Less than one percent of Princeton students, staff, and faculty identify as Native American, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and Native Alaskan, according to the University. We asked three Indigenous students about their experiences at Princeton and beyond.
The responses have been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
“This has been and will always be Indigenous land.”: Noah Collins
The Daily Princetonian: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Noah Collins: I’m from Claremore, Oklahoma and the Cherokee reservation. I am an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. I’m also White Mountain Apache Tribe. I’m a geneticist by training, but I am a graduate student in the anthropology department. I study bioethics, genomics, and Indigenous communities — Indigenous inclusion in science in general and the intersection between pharmaceuticals and genetics.
DP: What were some moments when you felt like your Native identity stood out the most?
NC: It’s always present to me that I am Indigenous. A lot of society and a lot of my interactions are framed in opposition to something that is not necessarily by my choice. Being Indigenous and going through society, you are constantly thought of as less or incapable. I think it is a blessing to be Indigenous and to be in spaces that were not meant for me and to navigate them in a way that we’ve always been capable of doing.
DP: What’s a message you have for other Native students at Princeton?
NC: Be unapologetically Indigenous. I think there’s a lot of fear around being vocally Indigenous in classes and research in politics broadly. And we’ll never get the foothold that we need to support other Natives if we’re quiet when we should be supported.
DP: If you could have just one sentence, what would your message be?
NC: This has been and will always be Indigenous land.
DP: Anything else?
NC: A question for the administration: Why aren’t there more Native students here? Why are Native students not more visible? And why is Indigeneity sort of boxed into one day or into one month?
Also, there’s an event happening at 4:30 p.m. on Monday for Indigenous Peoples Day, open to the public. Dr. Corey Still is speaking about indigenizing academia and Native research methods.
“I believe that respecting the land and the Earth, as well as the people who live on it, is far more important than the scientific discovery of faraway stars.”: Leilani Bender ’24
Daily Princetonian: Can you describe your indigenous identity?
Leilani Bender: I'm Native Hawaiian/Kanaka Maoli.
DP: What's the significance of your red protest t-shirt?
LB: It refers to Mauna Kea and the plans for a thirty-meter telescope to be built on it. Mauna Kea (Mauna a Wakea) is linked to the name of Wakea, the father of the Hawaiian islands. Thus, it is very sacred and important to Hawaiian culture. Many Native Hawaiians believe that a telescope on top of Mauna Kea would desecrate the sacred land, especially when there have been multiple instances of mismanagement from other research projects on Mauna Kea, dating back to 1998. I feel like people may expect me to be in support of the thirty-meter telescope being built, as I am majoring in civil engineering here. However, I believe that respecting the land and the Earth, as well as the people who live on it, is far more important than the scientific discovery of faraway stars.
DP: Do you face those same dilemmas in your studies or with possible future jobs given your major and your connection to your indigenous culture?
LB: I would say it’s not applicable since I want to be a teacher.
DP: How do you connect with your Hawaiian culture, both at home and at Princeton?
LB: Listening to Hawaiian music, playing the ukulele, and I am learning Hawaiian. The land and the natural world are also very important to me, and although Princeton's nature is nowhere near the same as Hawai'i's, I still feel connected to my ancestors when I look at the same moon and stars as they did when they navigated across the Pacific Ocean.
DP: What is one thing you want Princeton as a community to learn about for Indigenous People's Day?
LB: Hawai'i is a sovereign nation — the United States illegally overthrew the Hawaiian government and annexed Hawai'i.
“What does it mean to be this body within a system that doesn’t necessarily care about me or doesn’t necessarily know about this part of me?”: Rodrigo Córdova Rosado
The Daily Princetonian: Can you describe your Indigenous identity?
Rodrigo Córdova Rosado: Through my grandmother, I’m a citizen of the Osage Nation, Oklahoma.
DP: You brought your moccasins with you today. What’s the significance of them to you, in terms of Native culture or for the Osage?
RCR: For the Osage, like most of the Plains tribes, it’s just about … they’re just shoes. They’re just shoes, but I have really come to appreciate them. To an extent it does connect you to an artistry and an artisanship of one side of my heritage, and getting to appreciate that through the walk of every day really comes to be pretty nice.
DP: What’s one thing you want Princeton to learn, as a community, about what it means to be Native?
RCR: To be Indigenous is a pretty serious claim about what the nature of our relationship as people is, not only to the land, but to the past and in America as a whole. The past is present in a lot of ways. There are these consequences that I think we live through today by the nature of how reservations have much lower access to health care funding compared to Medicare, compared to other social welfare programs; the way that communities still don’t have the same access to education to see themselves in a fast changing world.
DP: Do you think it is students’ responsibility to learn about Indigenous culture and the land they’re inhabiting?
RCR: It’s certainly not their fault in any way, shape, or form, that they don’t know about these things. But it is, I think, a sadness that so few of us know about the history of the continent known as the Americas before the Europeans got here. I think it’s unfortunate that we have not cultivated a curiosity for learning the history of the land that we consider our right when the history is a little bit more complicated than that.
DP: You’re part of Natives of Princeton ... What is the role of that community in your life here?
RCR: So far, my relationship with Princeton has been one of connecting with a community that I didn’t have access to when I was in the UK, and a community that I didn’t really have access to when I was in Puerto Rico. I guess it’s been quite nice to see students who are thinking through these ideas of, “what does indigeneity mean in a world that is predominantly not learning about Indigenous people?” Being this voice of, “What does it mean to be this body within a system that doesn’t necessarily care about me or doesn’t necessarily know about this part of me?” has been an interesting twist of my life. Going from interrogating these questions personally and without many answers, to now trying to facilitate those questions for others.
Manisha Khakoo is a contributing photographer and can be reached at email@example.com.
Jun Choi is a contributing photographer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.