Allegations of Racism at NSU Recall Indian Education’s Darker Days
Dr. Leslie Hannah, Cherokee, believes education has taken a serious turn against Natives at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma. After Hannah was fired from NSU, he filed a lawsuit against the university and several of its administrators and faculty.
Recruited by NSU to head the Cherokee Studies and Language programs, Hannah says his problems began when he was promoted to department head of Languages and Literature, College of Liberal Arts. NSU Associate Professor Brian Cowlishaw had hoped the position would be his, and made his feelings about Hannah’s election known on Facebook:
Brian Hammer Cowlishaw: There will be an “election” the first week of February. They’re making a fucking indian chair.
Another problem Hannah faced was that he did not receive tenure as he expected.
According to the lawsuit, one white tenure committee member and several other white administrators allegedly wrote condescending and offensive remarks on Facebook and elsewhere about Hannah being Native. These comments included, “Wonder if they sell armor to wear under regalia,” hoping that Dr. Hannah would be “eaten by wolves,” one that derogatorily suggested Hannah was “weaving baskets” and finally, that Hannah participated in Native legendary “dark forces.”
Was it a surprise that Hannah did not receive tenure? “Dr. Hannah was denied tenure when three colleagues, all believed to be white, who were known to have made discriminatory remarks against Dr. Hannah and Native American students, were allowed to vote on his tenure,” the lawsuit states.
Terri Baker, retired chair of the Languages and Literature Department, College of Liberal Arts, said, “I saw postings on Facebook that were racist. Les [Hannah] was a Fulbright scholar, he is a nationally known storyteller, has excellent credentials, and was hired through the university search committees. Wilma Mankiller told me she wanted Les hired, and she was pleased that he was.”
Before NSU, Hannah spent five years as a faculty member at Kansas State University, where he quickly rose to academic dean and received tenure three years early. His time there was without incident. Things began well enough at NSU, but the problems started as soon as he was promoted.
According to Hannah’s complaint, he sought to correct discrimination and repeatedly asked for an end to racist comments and ridiculing by staff, yet, “NSU’s response was not to bring the racism to a stop. Instead, in November of 2012, NSU reprimanded Dr. Hannah for accusing colleagues of racism and sexism.”
Blaming the victim may be a consistent occurrence at NSU. Tennessee Loy, 2012-2013 president of the Native American Student’s Association, reported that a student in Phi Sigma Nu, the Native fraternity, was insulted by a white member of another fraternity. Loy went to the supervisor and asked for an apology. Instead of addressing the comment, the university’s attorney sent a letter saying the white student did not need to apologize, but that the Native student should apologize.
In another situation, Loy said a study abroad trip to a Seattle coffee house represented one credit hour in photography. Yet a trip to the Gathering of Nations PowWow in New Mexico was cancelled because the school reportedly did not see any educational benefit. “It would have attracted a lot of people. It would have filled up,” Loy said.
According to Loy the problems don’t end there—a large building was to have been renovated for an Indigenous Center, but instead, the grant was used to renovate a much smaller back room on the second floor of the library. “It was supposed to have been a multicultural center and it was supposed to be a big structure,” Loy said.
Problems have even reportedly extended to misuse of Cherokee funds. When the Cherokee Nation funded the renovation of Haskell Hall as an immersion dormitory for Cherokee Promise Scholarship students, the plan was to maintain the student’s culture and language as a Cherokee community. That has been defeated by the university, which has begun to place non-Native students in the immersion dorm.
The renovation of the dorm has also come under scrutiny. About a year after the building was completed, it fell into disrepair and one student reported the rooms were infested with large cockroaches, mold, and scabies. The dorm also went without air conditioning weeks after other dorms were cooled. One of the girl’s bathrooms was closed for several weeks, leaving the girls on the second floor without a bathroom or showers, and having to schedule their bathroom times with the boys.
One girl, who lives at Haskell Hall and asked to remain anonymous, said the smell in her room was so bad she had to keep the windows open year round. She has also had rashes and an illness this year that she attributes to the room. Her mattress is old and stained yellow and red, which she thinks could possibly be blood. “Who would be okay with letting their children live in these conditions?” she asked. The girl grew up in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and said, “I came because of the history of the Cherokee Girls Seminary (founded in Tahlequah in the 1840s). I have met so many incredible people here I never would have met. But it’s just like we are swept under the rug here,” she said.
Baker remembers that for more than 40 years, the school held an annual symposium and pow wow that were massively attended, both by local and national tribal members. The symposium brought in well-known speakers, such as the Echo Hawks, John Trudell, and N. Scott Momaday.
“A lot of American Indians came through here. Lately, there has been a dampening of spirit, a lack of enthusiasm. We need people like Les Hannah,” Baker said, adding that Hannah told her the present chair of the department thought learning Cherokee language should be moved to Continuing Studies because it is a hobby. Yet the importance of Latin, Spanish, and Greek were not challenged.
According to its website, NSU has the highest enrollment of Native students of any other four-year college in the country—32 percent of the university’s population. Loy feels the school has the opportunity to “push the envelope” in indigenous studies. “It could be the best in the nation, but if it wasn’t for the Cherokee Nation, we wouldn’t even have a lot of our Native programs.” As soon as Hannah was removed, funding from the Cherokee Nation, allotted for Native programs, was diverted to other programs, according to Hannah’s lawsuit.
Native students believe Hannah was terminated for complaining about the misuse of program funds for Cherokee students. Letters written by university administrators show that the more he sought to advocate for the Native programs, the worse his situation became.
“The leadership is to blame for this,” Baker said. “We have not been acquiescent in this, but the administration pays no attention to what we are doing, and apparently pays no attention to the law.” Baker highlighted that the university administration does not follow the protocols of the NSU Faculty Handbook “and that is due process,” she said. “Native people at the university are afraid because there is now a hostile environment, and it makes me sad because it was not always like this,” Baker said.
Baker remembers when she joined the faculty in 1987. “The staff was very liberal, very smart. We were treated very fairly. Dr. Steven Turner [president of NSU] doesn’t seem to be too interested in the diversity of the university or the history of the school.
“The town of Tahlequah is the capitol of the Cherokee Nation, and the street names are in Cherokee. You would think the administration would understand and respect that,” Baker said.
A statement received from Jennifer Zehnder, Creative Services, Marketing & Media Assistant Director at NSU, reads, “As a matter of policy, the university does not discuss allegations stemming from pending lawsuits and/or confidential personnel issues.”
The Cherokee Nation was presented with the issues and did not respond to phone calls and emails.
“The Native Americans at NSU are not asking for preferential treatment, which is the charge that is always made,” Baker said. “They are asking for equal access to education, they are asking for fairness.”