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Haskell University Must Start Meeting Its Moral Obligations

It’s been a long… long time a coming… but I know….change going come. On June 3, I walked into the Department of the Interior along with one of the chiefs from the Virginia tribes. We were invited by Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn to discuss the history of historic “non-federally” recognized tribes who attended the federal and closely related mission Indian boarding schools. There we met with BIE and Assistant Secretary Chief’s of Staff and Counselors who gave us a firm timeline not to exceed a year to research this issue fully.

Over the last 21 years contributors to the Haskell Endangered Legacy Project (H.E.L.P.) have compiled thousands of pages of documents including yearbook photos, newspaper articles, grade reports, athletic participation awards, and other relevant pieces of this historical narrative. Visitations to these mostly small, sometimes reservation based communities, have yielded countless interviews, times of fellowship, and video recordings. Project findings have been presented at various universities and state and national Indian organizational conferences, such as the TEDNA panel at the National Indian Education Association annual conference. We have been in direct contact with various members of both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education for many years only to be purposefully ignored or brushed off with contrite responses. It seems the 800lb. gorilla was simply too indicative of the failed federal Indian policy experiment to speak about. Now this has changed and for this we find ourselves in a new, or renewed, relationship going forward.

As former Haskell attendees and family members of former attendees, we know all too well the process and political actions that have been misused to silence these community legacies. We know firsthand the direct trauma that boarding school alumni endure when their very alma mater now denies entrance to their own children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren based on a misguided federal decision. We know firsthand what it is to speak with elders who had their blood quantum (all of one-quarter or more) documented by the BIA during their time of attendance, yet who now the same bureau says they do not exist.

When a meeting was scheduled to speak with the former Haskell Indian Nations University President Linda Warner in Lawrence, Kansas, we learned first hand the lengths the BIA/BIE would in order to push this issue under the rug. Elder boarding school alumni from both historic “non-federal” and federal tribes had come from as far away as 1,000 miles to attend this meeting on campus and support its purpose of honoring the legacy of these disaffected alumni, their tribes, and their families. Their expenses had been paid from their own pockets. After being invited into the president’s office we received word that she was “sick and unable to attend.” We were left discussing the issue with lower level employees who have no say in any school policy decisions. 

When our presentation was rendered at the Haskell Indian National Board of Regents national dialogue and informational sessions hosted by the BIE, our information was purposefully stricken from the record and was not included in the final report. After repeated attempts via mail, email, and telephone asking that our feedback be represented in the final analysis, the Haskell administration under then President Chris Redman ended all correspondence. They went on to tell us that they could make no decisions as to the matter within the university as such policy calls were the responsibility of the Bureau of Indian Education. Ironically, the 2012-2013 Haskell Catalogue states the exact opposite,

“Haskell reserves the right to change the fees, courses, graduation requirements, admission policies, and other regulations affecting the student body.”

Prior to Chris taking over the reigns of Haskell he met with me face to face to discuss the issue and told me that I would have his support. Upon receiving the title of Haskell President he conveniently forgot our people existed. Numerous employees at the school have been only able to offer private support as they have told me directly that they would have no job security if they were vocal. 

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More recent presentations at both the Tribal Leader Education Roundtable hosted by the White House Initiative on American Indians and Alaska Native Education (the Director of which was a teammate and classmate of mine at Haskell) left the audiences of tribal educational and political leaders in shock that some of their own former classmates’ tribal communities were being excluded from the very school where they once attended.

Presentations at various higher education conferences and higher education institutions such as the University of Virginia, Bacone College, and others have typically left observers in a state of disbelief that such a complete lack of accountability can be continued without correction. Consistent attempts to present at Haskell have been denied.

We need to listen to the stories of Indian people such as a Haskell Institute graduate who was sent 1,100 miles to Haskell Institute and graduated four years later in the 1950s. A woman in 2008 submitted her application for admission to pursue an undergraduate degree at her alma mater was denied as it was explained that she was “not eligible for admission” due to her tribe, the Nanticoke in Delaware, not being federally recognized. Ironically, she attended and graduated from Haskell during the time when a requirement of ¼ or more Indian blood was a part of admissions standards. The members of her tribe have blood quantum listings all exceeding ½ or more throughout BIA/BIE/Haskell records.

Many of the boarding school attendees I have spent time with over the years have begun to leave this world without the respect and value they so greatly deserved. Three years ago my relative Gallasneed Weaver walked on without resolution. The boarding school yearbooks and records reaching back into the 1940s list him as Choctaw, yet no justice for his community has been found. This past week Mattaponi elder Kenneth Custalow also passed on. Kenneth, like Gallasneed, was a man of impeccable character and dignity. They both attended Bacone together and Kenneth was later accepted to Haskell. We spent many hours on the porch of his 200 year old home on the Mattaponi Indian Reservation discussing his life in boarding school and his hope that the current prohibition at Haskell against his people and all the historic “non-federal” tribes who attended the boarding schools would be revoked.

In 2011 the National Congress of American Indians, the largest Indian organization in the country which is comprised of over 200 federally recognized tribes and only a handful of “non-federal” tribes, made it crystal clear that Indian Country endorses the re-admittance of these tribes to Haskell when it unanimously passed Resolution #PDX-11-016 which demanded such for these tribes.

Attendance at Haskell is not an issue of federal recognition. It is an issue of institutional integrity. It is an issue of ethical and moral concern. Haskell will never reach its full potential as a meaningful place of indigenous thought and leadership until it cares for the needs and is accountable to all the people and tribes who were the foundational pieces of building its legacy and reputation as “the most recognizable name in Indian country.”

Cedric Sunray is project coordinator of the Haskell Endangered Legacy Project (H.E.L.P.) and a former Haskell student. He is a culturally, socially, linguistically, politically, generationally, by-blood-sweat-and-tears-connected member of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians.