Cornell’s American Indian Program (AIP) and Akwe:kon are the legacy of a generation of scholars, administrators, students and community members who worked hard to build a program that would live up to the ideals of inclusion that the University espouses.
The first American Indians at Cornell were here, in part, because of the work of Earl Bates, who started a program with the goal of helping them become better farmers and housewives. A number of Native students graduated from that early program. And, although a few Native students graduated from Cornell in the 1930s and ‘40s, there were no real services or programs for them.
In the early 1970s, Cornell University reported a population of approximately 300 Native students. But a group of students known as the Native American Student Association argued that the numbers grossly overestimated the Native population because the University counted any incoming student who checked a box titled, “Native American.” Many who checked the box assumed that it simply asked if they were born in the US. This controversy about American Indian students on campus was the catalyst for Frank Bonamie, a Cayuga chief living in Ithaca, to contact university officials and initiate a process that would eventually establish the AIP.
The actual number of American Indian students enrolled annually at Cornell at that time was very small (less than 5% of the overall student population). Most would opt not to finish their first semester yet, no one followed up with these students; nor had any idea why they were leaving; or what might be done to increase their success at Cornell. Bonamie was convinced that the problem resided in Cornell, the institution, and not in the ability of the Native students. He lobbied the University to look more analytically at the problems that Native students were encountering.
As a result of Bonamie’s initiative, a committee formed that produced the “Hunt Proposal.” This result of a joint project between the College of Human Ecology and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Proposal recommended that Cornell hire a graduate student to first recruit students and then develop policies and practices that would enable those students to be successful. Bill Jones, then Assistant to the Provost, recruited Barbara Adams (Tonawanda Seneca) to fill that role.
Abrams arrived on campus in 1975 and began working with five new students and three continuing students. The first years were difficult: many of the COSEP (Committee on Special Education Projects) staff members who recruited students from other un-represented groups had never worked closely with Native staff or students, so culture shock and communication difficulties were experienced on all sides. But the Program began to grow slowly, adding a few new students each year. In 1976, the first Native students enrolled in Cornell Law School.
The students made up the core of the beginnings of the AIP. Abrams worked to involve faculty and staff from throughout the campus in many aspects of the Program. She recruited a number of students to work with her and in support of the other students. That first group was called the “American Indian Affairs Ad Hoc Committee.” Bill Jones and Frank Bonamie played a big part in keeping the Committee going and providing it with support. Abrams organized an array of social, cultural and academic activities to support Native students, including dinners at the homes of faculty and staff, picnics and co-ed bowling and basketball teams. Although the College of Agriculture and the College of Human Ecology provided a small amount of money and office space for the AIP, as well as tuition and stipend for Abrams, there was no actual program budget.
The AIP began with an emphasis on student services, but very quickly an academic component emerged as well. In 1975 Cornell hired Richard Metcalf to teach American Indian courses. Metcalf, along with other senior faculty (including Dr. Milton Barnett, Dr. Kathryn Moore, Dr, Mary Beth Norton, and Dr. Billie Jean Isbell) envisioned a program that included both the recruitment and retention of American Indian students and academic course work. When Metcalf left, the History department hired a young scholar named Dan Usner. Dr. Usner became an essential member of the Ad Hoc Committee and later went on to lead the AIP as its Director.
During the early years, the Ad Hoc Committee played a critical role in the development of the AIP. There were always some students on the Committee, as well as faculty and staff members. At that time, there was little distinction between the undergraduate and the graduate students. The graduate and professional students served as role models for the undergraduates and also added a dimension of urgency and excitement to the AIP.
As the AIP grew, the University changed its method of determining the Native ethnicity of incoming students. The first step was to change the “box” category from “Native American” to “American Indian/Alaska Native.” The next step was to verify the Tribal enrollment of undergraduate applicants. These steps have continued to evolve over the years, taking into account the complexities of enrollment.
Native students were very active in pushing the Committee to present a formal proposal for the development of an American Indian Program to the necessary administrators, committees and the Board of Trustees. The only ethnic program in existence at Cornell in the early ‘80s was the Africana Studies and Research Center.
Once approval was received for establishment of the AIP in 1983, Ray Fougnier was hired as its first Director. The Program was housed in Stone Hall on the Agriculture (Ag) Quad, and had an office assistant, an extension associate and a student support specialist. The AIP had grown from a small ad-hoc group of individuals committed to the education of Native students to a formal program with a budget, staff lines and office space.
Since those early years, the AIP has continued onward, growing in fits and starts. It moved several times, added Akwe:kon (the first college/university residence hall and program house in the country purposely built to celebrate Native culture and heritage). Ron LaFrance, Director of AIP from 1987 to1994, was instrumental in AIP’s development; it was primarily his initiative and persistence that enabled the construction of Akwe:kon. The AIP also added new staff lines, expanded its outreach/extension component, and developed an undergraduate concentration and graduate minor in American Indian Studies. In 1984 the program added a journal, the Northeast Indian Quarterly, which later became Native Americas, an award-winning publication addressing contemporary issues of concern to Indigenous Peoples within this hemisphere and beyond. The journal moved in 2003 to the First Nations Development Institute.
Currently, the AIP serves about 160 students (both undergraduate, graduate and professional). Our retention rate for Native students is among the highest in the country. In fall 2008, we expect 35 Native first-year or transfer students. Our faculty members teach more than 20 courses in Anthropology, Development Sociology, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Education, English, History, Horticulture, Law and Natural Resources. Several of our faculty, staff and students have a keen interest in the concerns and contributions of Indigenous Peoples worldwide.
We now have approximately 300 alumni and have had four alumni reunions. Graduates have gone on to successful careers such as medicine, law, education, engineering and other fields.
Dr. Jane Mt. Pleasant, who was a transfer student in 1977, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Horticulture. In 2005 Mt. Pleasant was chosen by the Smithsonian Institution as one of "35 People Who Made a Difference In The World" for her work as an agricultural scientist. In June 2008 she completed two consectutive terms as AIP’s Director. The current Director of AIP is Dr. Eric Cheyfitz, Ernest I.White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters.
To paraphrase Louise Erdrich (Anishinaabe), we were able to build because everyone reached a hand down to pull the next ones up.