Memoirs Relate What It’s Like to Be a Native Student at Dartmouth

  • Cover illustration: Celestial #2 (Shannon Prince), from the Dartmouth Pow-Wow Suite, 2009, by Mateo Romero (Cochiti Pueblo). Photo transfer and acrylic paint on 60 x 40 in panel. Courtesy of the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire; purchased through the Mrs. Harvey P. Wood W'18 Fund.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2017

When N. Bruce Duthu, a member of the Houma tribe, matriculated at Dartmouth College in 1976, students still openly employed racist Native American imagery in the name of school spirit.

“Chants of ‘wah-hooh-wah,’ or ‘Dartmouth — Indians — scalp ‘em!’ were accompanied by face paint and mock Indian ceremonies at athletic events to capitalize on Dartmouth’s so-called Indian heritage,” writes Duthu, now a Native Studies professor at Dartmouth, in his essay The Good Ol’ Days When Times Were Bad.

“All the while, we real Indians were assured by students and alumni that all their displays were done to honor Native people and that we shouldn’t take offense at any of it.”

Duthu’s autobiographical essay is one of 13 in I Am Where I Come From, an anthology by Native students and graduates of Dartmouth College that came out in April from Cornell University Press.

The stories shared in the collection have emerged nearly 250 years after Eleazar Wheelock founded Dartmouth, on Abenaki land, in what he called “the Heart of the Indian Country,” with its charter proclaiming the institution as a place for educating — and converting — “Youth of the Indian Tribes in the Land.”

But the school followed through on its promise “in only sporadic and belated ways,” writes Melanie Benson Taylor in her eloquent introduction to I Am Where I Come From. Over the next 200 years, the school admitted a grand total of 99 Native students, only 19 of whom it graduated.

Taylor is of Wampanoag descent — though she identifies, first and foremost, as a first-generation college graduate — and the chair of Dartmouth’s Native American Studies Department. She co-edited the anthology with Andrew Garrod, professor emeritus of education, and Robert Kilkenny, the founder and executive director of the Boston-based education nonprofit Alliance for Inclusion and Prevention.

Psychological studies tell us that constructing a coherent narrative of one’s life can help to heal the psychological impacts of trauma. But the essays in I Am Where I Come From offer a “qualitative study” of what it means to be Native at a college that was founded to assimilate Natives to Western society, said Garrod in an interview in his office this week.

“In terms of telling us about the phenomenology of a person’s life, there’s nothing quite like (memoir),” he said. “It’s a real eye-opener.”

Prior to I Am Where I Come From, Garrod, for whom developmental psychology is a major interest, edited numerous other anthologies about minority groups, gathering first-person accounts from Latino, Asian-American, mixed-race and Muslim students. He’s currently at work on an anthology by black students.

“I think it’s quite important to understand how life challenges influence identity formation,” said Garrod of how a Harvard- and Oxford-trained British academic came to occupy this particular wheelhouse.

And life challenges, he added, can often be a defining feature of Native Americans’ experiences, both on campus and off.

It was not until 1970, two years before the college opened itself up to women, that then-President John Kemeny decided to recommit to the charter’s original promise of providing education for Native students — this time without the explicitly colonial overtones. And so, that year, Kemeny established the Native American Program to help support indigenous students.

Indigenous students, meanwhile, established their own organization, Native Americans at Dartmouth, to create a community for themselves that many of the essayists in I Am Where I Come From cited as a vital social network. The Native American Studies Department was established in 1972, as was the Native American House on North Park Street.

Duthu’s essay, like others in the collection, documents the aftermath of these institutional changes. His was originally published in a 1997 anthology also edited by Garrod, First Person, First Peoples. This essay, and those of two other Native American alumni who contributed to that 1997 collection, was reprinted in I Am Where I Come From along with brief follow-up essays.

In his original essay, Duthu recalled how he struggled academically, as well as culturally at Dartmouth; unlike many of his peers, who had been meticulously groomed for greatness since childhood, Duthu had not grown up in an environment that prepared its children for the Ivy League, let alone Native children.

At Dartmouth, “I felt intimidated in class and rarely spoke, fearing that I would say something stupid,” he writes. “In an English class, it seemed that everyone had already read most of the books assigned for the class and had well-formed opinions about the author’s major influences or another author’s personal life. How did they know all this?”

At times, his peers were alarmingly tone deaf. One wealthy hallmate was so struck by Duthu’s impoverished upbringing that he couldn’t help but share it with perfect strangers: ” ‘Hey,’ he would say, introducing me to his friends, ‘this is Bruce. Did you know that his family didn’t have indoor plumbing until he was in high school?’ ”

Taylor hopes the book will help to “strip away the romance” non-Natives tend to ascribe to the indigenous experience at Dartmouth. Rather than a game-changing, auspicious golden ticket, the college is a place where many of the essayists found themselves struggling with a profound sense of dislocation, as well as “a whole density of burdens and pressures,” Taylor said.

And, as Davina Ruth Begaye Two Bears writes in her essay, I Walk in Beauty, it can be hard not to internalize the schisms of privilege that emerge at an institution such as Dartmouth.

“My sole problem … was that I did not possess self-confidence,” she writes. “I often looked down on myself, thinking that I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, sophisticated or rich enough — whatever — to be a part of the Dartmouth family. ...”

Despite the college’s efforts to establish support systems for Native students, “there are still these cracks that students fall through,” Taylor said. Given the history behind these cracks, which are part and parcel of the colonialism in which Dartmouth has actively taken part, “how appropriate is it to celebrate Dartmouth?” Taylor asked.

Duthu did find, upon returning to Dartmouth first in 1986 as the Native American Program director, and again in 2008 as a faculty member in the Native American Studies department after a stint teaching at the Vermont Law School in Royalton, that the college has come quite a ways since his undergraduate days in the 1970s.

“A lot of us brought challenges from home, whether it was dealing with conflict, struggling with substance abuse, loneliness or depression,” he said. “For the uninitiated, not knowing about the cultural overlay on these kinds of manifestations of problems meant that it was hard to know how to support students.”

The Native American Program had initially been more focused on providing academic support than addressing the complex social and personal challenges Native students faced outside of the classroom. But over time, the administration learned how to be more sensitive to unique needs of Native students, such as returning home at culturally important times, and the benefits of mentorships with elders or Native alumni, he said.

“There were some growing pains,” Duthu said, “but we got better over the years.”

The Native American Studies Department, which Duthu chaired from 2009 to 2015, now offers more than 20 courses per academic year, and the Native American Program is now part of Dartmouth’s Office of Pluralism and Leadership. As of 2015, the college offers an off-campus program that allows Native and non-Native students to spend a term studying at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.

Since 1970, more than 700 Native American students, representing more than 200 tribes, have graduated from Dartmouth. The percentage of Native students in each class has climbed, slowly but surely, to 4 percent in recent years, and these Native students graduate at a higher rate than the national average.

But, as many of the essays in I Am Where I Come From indicate, Dartmouth’s progress on paper is still not enough to make the college a wholly inclusive environment for Native students.

Oftentimes, Native students bear the burden of being the spokesperson for all Native issues, and find themselves having to field naive questions and dispel harmful assumptions, such as the one Taylor describes as the “monolithic, pan-Indian archetype” in her introduction.

“Constantly working against these preconceptions can be exhausting,” Taylor said. “To have to keep telling people, you know, ‘No, I don’t have a spirit animal.’ ”

Essay by essay, the anthology shatters this false monolith by balancing the commonality of Native experiences with specificity: Though the writers all have indigenous backgrounds, this shared thread “proves to be the most tenuous of all, as the experience of indigeneity differs radically for each of them,” Taylor writes.

Rather, “what tends to bind them together are not cultural practices or spiritual attitudes per se, but rather circumstances that have no exclusive province in Indian country: That is, first and foremost, poverty, and its attendant symptoms of violence, substance abuse, and both physical and mental illness.”

To this end, the writers disclose, in searingly honest and often artful prose, the obstacles that haunted them before, during and after life at Dartmouth, including but not limited to horrific abuses, family dysfunction, intentional racism and racism that was born of ignorance, imposter syndrome, depression, anxiety and coping mechanisms that veered into the realm of self-destruction.

“They’ve been exposed to tremendous stressors — trauma, deprivation,” Garrod said. “And they are the ones who have survived.”

In addition to bearing powerful testimony to the writers’ resilience in the face of systemic oppression, the essays also do the important work of cultural bridge-building, Taylor said, adding that this work is especially relevant in such a divided political climate.

“There are common denominators to be found here: belonging, community, attachment to land and family,” she said, calling these themes “points of contact” among people of very different backgrounds, Taylor said.

“The more people conceive of there being radically different races that exist in these distinct enclaves, the more poisonous the world becomes.

“We must find ways to disrupt that. And that’s what’s done here.”

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.


Dartmouth College professor Melanie Benson Taylor is of Wampanoag descent, but is not enrolled as a tribal member. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described her connection to the Wampanoags.