Each November, Native American students at Princeton raise a tipi outside of Prospect House to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. This year, amid the pandemic and a reckoning with injustices on and off campus, the student group Natives at Princeton (NAP) designated November 2020 as Native American Activism Month.
NAP fosters Native American cultural understanding and seeks to build community for Native undergraduates. Student members have worked to effect enduring change, which they hope will empower the Native students who come after them. According to NAP members, dedicating last month to activism was the first step of many.
The group’s efforts have already yielded change. Last week, the University announced a new endowed professorship in Indigenous Studies — a decision that NAP applauded, while calling for further action.
The Daily Princetonian interviewed NAP members and other Native students and alumni to discuss last month’s significance, what the Native student experience looks like at Princeton, and students’ aspirations for Indigenous inclusion and support in the future.
Virtual panels, cross-Ivy collaboration, and “stories on our own terms”: NAP’s month of activism
Jessica Lambert ’22, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation and co-president of NAP, stressed that to celebrate their heritage, Native students need to feel supported by the University.
A statement from NAP echoed Lambert’s sentiment, explaining why the group dedicated November to activism.
“Like so many Native and Indigenous students at Princeton before us, our members and allies have had to continually reassert our presence, advocate and call for institutional support, and precariously balance our personal, school and work lives,” it read.
“We will no longer be silenced and ignored. Native and Indigenous peoples are here and present at Princeton more than ever,” it continued. “We have decided to dedicate this year’s Native American Heritage Month to activism, awareness, and the unheard voices of Native and Indigenous peoples in the continual fight for equity.”
The group also emphasized that their advocacy would continue beyond this month.
On Nov. 20, NAP held an event called “Navigating the Ivory Tower: Native Women Activists in the Ivy League” with guests speaking to the struggles and triumphs they have encountered advocating Native students on their Ivy League campuses.
The panelists — students hailing from other Ivy League institutions — spoke of the many efforts they have spearheaded, and the traction their movements have gained in recent years. Some groups have convinced their universities to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day rather than Columbus Day. Others have held vigils for murdered and missing Indigenous women.
The Association of Native Americans at Yale partnered with The Yale Daily News to create a special issue dedicated to issues within the Native American community for this Native American Heritage Month.
Meghanlata Gupta of Yale University said at the event that much of her group’s activism relies on defining the terms on which Yale speaks about Indigenous communities. She stressed spaces where Indigenous individuals can speak about their own histories and the “complexity of [Indigenous] existence.”
“A huge part of that advocacy work is just telling our stories on our own terms — like talking about our cultures and our histories and … our survivors and our resistance on our own terms,” she said.
The panelists encouraged faculty at their respective institutions to center Native voices and decolonized narratives in their syllabi.
Across the panel, they agreed that institutions move slowly and their work often doesn’t see immediate returns.
“I feel like a lot of our work is just being loud enough that the institution cannot ignore us,” said Anna Kate Cannon of Harvard University.
NAP also held an event this month called “Acknowledging Land: The Significance of Land Acknowledgements in Colonial Spaces.”
The University is in conversation with three federally recognized tribes that were displaced from New Jersey to formally mark and acknowledge the land Princeton sits on as Lenni-Lenape territory. The University’s inclusion website includes guidelines for land acknowledgements on campus.
Lambert, for one, does not approve of the way the University has pursued land acknowledgements.
“I see them as very performative and very conscience-clearing for the white people,” she said. “I think the University needs to return the land to the Lenape and start paying rent to them for occupying the territory.”
Beyond November and NAP: the broader fight for institutional change
Though NAP focused on activism last month, the group’s co-presidents, Keely Toledo ’22 of the Navajo Nation and Lambert, have advocated for Native students since they arrived on campus. Among other measures, they have urged the University to create an Indigenous Studies program, to support a Native affinity space, and to hire a staff member dedicated to helping Native students, as well as more Native faculty.
In past years, NAP members, including Lambert and Toledo, have presented at the Ivy Native Conference, which brings over 100 Native and Indigenous students from Ivy League universities together around a different theme.
Early in November, Lambert wrote an opinion piece for the ‘Prince’ titled, “It’s past time for Princeton to advocate for Native students.”
“Princeton needs to dedicate institutional support, specifically funding, physical space, staff, and faculty, to ensure that this community and this field flourish,” she argued.
In addition to NAP, Toledo and Lambert are two of the leaders who guide the Pace Center’s Princeton Indigenous Advocacy Coalition (PIAC) along with Gabriel Duguay ’22 and Katharine Schassler ’21. The group is generally more involved with activism efforts on campus than NAP and engages a broader group of students.
One of PIAC’s main demands is the creation of a program in Indigenous Studies. PIAC members hope to complete a proposal for a certificate program by the end of this academic year.
On Oct. 12, Toledo and Lambert, along with Professor of English and American Studies Sarah Rivett, Program in American Studies administrator Sarah Malone, and Isabel Lockhart GS launched the Indigenous Studies Website with the goal of creating a hub for the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Princeton (NAISIP).
NAISIP “fosters a cross-disciplinary dialogue among faculty, students, staff, and community members whose research and teaching interests focus on Indigenous peoples,” according to the site.
They hope to highlight the continuous efforts in and out of the classroom, by both faculty and students, that fall under the umbrella of Indigenous Studies, in order to demonstrate the need for a dedicated certificate program.
“There was a perception of Indigenous Studies not really existing as a field of academic study at Princeton,” Rivett said. “I thought of the website as a kind of great way to make visible what people were already doing at Princeton in the hopes that it would grow the field even more.”
Rivett’s research focuses on Indigenous literature and history. She is not Native. When the PIAC approached her for help, she thought of the website as a task she could do to help the group reach its long-term goals.
“I was just kind of reflecting on ways that we could get started to build a community and to build the sort of programming that would ultimately lead to those goals of a certificate program and attracting more Native students [to Princeton],” she said.
Rivett said that ideally, the University would foster a multidisciplinary program in Indigenous Studies, which would in turn give rise to a certificate program, and eventually a concentration. She said she also hopes that the curriculum could be deeply engaged with Native communities within and beyond the University.
Yolandra Gomez Toya ’88 of the Jicarilla Apache tribe, founder of Native American Alumni of Princeton, also noted that the academic field of Indigenous studies usually focuses on the past. She argued that the University curriculum should put more emphasis on the present.
“We need to also talk about things like politics, policy, education, energy, health, and medicine — and using COVID as an example, Native American communities have been hit hard by this disease, whole families being wiped out,” she said.
“It’s different when you’ve lived it”: Native students call for faculty representation
According to those interviewed, a crucial step in increasing visibility and support for Indigenous studies is hiring more Native faculty. There is currently only one Native American faculty member teaching in Indigenous Studies, who joined the University this year.
Toledo and Lambert do not know of any other Native faculty in any department. Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss told the Princeton Alumni Weekly earlier this year that there are “a very small number” of faculty members who identify as Native American, but did not disclose the exact number.
Upon announcing the endowed Indigenous Studies professorship last week, the University stressed the position’s interdisciplinary nature. Toledo and Lambert met the news with cautious optimism, emphasizing the importance of faculty representation and the work that still needs to be done.
Toledo said that as a Native student, the absence of faculty members who share backgrounds and experiences similar to her own poses difficulties, especially in understanding her identity as a student.
“It’s hard because one, you’re dealing with like, ‘Where does my identity fit in with my academic work and how does that inform and relate?’ Two, if I have those questions, who can I ask those questions [to] who are dealing with the same thing?” she said.
Lambert agreed that hiring Native faculty — not just faculty who specialize in Indigenous Studies — should be a priority.
“You definitely have faculty who study Indigenous Studies and know the field really well, but it’s very different when you’ve lived it,” she said.
Lambert and Toledo, as well as others involved with Indigenous Studies, believe that the University should use a cluster hire to add a few Native American professors to the faculty at once to ensure that new faculty from underrepresented backgrounds have a support system.
“They can work together … and help build up the academic community,” Lambert said. “It’s not fair to put all that weight on just like one or two junior faculty.”
Toledo and Lambert also called for the creation of a staff position dedicated to helping Native American students, similar to what some other affinity groups have. In their minds, the staff member could help Native students navigate internships, student employment, and graduate school.
Gomez Toya agreed that there is a need for a point person who can guide Native American initiatives at the University.
“There are a lot of people at Princeton who know a little bit about Native American projects and initiatives, but there’s not one person there who knows everything that’s going on with Native American initiatives,” she said.
To her, the disorganized web of people makes it hard to create change.
Visions for a more inclusive Princeton: affinity spaces, admission recruitment, and allyship
A crucial component of such changes is improving the Native student experience at the University. In the many spaces where she is the only Native person, Lambert feels that others question her identity.
“Especially as someone who’s white and Native, a lot of people just have a lot of trouble understanding that and I feel like I’m constantly having to prove myself and sort of validate my nativeness.”
She recalled experiencing microaggressions, including instances when professors claimed the University is a perfect place for Native students. She cited professors who made blanket claims, such as that certain terms used to describe Native Americans were offensive, without understanding the terminology’s nuances.
One way to ameliorate these harms, according to Lambert and Toledo, is establishing a larger Native undergraduate population. They feel admissions should do a better job attracting Native students.
Other schools, Lambert said, fly prospective Native students in separately or have special events for Native students at previews. The University does neither, which Lambert believes decreases yield for those few Native students who are accepted.
A 2019 opinion article co-written by Lambert, Gabriel Duguay ’22, and Katharine Schassler ’21 advocated for an admissions officer dedicated to recruiting Native American and Indigenous students.
Lambert also believes that the lack of support for Native students at the University makes it less likely that Native students will want to attend.
“You’re not going to want to apply to a place that has no resources to support you,” she explained.
When Gomez Toya attended the University of California, Berkeley for graduate school, she was struck by the number of Native American peers she met, compared to very few at the University. She feels that not much has changed since she was a student 30 years ago. There are still only a few Native American students on campus, not many Native faculty, and still no officially-recognized Native American Alumni organization.
One step towards addressing this concern is to create an affinity space for Native American students, Lambert and Toledo said. Eventually, they would like such a space to occupy a house.
“I want to see a room where I can go and we can talk about funny things that some white person said or just make frybread,” Toledo said.
In discussing allyship, Lambert and Toledo agreed that the first step is having conversations about how the University can better support Native community members.
“I feel like a lot of students on this campus might have implicit biases that there could never be Native students here, either because they’re all extinct or that they just don’t exist in the present or aren’t smart enough to go somewhere like Princeton,” Lambert said. “They just have to start knowing that we’re here and think about what you’re personally doing to support Native students.”
Moreover, Toledo wants to see students help NAP organize events, the brunt of which usually falls on Toledo and Lambert’s shoulders.
“I feel exploited,” Lambert said. “This isn’t my job. The real thing is that the University needs to hire someone to do all this advocacy work. You know it’s not the job of students. The alumni have helped us a lot but it’s not their job either. This is the job of a full time staff member.”
Gomez Toya agreed, and lamented that students feel the need to spend so much time on activism because there is no employee doing the work.
“It always seems to be the case that most of what’s happening, or has happened, is really led by students,” she said. “I feel like they’re losing some of that precious time at Princeton to take advantage of what it has to offer.”
A portion of the “Navigating the Ivory Tower: Native Women Activists in the Ivy League” event this month focused on this question of how to balance being an activist and a student. Some leaders encouraged people to find ways in which their activism aligns with their studies. Gupta of Yale University said at the event that for her, there isn’t a separation between the two roles.
“There’s no separation because... our existence is political, like our existence, the fact that we’re here and we’re living and surviving and thriving and being happy is political and it’s amazing,” she said.
And despite the hard work, “it’s a labor of love,” Toledo shared.
Lambert echoed Toledo’s sentiment.
“I think part of the reason why I do that is because I love Princeton so much. As much as I get frustrated with it and doing this work … at least on like the academic side of things, and even social, I just absolutely love the University and just want to make sure that it’s accessible and a supportive place for Native students to come in the future so that they get to have the same absolutely phenomenal academic experiences that I've been able to have,” she said.
With this sentiment, the two don’t plan to give up advocating for Native students any time soon.
“Princeton is stuck to us,” Toledo said. “We’re going to be pestering them for years and years. I want to be like 50 years old and still pestering them.”
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to explain the Princeton Indigenous Advocacy Coalition’s activist work and to reflect that three federally recognized tribes have consulted with the University about issuing a campus land acknowledgement. The original piece incorrectly referred to those tribes as “Lenni-Lenape tribes.”