The American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program (AIISP) and Akwe:kon, the first residential program house in the nation to celebrate North American Indigenous culture, are the legacy of generations of scholars, administrators, students, and community members who worked hard to build a program that would live up to the ideals of inclusion that Cornell University upholds.
During Cornell’s early years, a few individual Indigenous students attended the university. The first Indigenous student to receive a bachelor’s degree was Marvin Jack (Tuscarora), who graduated in 1909. The first true cohort of Indigenous students came to Cornell in part due to the work of non-Indigenous physician Erl Bates, who started Cornell’s Indian Extension Program in the 1920s. This early program offered groups of Haudenosaunee students the opportunity to take winter short courses in farming and domestic skills. However, at the time the percentage of Indigenous students enrolled in four-year study at Cornell was very small (less than 1% of the overall student population) and there were no support services for them. This lack of care led most to drop out. Since no one on campus was designated to engage with or mentor these students, the University had no idea why they were leaving or what might be done to increase their success at Cornell.
The Founding of the American Indian Program
In the early 1970s, Cornell reported a population of approximately 300 Indigenous students. In reality, in 1971 there were only two Indigenous students on campus, both undergraduates: Janine Jamieson (Tonawanda Seneca) and Roger Dube (Mohawk and Abenaki). They formed the Native American Student Association in 1971, with the help of Katherine Livingston, a non-native Anthropology graduate student. Upset by the extremely low numbers of Indigenous students at Cornell and the lack of institutional support, the Association began campaigning for the creation of an American Indian Program. In November 1971, the Association released a set of demands to University President Dale R. Corson, which advocated for active recruitment and support for undergraduate and graduate students, the development of an Indian studies program, respect for Indigenous religious beliefs and practices, increased course offerings on Indigenous history and contemporary issues, development of formal relations between Cornell and Indigenous Nations in New York State, and creation of an “Indian living unit.” Most of the elements of this petition became pillars of the effort to develop an American Indian Program at Cornell, and many of them eventually were realized.
The Association next undertook a massive effort to further educate the Cornell community about the issues facing Indigenous people. They brought the White Roots of Peace (an influential Indigenous education caravan) to Cornell in November 1971, interviewed the head of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Leon Shenendoah (Tadodaho), hosted American Indian Movement activist Russell Means to speak about Native American militancy, and began planning an academic conference for the Spring of 1972.
Another prominent catalyst for the creation of the American Indian Program was a scandal involving the University’s Committee on Special Education Projects' (COSEP) lack of recruitment of Indigenous students. Kate Livingston determined that COSEP staff never visited many schools near Haudenosaunee territories or schools with high numbers of Indigenous students where COSEP claimed to have made recruitment trips. The Native American Student Association filed a complaint with the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), alleging a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This led to the launch of a federal investigation into COSEP in March 1972.
When the HEW received the complaint, they threatened to freeze all of Cornell’s federal funding if the issue wasn’t resolved. This led to a special meeting of the Cornell Board of Trustees on March 16th, 1972. Robert W. Purcell, chairman of the University Board of Trustees was saddened by the revelations but concluded that "for the reasonably foreseeable future, Cornell can't organize, sponsor and pay for a whole Indian studies program." As an accommodation, the Trustees offered to provide funding for a conference to be designed by Indigenous students.
The conference planned by the Native American Student Association took place on April 8, 1972. Over 200 people attended, including prominent representatives and scholars from Haudenosaunee communities, including sachems and clan mothers. Roger Dube spoke about Cornell’s location on Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ (Cayuga) homelands, and the university’s obligation to Indigenous communities for its use of Indigenous lands. This conference acted as a catalyst for the formation of Indigenous studies as a discipline at Cornell, and throughout the region.
Frank Bonamie, a Cayuga leader and businessman living in Ithaca, began to support the efforts of the association at this time and advocated for the creation of an American Indian Program. He lobbied the University to look more analytically at the problems Indigenous students encountered. Bonamie is quoted as stating “the major thing we want is to get some more damn Indians into Cornell”. He played a crucial role in ensuring that the efforts of Jeanine Jemison, Roger Dube, and the association were continued after they left Cornell to continue their career pursuits.
Through Bonamie’s continued advocacy, a committee formed that produced the “Hunt Proposal.” A joint project between the College of Agriculture and the College of Human Ecology, 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 Abrams (Tonawanda Seneca) to fill that role. Abrams arrived on campus in 1975 and began working with five new and three continuing students. The first years were difficult: many COSEP staff members who recruited students from under-represented groups had never worked closely with Indigenous people, 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 Indigenous students enrolled in the Cornell Law School.
Students were at the center of the beginnings of 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 support 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 Indigenous 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 AIP, as well as tuition and stipend for Abrams, there was no actual program budget.
AIP began with an emphasis on student services, but very quickly an academic component also emerged. In 1975 Cornell hired Richard Metcalf to teach Indigenous-related courses. Metcalf, along with other senior faculty (including Milton Barnett, Kathryn Moore, Mary Beth Norton, and Billie Jean Isbell) envisioned a program that included both the recruitment and retention of Indigenous students and academic course work. When Metcalf left Cornell, the History Department hired a young scholar named Dan Usner, who became an essential member of the Ad Hoc Committee and later went on to lead AIP as its Director.
The Ad Hoc Committee played a critical role in the development of AIP. There were always some students on the Committee, as well as faculty and staff members. At that time, there was little distinction between undergraduate and graduate students. Graduate and professional students served as role models for the undergraduates and also added a dimension of urgency and excitement to AIP.
As AIP grew, the University changed its method of determining the identity of incoming Indigenous students. Cornell’s earlier enrollment numbers grossly overestimated the Indigenous population because the university counted any incoming student who “checked a box” labeled “Native American” in their application materials. Many who checked the box assumed that it simply asked if they were born in the United States. The first step in obtaining more accurate numbers 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 and identity in Indigenous communities. Indigenous students were very active in pushing the Committee to present a proposal for the development of a formal American Indian Program to the necessary administrators, committees, and the Board of Trustees. The only similar program in existence at Cornell in the early 1980s 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 Indigenous students to a formal program with a budget, staff lines and office space.
From AIP to AIISP, 1983-present
Since those early years, AIP has continued onward, growing in fits and starts. It moved several times, and its mission was notably expanded in 1991 by opening the Akwe:kon residence hall.
Ron LaFrance (Akwesasne Mohawk), Director of AIP from 1987 to 1994, was instrumental in the program’s development; his initiative and persistence enabled the construction of Akwe:kon. The AIP also added new staff lines, expanded its outreach and extension component, and developed an undergraduate concentration and graduate minor in American Indian Studies. In 1984 the program added a journal, Northeast Indian Quarterly, which later became Native Americas, an award-winning publication addressing contemporary issues of concern to Indigenous peoples within the hemisphere and beyond. The journal moved in 2003 to the First Nations Development Institute.
Professor Jane Mt. Pleasant (Tuscarora), who first came to Cornell as an undergraduate transfer student in 1977, was hired as a faculty member after completing her Ph.D. at North Carolina State University to teach 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. Professor Mt. Pleasant served as AIP Director from 1995-1999, and then again in 2002-2008 (historian Daniel Usner directed the program in between). She led AIP through a reorganization that resulted in the hiring of five jointly-appointed faculty members, which greatly solidified the academic side of the program. Mt. Pleasant retired in 2018. The next Director of AIP was Eric Cheyfitz, Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters. During his time as director Professor Cheyfitz worked hard with faculty, students and staff to maintain the program’s space on the fourth floor of Caldwell Hall.
Prof. Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora), whose faculty position is affiliated with the departments of History of Art and Visual Studies and Art as well as the program, served as director from 2011 through 2019. Professor Rickard led the program through several major developments, including a name change to the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program (AIISP). This change was made to reflect the growing international presence of the Indigenous rights movement, and the continuing development of Indigenous Studies as an academic field at Cornell and across the globe. Prof. Rickard also strengthened the Program’s ties to Haudenosaunee communities, and led the effort to have the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ (Cayuga) language taught at Cornell, which started in Fall 2019. The current director of AIISP is Professor Kurt Jordan, an archaeologist who also is affiliated with the Department of Anthropology. He has led efforts to understand the earliest chapters of Cornell’s history though the Cornell University and Indigenous Dispossession Project.
The AIISP now serves over 400 Indigenous undergraduate and graduate students. Cornell’s retention rate for Indigenous students is among the highest in the country. Our faculty members teach a wide variety of courses in Indigenous Studies, Art, Art History, Anthropology, Archaeology, English, Fiber Science, History, Linguistics, and Natural Resources. Our faculty, staff, and students have a keen interest in the concerns and contributions of Indigenous peoples worldwide. We have hundreds of alumni, and have had held eight reunions of the Cornell Native American Alumni Association (CNAAA). Graduates have gone on to successful careers in the fields of art, planning, medicine, environmental policy, governance, agriculture, law, education, engineering, and many more.