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Ithaca College Student Says Indigenous Rights Must Be Respected

Indigenous students far too often are subjected to a mockery of our culture, and an education that considers us as relics of the past.

Over the past couple weeks at Ithaca College, students have rallied and demonstrated to honor Eric Garner, Mike Brown, the 43 Mexican students who went missing after being taken into police custody, and all victims of police brutality.

At a recent demonstration in the Peggy Ryan Williams building, tears of hope flushed down my face while over 300 students called for a structured Indigenous Studies minor and the acknowledgement of structural violence in the nation. While I spoke on the Indigenous Studies minor, my mind flashed between my great grandfather, Chief Bear Ghost, who was the Chief of my tribe, and my great grandmother, Maria Valenzuela, who escaped a massacre and allowed me to be in this world. Their sacrifice in that moment was mine to bear. And when I was done speaking, the president of Ithaca College, Tom Rochon, put his hand on my shoulder, and said to me: “What do you want me to say?”

Victor Lopez-Carmen

Victor Lopez-Carmen speaks to Ithaca College President Rochon during recent demonstrations.

While I was the only one who heard him say this, the message was loud and clear. It is the same message that has been ringing through these halls for decades. While Cornell, located on the other side of town, has had a non-anthropology based American Indian program since 1983, Ithaca College and its administration, including the current Dean of Humanities and Sciences, Leslie Lewis, have denied several separate requests by the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity (CSCRE) to construct a solid program with a tenure eligible faculty member to teach a revised minor in Indigenous Studies.

In president Rochon’s recent statement regarding the demonstrations, he confidently states “I learned that we already have a Native American Studies minor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, with four faculty members listed in connection with the program and with courses available that draw on seven different academic departments.” This statement is very misleading and misinformed.

What President Rochon seems to have been describing is a minor that, while advertised on the college’s website, is not functional. We do not have a single full-time, tenure eligible, or part-time faculty member, for Native American Studies at Ithaca College.

Although the minor has existed in the anthropology department in the past, it has been fragmented and was recently moved to the CSCRE without the proper resources to actually run it. Currently, one of the only instances of homage Ithaca College pays to its Indigenous history is the Taughannock Falls room, located in campus center. Taughannock was a term used by Algonquian speaking Native Peoples to address a Chief, and Ithaca College uses it to address a room. This is especially disheartening when considering the history of the Ithaca College area. In the words of fellow Ithaca College student and human rights activist, Kayla Young “The College was built upon Cayuga Nation Territory, and the City of Ithaca was built in the wake of the scorched-earth campaigns executed by John Sullivan in 1779. In fact his instructions were “not [to] merely overrun, but destroy. The students should not have to demand for a faculty tenure-track position for the Native American Studies Program.”

The Taughannock Falls room in the Ithaca College Campus Center.

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Indigenous students far too often are subjected to a mockery of our culture, and an education that considers us as relics of the past. Now that our voices have been made present, one of the critical questions raised that must be answered is whether the relations between Ithaca College and Indigenous Peoples will uphold and respect Indigenous culture and by extension, Indigenous students.

This dialogue must first begin by recognizing our prior presence as autonomous societies on this land. For thousands of years, we have lived in sovereignty, only to still walk upon the land that our anthropology department never fails to excavate, searching for sacred Native American treasures in soil that still cries for its original shepherds.

When we recognize the process that destroyed Indigenous autonomy, it is made clear that the outcomes of that process are still alive and well in our current institutions. As Kayla Young touched upon further “the structural violence that is responsible for the deaths of Brown, Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, and the 43 Mexican students is the same kind of violence that is responsible for the colonial mass genocide of indigenous people.”

Victor Lopez-Carmen

Kayla Young addresses fellow Ithaca College during a demonstration.

The very same police force that protected its constituencies by raiding villages, and slaughtering Native American women and children is now killing black people without restraint. The same judicial system that decided to kill and criminalize hundreds of Lakota Sioux people for participating in traditional ceremonies now fails to indict officers that illegally choke black people to death on video. The very same educational institutions that shaved our heads, made us forget our language, and destroyed the Indian inside of us, are still hurting us today.

RELATED: Video: Ithaca College Students Protest Police Brutality

Our demonstrations are not protests. We are simply rendering ourselves visible, and becoming active participants in our education. We are demonstrating for acknowledgement of our importance as human beings and as people whose sacrifices and contributions have helped to make the U.S. what it is. We are collectively demanding, knowing the importance, which affects each of us, that a structured Indigenous Studies minor be implemented, with tenured faculty, and with respect for our culture and never ending history on this sacred soil.

Mitakuye Oyasin (All My Relations).

Victor Lopez-Carmen is the president of the Native American Student’s Association at Ithaca College in upstate New York.