Oct. 23, 2013

Native American students discuss sovereign spaces

Audra Simpson
Anthropologist Audra Simpson of Columbia University gave the keynote address Oct. 18.

More than 50 Native American and indigenous students from seven of the eight Ivy League institutions and from local colleges gathered at Cornell Oct. 18-20 to engage in dialogue and to discuss their academic and personal pursuits.

The All-Ivy Native Council semiannual summit, hosted by Native American Students at Cornell (NASAC) and the American Indian Program (AIP), “is a very special place that allows Native American students from all the Ivies to come together, learn and have great dialogue,” said Natani Notah ’14, co-chair of NASAC.

A major topic of discussion was the concept of “sovereign spaces.” “Sovereignty is a broad term that we tried to define,” said Notah. Consensus among the participating students was that personal sovereignty is a person’s ability to be happy, balanced, satisfied and practice their culture.

Notah continued, “We wanted to discuss where sovereignty has been oppressed in our schools, and in society at large.”

To explore this question, students researched the history of the Native American land each Ivy League institution sits on. Notah said that simple changes can help overcome historic injustices. For example, statements of recognition that Cornellians are studying on the homelands of the Cayuga Nation could signal respect and appreciation for the land and its original inhabitants.

Ansley Jemison, residence hall director of Akwe:kon (the Cornell residential program house that celebrates American Indian heritage) and adviser to NASAC, said the summit itself “creates that sovereign space where students can interact as Native people, trade ideas, discuss and just be.”

Heather Williams ’16, Cornell representative on the board of the All-Ivy Native Council, said, “It was nice meeting other Native American students in higher education, because to some degree we all face similar adversities at our institutions.”

Jemison said some Native students who were raised in Native American territories feel like they are compromising their culture and losing themselves by moving to a non-Native American world. He added, “In a lot of ways we straddle two worlds.”

While Native American nations are often “relegated to the past, we’re still in fact a very vibrant culture,” said Jemison. “There are still people who understand and practice their cultures and languages.”

The lack of education about Native American cultures and nations, as well as false stereotypes, are evident on Cornell’s campus, Notah said:  “Your intelligence, as a Native American student, is always questioned on an elite campus.”

When asked about Native American costumes for Halloween, Notah commented: “It is disrespectful and racially based. You wouldn’t see a white person dressed up as African-American for Halloween.”

Despite such ignorance, Williams said educational programs NASAC and AIP help promote awareness. Jemison noted that Akwe:kon is home to Native and non-Native students, as suggested by its Mohawk name meaning “all of us.” He added, “Having students from all different walks of life makes it an interesting and exciting community,” with many opportunities for cultural exchange.

The summit began with opening words by Cayuga Sub-Chief Carl Hill, and included a research workshop, a presentation on Native Americans in higher education by Stephanie Waterman of the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education and Human Development, a keynote speech by anthropologist Audra Simpson of Columbia University, and a food sovereignty presentation by Jane Mt. Pleasant, Cornell associate professor of horticulture.

Abigail Warren '15 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.