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The Urgency of Now: Duke must take action to support Native American students

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“I’m really looking at it though as an opportunity to heal above all. That is the goal here, not to shame them in any way, shape, or form but an opportunity to heal...and not by words but by actions.” 

- Myron Dewey (Paiute/Shoshone) 2019 Lehman Brady Professor at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies

The Duke Native American Student Alliance (NASA) is writing an open letter to Duke University. In this letter, we explain how Duke University has failed to adequately support Indigenous students. Then, we outline ways that Duke can better meet its goal of becoming an anti-racist institution. This would not only benefit Native American students at Duke but also Indigenous communities throughout North Carolina.  

Duke University ranks as the 12th-best university in the United States but lags far behind many institutions in providing support for Indigenous students. Duke does not have a Native Studies Program, an Indigenous Cultural Center, adopted land acknowledgement or other academic and financial support programs for Native students. 

21 of the top 25 schools in the country offer better support for Indigenous students. The Duke Native American Student Alliance conducted research on resources for Indigenous students at the top 25 schools in the United States as ranked by US News. Of these schools, 19 institutions provide substantial support (Indigenous Studies Programs, Indigenous Cultural Centers, Additional Support Programs) and 2 provide limited support. Four schools provide minimal support: Duke, Vanderbilt, Rice and CalTech. These schools only offer organizations led by students or alumni.

We are further alarmed because North Carolina has the largest population of Indigenous people east of the Mississippi River and is home to eight recognized Tribal Nations. Additionally, Duke once housed the Cherokee Industrial School, a residential school which aimed to eradicate Cherokee culture. Considering these facts, we believe that Duke has an even greater obligation to support Indigenous students.

Duke University has taken little initiative to support Indigenous students. Because the university has only one Indigenous faculty member, Duke committed to hiring Indigenous professors during the 2021 spring and fall semesters. However, this process was ultimately flawed. The Dean of Trinity College rejected a prominent Indigenous professor despite the history department and the Native Cluster Hire Committee unanimously supporting her hiring. Duke administration also did not involve Native students during the hiring process, even though NASA laid the groundwork for the Native Cluster Hire. 

The Duke Native American Student Alliance is not attempting to shame Duke University. Rather, we are inviting Duke to work with Indigenous students to better meet the university’s goal of becoming an anti-racist institution. Duke University must work with Indigenous students to take action and set an example for institutions nationwide.

We, The Duke University Native American Student Alliance (NASA), ask that:

  • Deans, Directors of Undergraduate Studies and the Native American Cluster Hire Committees include Native Students in the hiring of senior Indigenous faculty who can support our organization's goals. 
  • President Vincent E. Price, Provost Sally Kornbluth and the Dean of Trinity College work to establish a Native Studies program with Native student, faculty, and staff involvement. 
  • Vice President/Vice Provost of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon, and Student Affairs leaders create a Native American Center with Native student, faculty and staff involvement. And that in the meantime, Duke Student Affairs hire a Native American Assistant Director in the Center for Multicultural Affairs with Native student input.
  • The Deans of Duke University and the Office for Institutional Equity adopt a land acknowledgment, currently being drafted by NASA students and a Land Acknowledgement Committee, and distribute it to faculty for class syllabi.
  • The Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education meet with NASA to discuss academic scholarships for Indigenous students as reparations for the Trinity College Cherokee Industrial School. 
  • The President’s Office and the Office of the University Secretary meet with NASA to discuss including Native alumni on the Board of Trustees and the creation of a Native & Indigenous President’s Council.
  • The Office of Undergraduate Admissions take action to recruit and retain more Native American students with Native student, faculty and staff involvement. The OUA establish a college preparedness program on the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, NC in collaboration with the EBCI Higher Education and Training department as reparations for the Trinity College Cherokee Industrial School. 

The Duke Native American Student Alliance believes that these are not special considerations but rather the bare minimum needed to produce equitable outcomes and to hold Duke University accountable for its participation in settler colonialism. 

An Indigenous professor weighs in

“It hurt when the students were so far from home and they didn’t have that support. They’re not like other students. The historical trauma is embedded in the actions of the university that they attend. And invisibility is part of that trauma, disregarding it is part of that trauma, discounting it is part of that trauma. Duke needs a center for these reasons.” 

- Myron Dewey (Paiute/Shoshone) speaking about his experiences as the Lehman Brady Professor at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies

In the spring of 2019, Myron Dewey, a highly respected Indigenous documentarian,  was selected as the Lehman Brady Professor at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies, a semester-long position. The Duke Native American Student Alliance was able to speak with Mr. Dewey regarding this letter. 

Mr. Dewey recalls many positive aspects of his time as professor at Duke University. He remembers being treated with great respect by faculty who went out of their way to help him feel welcome and empowered. However, Mr. Dewey was surprised by the school's lack of resources for his Indigenous students. He recalls, “It just surprised me that the school was hundreds of years behind other schools in the contribution to Indigenous education, and the students had to really struggle to get support from the university.”

Indigenous students at Duke have always had to advocate for basic accommodations from their school. When Mr. Dewey was a professor, Indigenous students were the only group on campus without a space at the university’s Center for Multicultural Affairs. Former NASA President Shandiin Herrera (Diné) published an article detailing hardships faced by Native American students. After Shandiin’s article and support from Mr. Dewey, Native students finally received their own space in 2019.

Mr. Dewey is best known for his activism surrounding the infamous Dakota Access Pipeline (NODAPL). After witnessing Duke’s resistance to accommodating Indigenous students, Myron realized, “Being that Duke is an old boarding school, it didn’t surprise me the patterns we were going to go became a different front line, an academic front line.”

Mr. Dewey emphasizes that Duke University must offer an Indigenous Studies Department with a curriculum designed by the many accomplished Indigenous scholars in Indian Country. Also, this department should function in conjunction with a dedicated Indigenous Cultural Center. From his knowledge of universities across the United States, Mr. Dewey is confident that this could be accomplished with a budget equal to any other academic department. 

Duke University must make drastic changes to the way it engages with Indigneous students. Since the publication of Shandiin Herrera’s article in 2019, Duke has met few of NASA's demands. But neither the Duke Native American Student alliance nor Mr. Dewey is attempting to shame Duke University. Instead, we are inviting an institution we love to unite with Indigenous students in the healing process. As Mr. Dewey firmly reiterates, the emphasis is always on healing: “There is so much opportunity that school can offer in healing if it chose to… and not by words but by actions.”

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