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Dartmouth and Its Love Affair With Box-Checking Indians

Last week when Dartmouth College announced it hired Susan Taffe Reed as the director of the college’s Native American Program, alumni and Native people from across Indian Country took their keyboards to express their dissatisfaction. Although many recognized that Reed was for the most part professionally qualified for the position many have taken issue with her assertions of being an Indian as information on her background has come to surface. As a graduate of Dartmouth, it did not surprise me at all that the college opted to select a “box checking Indian” over someone with actual ties to a real Native community.

When I arrived at Dartmouth College as a student who had spent all my life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation I was a bit taken aback when I looked at the name tags on my freshman college dorm room door and saw that my roommate really was from Park Avenue. To me, Park Avenue was a place on the Monopoly board and not a place that real people actually came from.

Dartmouth was a different world than the one I was used to. What I did know for sure was that the school had convinced me that the thriving Native American student population at the school was made up of students like me, ones who had come from the reservation or urban Native communities who I could relate to, and that when push came to shove that this community was large enough for us all to lean on. The reality was that the College was not made up, for the most part, of kids like me or the handful of others who were from reservations.

During my freshman year orientation, college representatives would boast of the high number of Native students on campus and the high rates of graduation amongst them. What I quickly came to realize, however, was that the majority of students they referred to were the ones who opted to “check the box” on their admission papers: the one that asks you to self-identify your ethnicity. Now, I am not the identity police and I never pretend to be the authority on issues like this but I have always felt uncomfortable with the fact that so many of these students had no relationship with their people nor nations and that the reason they actually acknowledged their Native connection was to improve the likelihood of their admission to Dartmouth and success when applying for scholarships. Most of these students had no connection to their Native communities and likely took the place of kids from the reservation who had applied to Dartmouth. I wonder if Taffe Reed was one of these students during her college years.

There are many out there who are angry at Reed, but the college is just as culpable. Dartmouth has seemingly failed to conduct its due diligence and once again Indian Country has had to call out another powerful institution.

At Dartmouth, the director of the Native American Program serves as a bridge between Native students and the college. Whoever fills that position is often expected to advocate for individual students whenever possible, and to oversee funding and programming allocated by the college for Native students. The position also requires that this individual to have a solid relationship with students. Taffe Reed may be able to fulfill these duties completely. It would seem though that the college would best be served by hiring someone with ties to a more culturally active, populated, or prominent Native nation. Or someone who has had an upbringing similar to the Native students the college claims to recruit, educate and graduate.

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I do not know Susan Taffe Reed personally but I do find it bothersome that representatives of the college have boasted of her commitment her community and her status as President of the Eastern Delaware Nations. The Eastern Delaware Nations is actually a 501(c)(3) that according to its website acknowledges that some of its “members are not of Native American descent” but that those who are not can “join as social members in support of a family member or to assist EDN in educational outreach and other activities.” A member of the Delaware tribal council has already told the Valley News that Reed is “using the Delaware name, and that’s not OK with us.” Who is Dartmouth to argue with a sovereign Nation with the authority to define their own identity and citizenship?

Reed has stated in her defense that Native identities are “mixed and complex,” an understanding that we as Native people have come to understand – and thus why we are so offended when someone leeches off our shared history and modern day struggles to promote their own agenda. Checking a box might get your foot in the door at an Ivy League institution, but out here in Indian Country, you had better be able to answer some hard questions once you pass through that door.

Dartmouth has defended their hiring in statements by officials who have said “Susan Taffe Reed is of Native and European heritage,” and that “She has never represented herself as a member of a federal- or state-recognized tribe. She was transparent about her professional and personal experience throughout the search process. We are satisfied with the information she provided and are confident in her qualifications for this position.” While Dartmouth may be satisfied with the way Reed has conducted itself, many of us out here in the real world are not, and we are not satisfied with Dartmouth assuming that they are the authority on who is, or isn’t Indian.

The real question is why hasn’t Dartmouth College opted to reach out to one of its hundreds of qualified and capable Native American alumni who are out working on behalf of their people? There is a huge contingent of Dartmouth alumni who are currently standing up for our treaty rights in Washington, D.C., who could have easily been tapped for the position. There is no excuse for an institution with such an abundance of resources to not engage in a nationwide search for a more appropriate candidate. The college recruits hockey players from across the U.S. and Canada but it can’t do the same for this valuable position?

I have always wondered why Dartmouth loves to highlight their authentic Native community on their brochures and during their annual pow-wow but cannot succeed in recruiting more than a handful of reservation born students each year. I don’t know why the college has permitted non-Native faculty to speak on behalf of Native communities even at times when students from those same communities are present during these lectures. And I wonder why Dartmouth, once again, has opted to choose a “box checking Indian” over one of its alumni who are out there somewhere working on improving the lives of their people.

Lest the old traditions fail.

Brandon Ecoffey is the current editor of Lakota Country Times and graduate of Dartmouth College who was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.