By TEDDYE SNELL
Northeastern State University and the Cherokee Nation are inexorably linked. NSU was originally founded as the Cherokee National Female Seminary in 1851, and has a long history of incorporating Cherokee cultural aspects into its curriculum. It has also embraced expanding American Indian programming across campus.
But Alexis Watt, a second-year Cherokee student from Delaware County, claims that these days, those ties are tenuous. Watt recently leveled allegations of discrimination against NSU, saying cultural courses for American Indians are often canceled, and that “Euro-American” classes receive preference. She also alleges NSU has few American Indians on staff to serve an enrollment that is about 30 percent native.
“Recently, NSU has taken credit for their ‘Indian-friendly’ campus, while behind the scenes, [a whole] different picture [is painted],” wrote Watt in a letter to the Daily Press. “NSU is promoting a plan to improve the school... What they do not promote is Native American culture, which happens to be the primary culture of both the campus and community constituents.”
Dr. Martha Albin, director of Human Resources at NSU, provided information indicating that of 922 full-time employees, 168 – or 18.2 percent – are American Indian. Of those, three hold executive positions, 32 are faculty, 36 hold other professional positions, and 97 have other staff jobs. NSU also employs 69 American Indians on a part-time basis, 49 of whom are faculty members.
Albin said students, faculty and staff are not required to produce proof of tribal citizenship.
“We rely on a self-reporting system, and by federal law, we cannot require a person to indicate tribal affiliation,” she said.
Ken Rivas, a member of the Tohono o’odam tribe of southern Arizona, transferred to NSU from Haskell Indian Junior College in 1980. He is now coordinator of the Office of Parking and Traffic at NSU, and began working at the university in 1989 full-time.
“What attracted me to NSU was the Native American enrollment,” said Rivas. “I’ve seen a lot of growth and progress in those programs over the years.”
Rivas, who was named a 2013 NSU Centurion, said the university has given him opportunities to take part in many activities.
“I have opportunities to work in a campus community of many races and get to see them having their moments to showcase their culture and traditions,” said Rivas. “I enjoy meeting people and learning about different cultures.”
Rivas said he has been given time and opportunity to serve on the Symposium of the American Indian Powwow committee; sponsor the Native American Student Association, the Alpha Pi Alpha fraternity, and the International Student Organization; serve as board member of the Indigenous Scholar Development Center Advisory Board and the NSU Commencement Committee; and has worked with both NSU and Tahlequah community events.
“Working in Parking Services dealing with violators, I have had my share of stress,” said Rivas. “I have been supported by many people in my work at NSU. My years here have given me more opportunities, learning experiences and an overall positive living experience. I am pleased to be part of the NSU community.”
Dr. Pamela Fly, assistant vice president for Academic Affairs, said that when NSU moved to a new data management system, 29 different tribal affiliations were offered for recording enrollment data.
“We quickly found that 29 were not enough,” said Fly. “We have about 9,500 students enrolled, and of those, 30 percent are American Indian.”
The Center for Tribal Studies at NSU, founded in 1990, has an interdisciplinary focus that recognizes the diversity of tribal nations, communities, cultures and languages. It administers many programs specifically designed to increase the educational attainment of American Indian populations.
According to Dr. Phyllis Fife, director of CTS, NSU’s new Indigenous Scholar Development Center was established through a Title 3 federal grant to meet the university’s growing need to provide direct services to native students.
“While the Center for Tribal Studies has provided direct services in the past, with our large American Indian population, we had a need to expand to serve students in a more focused way,” said Fife.
Other programs and services provided by the CTS include the Symposium on the American Indian, the Arts of Indigenous Culture series, the Indigenous Language Revitalizing Project, the Language Revitalization Seminar, and the Oklahoma Workshop on Native American Languages.
“The seminar draws eight to 10 different tribal language groups,” said Fife. “OWNAL is a scholarly linguistic conference, and the Language Revitalization Seminar, held in conjunction with the symposium, draws some of the foremost Native American linguistic experts.”
Fife said the CTS also collects data on Native American populations.
“We are often called on to provide guidance to researchers on American Indian topics and issues,” said Fife.
In her letter, Watt pointed to an article appearing last month on the Indian Country Today Media Network, which first brought to light the allegations of discrimination. The columnist, Dwanna L. Robertson, quoted Fife and paraphrased comments she purportedly obtained from other faculty members through “internal sources.” Dr. Phillip Bridgmon, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, told the Press the faculty members to which Robertson attributed her material were “appalled” by the article.
Watt also indicated Dr. Leslie Hannah, English professor and former director of the Cherokee Language Program, has been the target of discriminatory practices, and would corroborate her accusations.
“I have been terminated,” said Hannah. “My application for tenure and promotion has been denied and I’ve been given one year to leave.”
NSU officials said that according to policy, they cannot comment on personnel issues, and did not address a question about Hannah’s status. However, two NSU faculty members confirmed Hannah had been denied tenure, and one explained that tenure is not granted through administrative action, but by a vote of other faculty members in the department.
Watt also mentioned the Cherokee Promise Scholars program, and indicated participants were treated poorly, compared to other students. But Bridgmon said he believes the program is a success.
“The Cherokee Promise Scholars program is through the Cherokee Nation, which provides students tuition, fees, housing and books. The intention was to create a learning community, as data shows entering freshmen who live on campus have a higher level of success,” said Bridgmon.
The Cherokee Promise Scholars is considered a cohort program, and is now on its second year of enrollment.
“The first cohort had excellent grades, and all but a couple are still enrolled,” said Bridgmon. “The Cherokee Nation has designated a person to be a liaison to the students – someone to help with advisement, from making degree plans and declaring a major, to giving advice on nutrition and time-management. All of this is endorsed fully by the Cherokee Nation.”
The program is overseen by the Cherokee Nation College Resource Center. Tribal officials indicated that anytime a complaint is received from a student, it is delivered to the appropriate parties at NSU.
“We work with NSU to provide the best experience possible for our Cherokee students,” said CN Director of Communications Amanda Clinton.
Fly pointed out the Cherokee Promise Scholars is not the only learning community on the NSU campus in which students live, study and learn together.
“We have one for the music program, one for the veterans,” said Fly. “It’s important for students to make connections via their similar interests. If the program wasn’t working, it would no longer be offered.”
The cohort program has about 22-24 new natives students accepted each year, for a total capacity of about 90 students.
Watt’s claims that cultural classes for American Indians are canceled due to low enrollment, while “Euro-American” classes receive preference, is unfounded, according to officials.
“The way classes are canceled is driven specifically by the department head,” said Bridgmon. “If a class isn’t required for the major, or isn’t integral for a student to graduate and has low enrollment, it may be canceled. Ironically, in this case, the classes mentioned for cancellation were recommended by the program coordinator. There is no meddling in departmental affairs by my office.”
According to Fly, 2,100 sections of courses were offered this spring at NSU. Of those, 1 percent were canceled due to low enrollment. Bridgmon provided a list of 89 Liberal Arts classes canceled for the spring semester, and three of those pertained to American Indian studies. The majority, by far, were music classes, of which 39 did not make.
“My goal is to grow the program so we don’t have to cancel classes,” said Bridgmon. “We are one of only three universities in the country to offer a native language program, including Hawaii and South Dakota. We are creating a new department specifically for American Indian and Cherokee studies, which has yet to be named.”
Other native programs offered through the NSU include American Indian Studies, Cherokee Cultural Studies, the Cherokee Language Program, and American Indian Studies.
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