Education | National

Native Sun News: Protest divides Dartmouth's Native students

The following story was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Managing Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Taylor Payer a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa nation has received no support from the Native American student organization on campus for her role in a recent protest.

Protest divides Dartmouth Natives
By Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Managing Editor

HANOVER, NH—A recent protest and the response to it by Dartmouth’s Native American student group has left the Native Alumni of Dartmouth at odds with the Ivy League college’s current Native American students.

Nestled in the forests of central New Hampshire, Dartmouth College is home to one of the most successful Native American student programs amongst America’s elite institutions of higher learning. Originally founded in 1769 by Eleazer Wheelock and Samson Occom, a Mohegan and primary fundraiser, the college has a long history of educating Native people as the charter states its purpose is “for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this land.” Dartmouth has a reputation for producing highly successful Native American alumni, a group that includes the likes of Charles Eastman (Santee Dakota), one of the first Native Americans in history to earn a medical degree.

However, in the first 200 years of the institutions existence there were only 19 Native American graduates. In 1973, the college recommitted itself to its original purpose of educating Native American students and has since placed a heavy emphasis on both the recruitment of Native American students and the development of a Native American Studies program, which is now widely considered to be the best undergraduate program in the world.

Since the rededication, Native alumni successes include Jodi Archambault-Gillete, a Hunkpapa Dakota and Senior Policy advisor on Native American affairs to the White House; Bruce Duthu, a member of the United Houma Nation who is a professor at the school, chair of the Native American Studies program, and one of the leading minds on federal Indian law; and world renown author Louise Erdrich, a Sisseton Dakota.

The college at any given time has over 100 self-identified Native American students on campus and tens of students who are actually from Native American communities. According to Dartmouth’s admissions office, there are 91 students in next year’s incoming class of freshman who self-identify as being Native American- the most in the school’s history.

A recent reaction by the school’s Native American student group to a protest on campus however has raised the ire of Dartmouth Native alumni who feel that current students have lost track of their role as Native people on campus.

On April 19th during Dartmouth’s Dimensions program, a student group called Real Talk Dartmouth staged a protest that sought to raise awareness of a number of issues that the group felt the college has failed to address. Dimensions is one of two weekends on campus where the college hosts minority students in an attempt to recruit them to attend Dartmouth, the other is the Native American Fly-In weekend that specifically targets the top students in Indian country.

The group crashed the Dimensions event with signs and chants addressing issues including homophobia, high rates of sexual assault on campus, and the continued use of the highly controversial Dartmouth Indian head mascot at sporting events. The mascot was never an official symbol of the school but has been promoted by both alums and current fraternities for years despite opposition from Native students. A video of the protest was placed on YouTube showing the group forcing their way in to a crowded hall of prospective students and shouting their message.

The protest sparked outrage from many students on campus who felt that the forum and way in which the protest was carried out was inappropriate.

“The general opinion is that what happened was uncalled for, and that they deserve some form of punishment, not because they expressed their opinions but because they barged in,” said Nikhil Arora, a student organizer of Dimensions, to the college’s on-campus newspaper The Dartmouth. “There was nothing we could do and we weren’t going to resort to violence,” added Arora.

After the event, threats were made against the protestors on an online message board. The threats led the administration at Dartmouth to cancel classes for a day, and replaced the original message board with online forums for discussion on community development. The cancellation brought national attention to the protest and led to the video going viral.

Acts of civil disobedience at Dartmouth, or on any other college campus in America, are everyday occurrences. However, when it was learned that a preemptive video that was part of the protest was created and released on the YouTube channel, Savage Media by Taylor Payer, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa nation, the Native community found itself embroiled in the debate surrounding the appropriateness of the protest and were forced to answer questions as to what role the community plays in on-campus political discussion. Savage Media is loosely affiliated with Native students on campus and has served as a place where they can express themselves through video.

“Due to my affiliation with NAD and the video I made originally published under Savage Media, many students blamed the Native community for the protest. To my knowledge, I was the only Native student who participated in the protest and the events leading up to it,” said Payer. “I am deeply saddened to know I played a part in hurting a community I consider to be my family, but I am an activist precisely because of my love for my Native community at home and at school,” she added.

Although Payer acknowledges that the protest was in no way affiliated with Native Americans at Dartmouth (NAD), the response from the school’s Native American student group has rubbed many alumni the wrong way. In a statement to The Dartmouth, Phoebe Racine (Blackfeet) and president of NAD distanced herself from the protestors, and subsequently Payer. “NAD is an apolitical group that does not take an official stance on campus issues, but many individuals in the community are uncomfortable with Dartmouth’s former Indian mascot, which the protesters complained about in their demonstration,” said Racine to the paper.

In the past, NAD has been an active participant in on-campus political diologue and has been quick to take on the fight of Native American students on campus. However according to Payer, the group has not reached out officially to support her against the backlash that has come from the rest of campus.

“There have been a few individuals who have contacted me and expressed their support for me but as far as NAD as a student organization, they have not,” said Payer.

The stance taken by Racine elicited a quick response by alumni on Facebook who feel that the mere presence of Native students on campus is a political statement in itself.

“A Native's presence anywhere, and especially at a place like Dartmouth, is inherently political because we come from and represent Nations that have been here longer than any other,” said Cory Corneilius, a Dakota, Salish and Oneida alum, to Native Sun News. “Like their ancestors before them believed, for many Dartmouth students we still are a problem. We remind them of the legacy of this country, that we are still here, that we are not confined to our reservations, and that we will continue to be a problem” he added.

In the Native American Alumni at Dartmouth Facebook group support for Payer seemed to be unanimous as alumni recounted their own experiences of speaking out against perceived injustice during their time as students there.

When contacted by Native Sun News, Phoebe Racine declined to comment only saying that her responsibilities as a student were more important than her role as president of NAD, and she did not have time to comment as to what stance NAD would take going forward.

According to representatives from NAAAD, a letter from the organization was being considered and would be sent to both The Dartmouth and NSN detailing the group’s official position and in support of Payer.

Payer did draft a letter of apology to the Native American community at Dartmouth but in it stood by her decision to speak out.

“I have had a rough couple of days and am deeply hurting, because of the hurt I caused in our community. Reflecting back on my actions, I remain self-critical and recognize that I should have done something differently, but ultimately I stand by my politics and actions. I did what I did because I cannot remain complicit in systems of racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism. I will never say it is the burden of Natives to be political and fight the systems that oppress them, but I personally put that burden on myself and won't ever stop fighting” said Payer in the letter.

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