“Dartmouth’s Indian history is a troubled one, as is the history of Native Americans in this country. In its failings, contradictions, and attempts (sometimes misguided) to do the right thing, it mirrors the larger story of English and American dealings with Native peoples over time and across the continent.” - Colin G. Calloway, The Indian History of an American Institution: Native Americans at Dartmouth.
It simply isn’t right. Time and time again, the contributions of Native people in the academy are undermined and suppressed. This time, it happened at Dartmouth—a place whose history is deeply intertwined with Native people, whose official charter from 1769 expressed a founding mission of commitment to Native American education, and whose establishment would not have been possible without money raised by Samson Occom—a Native preacher and scholar from the Mohegan nation from 1765-1775.
Despite modern Dartmouth’s stated re-commitment to Native education, the fact that Dartmouth has always needed Native people and would not exist without Native people has largely gone unrecognized. Today, this troubling legacy of Native use-and-abuse has been reaffirmed by the rapid rise and fall of the deanship of N. Bruce Duthu: a Native American Studies professor whose opportunity to usher Dartmouth into an elevated level of progress was crushed by the ever-dominant influence of radical conservatism which relentlessly plagues the College on the Hill.
Several weeks ago, the College announced the appointment of Duthu to the position of Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Bruce Duthu, a class of 1980 alumnus of Dartmouth, a distinguished, world-renowned scholar of tribal law and policy, a person of utmost quality of character, an experienced higher education administrator, and a citizen of the Houma Tribe of Louisiana, accepted the appointment and announced his intention to serve. Those who are familiar with Duthu’s work and character celebrated the news.
“This is incredible!” Kalina Newmark, Dartmouth ‘11, wrote on a March 27 Facebook post which announced Duthu’s appointment on the Native American Alumni of Dartmouth network page. Dozens of other Native alumna shared the brief and expressed contentment.
Finally, an academic of his caliber, who happens to be Native, would be recognized for his capabilities, accomplishments, and capacity to lead, and would deservedly serve in a top-ranking, highly influential position at one of the western academia’s most elite institutions.
But just as quickly as the good news surfaced, it all came tumbling down.
Shortly after the announcement, a Professor of Economics at Dartmouth, Alan Gustman, initiated an attempt to tarnish Duthu’s character and reputation by publishing a letter in which he accused Bruce Duthu of affiliation with BDS—an anti-Israel movement he defined as anti-Semitic. His claim came out of his arguably radical interpretation of a letter Duthu had co-authored in 2013, which expressed support to Palestinian Indigenous Peoples. The details of the letter and following responses are highlighted here.
Gustman’s letter snowballed into a wave of criticism from conservative publications and individuals; entities who appeared threatened and outraged by the sheer idea of a Native person holding an esteemed position of leadership.
The idea that Duthu would somehow inevitably fail the College by an inability to operate without bias is egregious: he has worked his entire life on behalf of social justice. The discriminatory undertone of the Duthu criticisms is deeply disturbing.
Several Dartmouth professors and students from a conservative Dartmouth newspaper called Duthu “underqualified” for the job, and described him as “an affirmative action checkbox.” They suggested that a professor from a “more distinguished” department, such as Economics or Government, should fill the post.
Due to this firestorm of criticism, citing a level of distraction and pain that he could not reconcile and did not foresee overcoming, Duthu released a letter to the faculty announcing his rescinding of the appointment. He will not serve as Dean of the Faculty.
Will another Native person ever have the chance to hold such an esteemed position in the Ivy League?
Many supporters of Duthu immediately took action to express concern.
“Having worked with Bruce Duthu for many years, I can tell you that this is a loss for Dartmouth,” wrote Susan Apel, a Professor at Vermont Law School, in a comment on an article from The Dartmouth online.
The Native Americans at Dartmouth organization published a letter stating:
“As Native students, we experience the same institutionalized devaluation on campus Professor Duthu has received in response to his appointment, and we will not be silent as he faces it. When people of color are appointed to positions of power, they are met with racist backlash disguised as bureaucratic scrutiny from communities who benefit from a system that lacks diversity. These attitudes, when accommodated, inhibit institutions from becoming an equally secure environment for all students. Furthermore, they overlook opportunities to give well qualified faculty members of color a meaningful voice in the institution.”
Hundreds of people signed the NAD letter. Neither the administration nor Gustman officially responded to it.
In response to Gustman’s concerns about Duthu, the Dartmouth administration released this statement:
“In his capacity as Associate Dean for International Studies and Interdisciplinary Programs, Bruce Duthu has been instrumental in making Jewish Studies a success on campus. He has facilitated the often complex arrangements to bring visiting professors from Israeli universities to teach at Dartmouth, as well as graduate students and post-docs from abroad.
Bruce Duthu has the full confidence of President Phil Hanlon, Provost Carolyn Dever, and the Dartmouth Board of Trustees. He has broad support among the faculty, including the leaders of the College’s Jewish Studies program. Professor Duthu has offered to meet with Alan Gustman to discuss his concerns; however, Professor Gustman has declined.”
The criticisms against Duthu in this instance are part of a dangerous and far-reaching history of skepticism toward the inherent abilities of all minority students and faculty in any institution. The misguided notion that Native people somehow have access to an “easier” path toward success in higher education is a pervasive and harmful stereotype which consistently hinders chances of Native success and respect in any capacity.
The same people who, for centuries, have enjoyed the legacy of monetary and social benefits stemming from a system which was founded upon theft of life and land from indigenous people are those who claim that Native people stand on unequal, advantageous footing. The lack of historical perspective is remarkable.
No matter how qualified or upstanding in character a non-white person might become in any field, a camp of radical, right-wing, anti-diversity advocates are waiting in the wings, and will work as hard as they can to tear down the reputation of the individual in question, to ensure that they will be treated as less-than.
The only possible way that a Native person might reach the heights of academia without conflict, it seems, would be to totally abandon any commitment to or affiliation with indigenous studies or students, and to rise to a level of prominence in a field considered by most to be entirely separate from Native knowledge. It is an impossible, racist structure.
On July 1, Bruce Duthu will return to his post as a professor in Native American Studies, a discipline which, in and of itself, is far too often undermined and dismissed as a fluff topic.
One of the most deeply-ingrained and systemically persevered notions in America is that indigenous people have no relevant contemporary knowledge and no real history. Because of this inherent disregard of Native voices, humanity, and intellect, the job of Native American studies professors, like Duthu, is exceedingly difficult. Like all academics, they are charged with continually researching, publishing, and teaching in a complex field. But due to a constant skepticism of the relevance of their entire discipline, they are held to a much higher standard. It must be exhausting and tiresome to have to constantly make the argument that your work deserves a space at all in western academia.
I graduated from Dartmouth in 2010, and over the course of my time there had the privilege of taking several classes with Professor Duthu. He was a notoriously tough grader who assigned long and difficult papers, yet his classes were a joy. Always meticulously organized and prompt, his rhythmic teaching skills brought life to tribal law. His gentle approach did not conflict with the challenging requirements of his courses. He treated Native and non-Native students with equal respect, and valued every opinion, whether it benefited his argument or not. He refused to display bias, and in doing so led by example. This spirit of inclusivity and rigor would surely have been reflected in his work as Dean.
Native students often arrive at Dartmouth with a great degree of knowledge in concepts and subjects that are outside of the realm of standard academia. Our unique worldview contributes significantly to campus climate, class discussions, and social life, which is why diversity matters. But we also, often, arrive with a level of preparedness for standard academic topics that does not meet those of our peers from wealthy families who have benefited from years of expensive tutoring and prep school. Because of people like Bruce Duthu, we quickly catch up, then go above-and-beyond, all the while remaining rooted in our cultural teachings. Meanwhile, the non-Native students and faculty who cross the paths of Native faculty are able to arrive at a powerful place in which they realize the universal relevance and powerful teachings found only through indigenous topics.
Thankfully, even as Dartmouth’s commitment to Native students and staff falls short from time to time, there remains a corner of the college where Native people are present, and will always be. The Native students and professors in indigenous studies at every institution continue to do work that, whether acknowledged or not, has far-reaching global impact. The voices of the Native American students who currently roam the halls of Dartmouth will continue to be strengthened and empowered by their education, and by what they will eventually realize they can offer to those around them.
Whether western academia will ever be prepared to fully acknowledge Native contributions is perhaps irrelevant. In the indigenous world, we understand the meaning of honor.
At time of press, Gustman had not replied to Indian Country Media Network’s request for comment.