Skip to main content

Indians making their mark on Eastern elite colleges

  • Author:
  • Updated:
    Original:

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - When Andrew Lee went to his opening week of classes at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, he passed a rotunda displaying the national flags of the students attending the school. But as a Seneca, Lee never saw the flag of his own people, until this year.

Now, after a bit of lobbying, the school's flying the flags of two Indian nations, the Osage and Lee's Iroquois confederacy. "It was up there flying front and center," Lee said. "I felt really proud."

Lee is one of a generation of Indian students making a serious impact on elite Eastern campuses and in turn bringing the impressive resources of the Ivy League back to Indian country.

Now on the staff of the Harvard Project for American Indian Economic Development, Lee directs its Honoring Nations program. And he is not the only Ivy Indian making his voice heard.

To be sure, there are high spots and low spots, and a big difference in between. And no one in the East can match the broad range of language and cultural resources found at colleges supported by a large tribal population. But the Ivies can boast of flourishing Indian programs at Harvard, Cornell and Dartmouth, founded with funds raised by a Mohegan evangelist, but took 200 years to return the favor.

Indian enrollment at Dartmouth has ranged from 2 to 3 percent in recent years, with 140 currently at the school. The dean of Dartmouth College, Jim Larimore, is Comanche.

At the other end, Princeton University has just .7 percent Indian and Alaskan Native, a lonely 29 of 4,600 undergraduates, and the best it can do for Native studies is to assign an occasional book by an Indian author. But this was the school that produced Hugh Henry Brackenridge, the 18th century author who advocated Indian extermination.

Some non-Ivy Eastern schools, such as the University of Massachusetts and the University of Maine, offer concentrations in Native American studies and student support such as special housing. The Vermont Law School has established a First Nations Environmental Law Program.

Here is a rundown of the outstanding Ivy League programs:

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Dartmouth: This college in Hanover, N.H., is making up for lost time. It was founded in 1769 expressly to educate "Indian youths, English youths and others," and its first endowment was the then-large sum of 12,000 pounds raised on a speaking tour in the British Isles by the Mohegan evangelist Samson Occam. But Occam was bitterly disappointed by the way his funds were used. In the next 200 years Dartmouth graduated only about 20 American Indians.

Larimore said the attitude changed sharply when John Kemeny became president in 1970. As chairman of an equal opportunity committee, Larimore wrote a report advocating a return to the original commitment to Indian education. On Kemeny's first day as president this report landed on his desk, "and he thought its conclusions were well founded."

Dartmouth now has a Native American Studies Program, headed by Professor Colin Calloway, and a separate Native American Program for student support, run by Michael Hanitchak. The academic program offers 13 to 15 courses a year, taught by five tenure-track professors (who have joint appointments in other departments.)

Its largest course, a history of European-Native encounters called, "The Invasion of America," draws more than 70 students. Another course on contemporary Native issues recently changed its name to "Indian Country Today."

Harvard: Very conscious of its elite alumni, including Vice President Al Gore, this bustling university across the river from Boston is working on programs geared to Indian country. The American Indian Economic Development Project at the Kennedy School of Government sends its students to do case studies of tribal programs, in effect providing a free consultant service. The project also gives tribal leaders briefings on its findings.

The university also has a Native American Program for the 130 Indian students in its graduate and undergraduate schools. Currently housed at the Graduate School of Education, this program just took on a new executive director, Ken Pepion, a Blackfeet.

Cornell: The Western-most of the Ivies and closest to a major tribal grouping, the Iroquois Confederacy, this upstate New York campus is a center for the new Indian intelligentsia. It founded an American Indian Program in 1982, offering courses taught by notables such as Bob Venables, former curator of the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian, and painter Kay WalkingStick. Up to 35 students, Indian and non-Indian, may reside in a specially built dormitory opened in 1991. Called Akwe:kon, Mohawk for "all of us" it is designed in the shape of an eagle.

Cornell spokesman Linda Grace-Kobas said the university enrolled 103 Indian students last year in both the college and graduate schools, about .5 percent of its 19,000 students. The American Indian Program has emphasized national recruiting since its beginning, assisting an estimated 1,500 applicants.

Cornell also has an outreach program through its American Indian Agriculture Project, which provides seed to Native farmers across New York state, and through the Akwesasne Environmental Testing Laboratory on the Akwesasne (St. Regis) Mohawk Reservation.