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Education Special: University brings American Indian presence to campus

EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa. - Bringing history and understanding to the light has been a slow process, but steadily making headway. Much of the progress continues through American colleges which pride themselves on diversity, even though curriculum often stops short of going beyond rehashing history or presenting the white perspective of culture, art and sociology. Many professors think the reluctance of curriculum to take hold in the east's conservative colleges may be due to the history of the land, where white encroachment, broken treaties and bounties placed on American Indian lives all began.

"A lot of people don't want to process that history and accept it," said Lesliee Antonette, associate professor of English at East Stroudsburg University. "Unless that happens, it's difficult for anything else to continue."

Like many higher education facilities in the east, ESU has no ethnic or cultural studies other than European. But through a unique partnership, it does have the presence of the descendants of the land's original people. For the past five years, Antonette and several of her colleagues have been inviting local Lenape to campus to increase awareness of the culture in an effort they hope will lead to formalized curriculum.

The university was among 17 organizations who signed a Treaty of Renewed Brotherhood with the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania on Aug. 24, 2002. In the spirit of Chief Tamanend and William Penn's original treaty of brotherhood, the signers of the treaty committed to actively supporting Lenape cultural identity through educational programs, language revival projects, exhibits, school curriculum, and protection of sacred land sites. The treaty recognizes the Lenape as the original inhabitants and stewards of eastern Pennsylvania and is hoped to heal the past and preserve natural history so that relationship may move out of past mistakes. To discourage adding to the 22 treaties which were broken between the state and the people, this treaty is renewable every four years.

Updating history and telling it accurately through educators has been a priority of the tribe for the past few years, "not only for our people but for our neighbors here in Pennsylvania," said Lenape Chief Bob Red Hawk Ruth.

"The rich history and culture of the Lenape people has been overlooked for many years," he said. "Our elders have always dreamed of a time when our story would be told by our own people."

An ESU professor for seven years, Antonette said the president of the school, Robert J. Dillman, is "extremely supportive" of American Indian cultural events.

"I've been working to bring Lenape presence onto campus," said Antonette. "They're the people local to this area. The campus should be a place they celebrate their culture."

In 1999 ESU began hosting a Seven Generations Festival that includes the participation of the Southeastern Cherokee Confederacy in Philadelphia and the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania. A women's drum group developed as well as a dance circle.

"It's wonderful seeing people come to this and bringing their children," said Antonette. "It's an opportunity to be educated."

A predominantly white campus with a growing number of African American and Latin students, the American Indian population at ESU remains at .1 percent, reflective of the national average.

Many of Antonette's students have revealed learning oral history about American Indian heritage among their family members. Antonette said the classes open discussion and ignite curiosity to learn more.

"There's not a lot of curiosity until they take this class," she said.

Through the Native American Student Organization which currently has no student members, Antonette helped organize the festival with the support of the university's diversity committee. Even the school's food services learned to make fry bread, sage tea and corn soup for the event, she said.

"We keep plugging along, hoping the curriculum will catch up," Antonette said.

The educational event has a "pow wow flavor" and is held at the end of the school year. It grows bigger each year, she said. This year a mid-winter gathering was also established.

"All I know to do is keep trying," she said.

This year Chuck Gentle Moon DeMund, Munsee and Keeper of the Pipe for the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, was the master of ceremony and storyteller.

"Chuck speaks beautiful Lenape," Antonette said. "I'd like to see him come in and teach a continuing education class."

Demund's visits, which may begin including storytelling cycles of the seasons, are expected to be tape recorded and archived, Antonette said. His presence is often a surprise to those who were taught there are no Indians in the east any longer.

Antonette said that often student attitudes toward history are, 'I don't know why we have to read that stuff. It happened long ago. Everything's fine now. We don't do that today.'

"Getting them to accept history without guilt would be great," Antonette said. "If we can get past that hurdle and see that Americans were not always heroes, we can work with multi-cultural ideas."

Antonette holds a doctorate degree in English with a specialty in Multicultural American Literature from the University of California at Riverside which she said has a Native American Studies program that has worked hard to develop an incredible set of library holdings.

She said she would like to continue her studies and earn a degree in American Indian literature. For the past two years she's scoped half a dozen universities within an hour and a half of both New York City and Philadelphia for courses to study.

"I've found nothing," she said.

She said the alternative is to consider earning the degree through a distance education program such as offered by the University of Montana until eastern universities offer the programs.