On April 17, a group of Native Americans from the Oglala Lakota Nation drove a small trailer from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to Washington D.C. Their journey was an attempt to bring the harsh realities of life on a reservation to the attention of Congress and the White House.
The small, shabby trailer is representative of the housing units that the Oglala families rely on for shelter. The Oglala Sioux Housing Authority currently estimates that the reservation is over 1,000 units short of what is necessary for the total population, yet their budget is on the verge of being drastically reduced as a result of the sequestration cuts.
The fact that this story was not covered in major news outlets is symptomatic of the lack of concern given to Native issues. Granted, the event took place around the time of the violence occurring in Boston, but other significant events in Native communities—including struggles with the federal government—have continually been denied coverage in mainstream American media.
Unfortunately, we at the Miscellany News see a similar phenomenon being replicated on Vassar’s campus—a campus that is home to Native students and faculty, and that is located on Native land in a city whose name comes from the Wappinger language.
Despite touting a commitment to diversity and exhibiting a historic interest in issues relating to social justice, there is little dialogue on campus about Native peoples, their cultures and the challenges they face to their political and physical sovereignty.
This is evident in the lack of availability in classes in Native Studies, which is currently a correlate program within the American Studies Department as well as a general shortage of campus discourse on Native American issues and cultures.
One particularly salient example of this lack of visibility is the treatment of our unique collection of contemporary Native pottery that is kept in storage, rather than on display at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.
Long-time collector Edd Guarino has offered to will his entire collection of his pieces to the College if they are placed on display. If collected, Guarino’s contributions would make Vassar the single largest owner of contemporary native art in the region. This is an incredible opportunity for the College. Yet most students don’t know about the collection.
It is imperative that the College improve its dedication to the academic coverage of Native issues. Currently, Native American Studies is a correlate program, and there is only one professor who specializes in Native studies, resulting in small class listing with limited scope. Though the Native American Studies classes currently offered are highly valuable, one professor cannot possibly cover the native issues across all nations and disciplines. While this profesor can inform the student body about native issues from personal experiences, there are hundreds of tribes in the United States, and having a limited number of individuals may lead to essentializing Native American cultures.
Because of its interdisciplinary nature, the expansion of the Native Studies program would benefit many areas of study. Centering native issues provides a rich lens for examining other disciplines like History, Art History, Environmental Studies, Political Science, English and Sociology. We applaud the efforts already made by some faculty to incorporate Native issues into their curriculum, but would like to see this on a more substantial scale.
In addition to an academic commitment to Native American Studies, we encourage the campus to engage with and become aware of Native issues on a social level. Over the last year especially the College has experienced a push for increasing awareness of social issues and a desire to improve campus climate.
In issues of gender and racial identity, Native American histories, struggles and cultures must also be taken into consideration. One way to accomplish this goal is in the form of the social awareness requirement, which is currently being discussed by the Vassar Student Association.
The voices of Native students on campus must be heard, which is why the Miscellany News supports the efforts underway to increase visibility of Native Americans within the context of the ALANA Center. Many students do not know that the last two letters—”NA”—stand for Native American. The recent creation of a Native American Student Alliance, and its upcoming dinner and discussion, is an exciting step forward for the College, and we encourage the growth of and participation in such student groups, as well as institutional support for its programming.
Currently, there are 566 federally recognized Native tribes in the United States. These are nations whose histories and sovereignty predate those of the United States, and despite the destructive effects of colonization, are still living, growing, and fighting to assert their sovereignty.
Understanding these issues are foundational to understanding American history and culture. This is why we encourage Native American Studies at Vassar to move beyond a correlate program and support more student initatives on indigenous issues; these actions truly reflect the vibrant and dynamic field of study and will bring more social equity to this campus and America.
—The Staff Editorial represents the opinion of at least 2/3 of the seventeen member Editorial Board