Stony Brook scholarships fulfill 250-year-old promise

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STONY BROOK, N.Y. - Selected students from the Shinnecock and Unkechaug Indian nations will receive four-year scholarships to attend Stony Brook University beginning this fall under a recently established Native American People Scholarship program.

The program was created at the end of December with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding by university President Shirley Strum Kenny and tribal chiefs Lance Gumbs of the Shinnecock Indian Nation and Harry Wallace of the Unkechaug Indian Nation.

''The Native American people have an extraordinary legacy in the East End communities,'' Kenny said, referring to the tribes' aboriginal and historical territories on Long Island. ''They have enriched our history, our culture and our knowledge of the region. These scholarships demonstrate our commitment to work cooperatively with our neighbors in Southampton and the surrounding areas, and to be an important resource for them.''

The scholarships will include tuition, room and board, fees, supplies and health insurance. At least one scholarship per year per tribe will be awarded with a future goal of providing scholarships to as many qualified Native students as possible, according to the MOU.

''The scholarship and the commitment from the university will help to fulfill one of the most pressing concerns in our community: the ability to attain a quality education for our peoples,'' Gumbs said.

Stony Brook University, which is part of the State University of New York system, was established in 1957 as a college for the preparation of secondary school teachers of mathematics and science. The university ranks high among the world's institutions of higher education. The London Times Higher Education Supplement ranks Stony Brook at 136 among more than 8,300 universities worldwide. Among science universities, Stony Brook ranks in the top 100 in the world, top 25 in North America and top 10 among public universities.

''This scholarship is a tremendous first step in fulfilling a 250-year-old promise to provide advanced educational opportunities for Long Island's Native peoples,'' Wallace said.

The promise goes back to mid-18th century colonial Connecticut and the life of Samson Occom, a Mohegan, Wallace said.

Occom was a brilliant young man born in 1723, a time when settler expansionism and the ravages of imperial trade were decimating the Northeastern woodland tribes through disease, warfare, alcoholism, divide-and-conquer factionalism and dispossession.

Recognizing that his own people were ''perishing for a lack of Vision,'' Occom converted to Christianity at the age of 17 and taught himself to read and write, according to Bernd Peyer, a former lecturer in Native American Studies at Dartmouth College.

Occom went on to study in Eleazar Wheelock's school in Lebanon, Conn., where he advanced from rudimentary to fluent English and proficient Latin, Greek and Hebrew in four years.

During a seasonal fishing trip to Montauk territory in Long Island, the tribe invited Occom to stay and he remained there for a dozen years, teaching and preaching to the Native communities.

''Wheelock promised that if Occom would help raise funds to establish a college for the education of Native students, it would be set up and established on Long Island,'' Wallace said.

In 1765, Wheelock sent Occom on a fund-raising trip to England, where he delivered more than 300 sermons - in one instance, to an overflow audience of 3,000 people - and raised an astounding 12,000 English pounds sterling in private donations.

''The college that Wheelock promised to establish was not established on Long Island. It was Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and very few Indian students attended, even though its charter was to education Indians,'' Wallace said.

Dartmouth College recommitted itself to its original charter mission in the 1970s and has since made a focused effort to recruit both American Indian students and faculty. The college now includes the largest Native population among Ivy League colleges - around 160 students, or 3 percent.

Wallace, a strong supporter of higher education, was among the first Native students to attend Dartmouth in the 1970s. He continued his education at New York Law School, where he graduated cum laude in 1982, then practiced law for about a dozen years before getting involved in tribal government.

Wallace said he told Stony Brook that it was time to fulfill the 250-year-old promise.

''President Shirley Strum Kenny listened and recognized that something needed to be done to bring us closer, particularly since the school's campus is on Indian land. We sat down and rather quickly negotiated the MOU and had a wonderful ceremony, and the first students will be admitted in the fall of 2007,'' Wallace said.

A scholarship committee comprising representatives from the two tribes and the university will review applications and award the scholarships. The committee will also establish an endowment.

''We'll also be helping raise funds to increase the endowment, and we hope to have all of our students who graduate from high school qualify for admission by the year 2008.

''It's a wonderful story and we're very pleased about it,'' Wallace said.

The scholarship students will be able to pursue any of the 119 available undergraduate majors and minors.

Stony Brook currently has 24 undergraduate students and 13 graduate students who self-identify as American Indian.