Discussions about establishing a living-learning residence hall began at a 1972 Cornell conference. This meeting, attended by many students, faculty, staff, and community leaders, focused on the needs of Indigenous students at Cornell. Planning for Akwe:kon began in 1983 and culminated in the fall of 1991, when students, staff, faculty, delegates from several Indigenous Nations, and leaders from Cornell’s administration participated in its formal opening.
Akwe:kon was envisioned as a means for teaching people about Indigenous cultures and histories. In particular, the wampum belt symbols on its exterior provide visual representations of Haudenosaunee (also known as Six Nations or Iroquois) history, politics, culture, and worldview.
The original inspiration and impetus for Akwe:kon came from students, faculty, and staff associated with what was then called the American Indian Program (AIP). Cornell University President Frank Rhodes and Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences David Call were particularly instrumental in helping Akwe:kon become a reality. But the main impetus for the establishment of Akwe:kon was the vision, initiative, and persistence of the late Dr. Ron LaFrance (Akwesasne Mohawk, PhD in Education ’95). LaFrance served as Director of AIP from 1987 to 1994.
At the house’s formal opening, LaFrance explained “this house, built on historical Cayuga homelands, will be a supportive community for Native and non-Native students who are interested in American Indian issues ... a place where acceptance is a way of life.” Akwe:kon has lived up to that stated commitment through years of innovative and successful intercultural programming. In 1998 it was the first residence hall to win Cornell’s James A. Perkins Prize for Interracial Understanding and Harmony, for making a significant contribution to furthering the ideal of university community while respecting the values of diversity.
LaFrance described Akwe:kon as being dedicated to serving what is, from an Indigenous perspective, “the most sacred thing we have: our sons and daughters.” He saw Akwe:kon as part of Cornell’s effort to “offer a view of what the 21st century will bring us and what skills are needed – without forcing us to lose our identity.” Known to students as “Papa Smurf,” LaFrance was dedicated to teaching young people what his elders had taught him: how to develop self-understanding through one-on-one relationships and conversations rich in stories.