin to enact real change to support Indigenous students on campus and right the historical wrongs.
“Our goal is to support the community of Indigenous students, as well as to attempt to raise the level of consciousness of the Cornell community about Indigenous issues,” Benedict said. “But my individual hopes with this were to just improve the resources that Indigenous students have available, especially for future generations.”