Linbo Fan / Sun File Photo

Akwe:kon is one of 11 program houses scattered across Cornell's campus. The program houses seek to give students "the chance to develop and immerse yourself in interests within an engaging community of residents and out-of-house members," according to the program housing website.

March 6, 2024

GUEST ROOM | We Must Preserve Cultural Identity for Indigenous Students on Campus

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The Akwe:kon Program House opened in 1991 on Cornell University’s North Campus as the first university residence hall established to celebrate North American Indigenous culture and heritage. Akwe:kon, the Mohawk word for “all of us,” was chosen to inspire the notion that all Native and non-Native people were welcome to live in peace and understanding to learn Indigenous values together. The building itself evokes the imagery of a traditional Haudenosaunee longhouse with elongated wings and weathered clapboard siding. The windows facing the street are placed to represent the Hiawatha Belt, symbolizing the joining of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy which is an alliance of sovereign tribal nations composed of the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk and Tuscarora. Akwe:kon reflects a valuable community space and it’s extremely disheartening that more universities don’t provide a space like it.

Inside the building, the great room, with vaulted ceilings that face west for the setting sun, is a place for community members to come together, hold meetings, and discuss important issues much like the role of the modern longhouse as a meeting place. The overall motif of the building, with curtains made from fabric with desert southwest patterns, paintings and murals by Native artists and the portal windows that overlook the great room, are all designed to bring feelings of home for Indigenous students. Students who live in Akwe:kon have access to a community kitchen where they can cook traditional meals, a library with a vast collection of books by Indigenous authors and a TV room to have movie nights with friends. The general sense is that students who live in Akwe:kon and students who visit are all part of the community.

The establishment of Akwe:kon was viewed as a groundbreaking testament to what universities can and should do to support and improve retention for Indigenous students. Today, Akwe:kon is well known among Indigenous academics and high school students searching for a supportive community in higher education, but, among the larger population, it has less of a reputation. Most students fail to understand and appreciate its significance. When I moved on campus my Freshman year, orientation staff did not know where Akwe:kon was and directed me to Ganędagǫ Hall simply because it sounded similar. 

At the time of Akwe:kon’s founding, Dr. Ron LaFrance Sr. (Mohawk), then director of the American Indian & Indigenous Studies Program, explained the significance of the house’s creation. Firstly, Indigenous students need support to encourage retention. Akwe:kon is viewed as a way to provide both academic and physical support in one location and its creation was, and remains, a major draw for prospective students. In the Fall of 1983, only three Native American freshman had enrolled at Cornell. By 1995, four years after Akwe:kon had opened, 25 freshmen were enrolled. 

Beyond Akwe:kon’s role as a program house, it represents a means by which students can maintain their connection to culture and encourage them to return to and support their communities. Self-governance and greater autonomy over the social, economic, cultural and environmental issues facing reservations is an important issue. However, in order for tribal governments to lead this change, young people who leave the community for education must return after getting their degrees. Dr. LaFrance recognized that young people earning an education while connected to culture would lead them to return, help grow, and lead change in their communities. 

Other schools have begun investing in similar initiatives, but even where they are present, it is imperfect. Indigehouse at Columbia University was recently acquired through a competitive bidding process when a historic five-story brownstone building became available. It seeks to create a vibrant residential community for Indigenous students. While this is a step in the right direction, it differs from Akwe:kon which was built, with intention, from the ground up as new construction and not just repurposed space. The close relationship between Akwe:kon and the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program ensures Indigenous students receive all the support needed to succeed. Ron LaFrance stated that Akwe:kon was a place for the most valued resource, young people, to learn “without forcing us to lose our identity.” Indigehouse, like Akwe:kon, aims to shine a beacon for its Indigenous students.

The establishment of Akwe:kon as the first program house specifically for Native and Indigenous students was a much needed action for a group who struggles to reach academic completion. In the Fall of 2021, Native American students accounted for 0.7% of all college going students in the United States. Akwe:kon was needed in 1991 but the real shame is not that a large portion of the Cornell community does not know it exists. Rather, the shame is that despite improved outcomes for Indigenous students at Cornell, the initiatives and results have not been effectively replicated at other institutions with much larger Native populations to improve results nationally. That is the real shame.

Peter Thais is a third-year student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They can be reached at [email protected].