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Native American and Indigenous Students at Cornell urge the University to address their demands.

April 1, 2021

NAISAC Continues Work Despite Limited Cornell Administration Response

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After months of inaction from the University, Native American and Indigenous Students at Cornell are doubling down on demands for representation through community outreach and petitions to the University on top of expanding their advocacy initiatives. 

On Nov. 24, the Student Assembly unanimously voted to support the demands of the Native American and Indigenous Students at Cornell. These ten demands were presented in the form of an online petition with the stated goal of rectifying Cornell’s “tradition of profiting from acts of colonial violence and Indigenous erasure.” 

The requests emphasized increased funding and recognition of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program as a department. They also sought to increase the recruitment and retention of Indigenous students and ensure that Cornell acknowledges the role it has played in Indigenous dispossession.

When President Martha Pollack eventually acknowledged the demands, Former NAISAC Co-Chair Colin Benedict ’21 said that the response lacked action items. 

“She just basically gave us the runaround,” Benedict said. “She just basically gave us a statement without addressing any of the actual demands that we put into the resolution.”

Pollack’s response highlighted ongoing initiatives to increase recruitment of Native American students and faculty. However, many of the larger demands, including the redistribution of unused Cornell land back to the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ, the native Cayugans, were not mentioned. 

Paula Blanco Ortiz ’24, the NAISAC External Relations Chair, noted that the number of indigenous faculty has decreased from 10 in 2010 to five today. 

After Pollack’s response, Benedict said that Prof. Avery August, immunology, vice provost for academic affairs, followed up with a lengthy email with information that was already known, according to Benedict. The administration’s response was disappointing but expected, he said.

As a result, NAISAC is currently drafting updated demands that will be addressed to August and Pollack. This is following the initial list of demands, which the members of the organization said that the administration “did not adequately respond to.” 

While Benedict is optimistic that the requests will eventually be met, he does not believe it will be done during what’s left of his time at Cornell. 

“Institutional change is a pretty time consuming process… I expected that from the start to be a lengthy process,” said Benedict. “It’s just a matter of keeping the momentum and conversation about the topic going for the years to come.” 

Pollack’s and August’s  statements have not deterred the NAISAC from the other work they have done and plan to continue. The most substantial ongoing project is publicizing the crowdfunding initiative for the Cayuga SHARE Farm.

The Cayuga SHARE Farm, according to the GoFundMe, is “the only agricultural land the [Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ] have within their homeland.” New York State will not recognize the sovereignty of the Cayugan people over this land because of 15 years of unpaid property taxes from the farm, which amounts to $126,000. If these taxes are not paid by April 16, they will lose ownership of the farm. 

 “We have a responsibility to make others aware of any initiatives striving to preserve and honor the ongoing connections of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ people,” Blanco Ortiz said.  NAISAC has engaged in a social media campaign to spread awareness about this initiative. The Cayuga Share Farm, as of March 31, is more than $17,000 over its goal.

According to Ortiz, other projects include a collaboration with miXed at Cornell to create a presentation on “the history of blood quantum usage within the United States, its implications, and the structures that have enforced the genocide of Indigenous peoples.” NAISAC also has a long-term goal to create a comprehensive resource list and website for Indigenous students on Cornell’s campus.

The objective for these projects, Ortiz said, is to “create a safe space for the Indigenous students on Cornell’s campus as well a general consciousness of the dispossession and genocide of indigenous people that address Cornell’s role in it.”

NAISAC also plans on releasing a statement condemning the naming of one of the new North Campus buildings after Ruth Bader Ginsberg ‘54., because of her damaging supreme court rulings for Indigenous nations and their treaties according to an article by Meredith Alberta Palmer, grad.  

In City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, Ginsberg ruled against the Oneida Nation of New York right to reclaim their land that was given to the City of Sherrill, NY. Ginsberg’s decision rested on the Doctrine of Discovery –– the right of settlers to take indigenous land –– and said that the ONNY waited too long to regain their sovereignty.

This ruling set a precedent against future Indigenous land claims in what Palmer describes as an “overt form of legal violence to the Indigenous peoples whose lives and livelihoods are in the jurist’s hands.” Land owned by the Cayuga Nation was one of the main patches of land affected by this ruling. Overall, Indigenous nations lost 8 of 9 cases in which Ginsberg wrote the supreme court decision.

The naming of the freshman dorm that ironically overlooks Akwe:Kon ––the American Indian residence hall –– was not surprising, according to Bennet.

“The tendency is for Cornell to build monuments for historical figures who have been purveyors of colonial violence,” he said.