Dartmouth College Hires Director for Native American Program

  • Sarah Palacios has been named director of the Native American Program (NAP) -- she began the job in early August 2018. (Sarah Palacios photograph)

Valley News Correspondent
Sunday, September 02, 2018

Hanover — Last Dec. 6, Sarah Palacios stayed awake that evening and packed, remaining alert, while her 6-year-old daughter slept.

Palacios, 36, packed four outfits. She gathered Social Security cards and birth certificates as her cell phone lit up with news alerts about a wildfire not far from where she lived in Ventura, Calif.

By the following morning, Palacios had to evacuate.

“It was a scary moment,” said Palacios, who lives alone with her daughter. “We couldn’t breathe. We were surrounded by brown smoke.”

It was then, when she was uprooted from her home during the Thomas Fire, that Palacios realized how disconnected from the community she was.

“I wasn’t familiar with the area,” she said. “I didn’t know how to navigate around the surrounding cities.” 

The fire was about a week before an annual event held by Palacios’ Native American tribe in New Mexico, called Pueblo of Pojoaque. The event celebrates Our Lady of Guadalupe and involves a day of dances followed by a feast of hot, steaming food: green chili stew, chicken, bread and pies. Palacios had to miss the event in December due to travel complications with the fire.

“It’s a core part of our identity,” she said. 

Palacios, who spent a decade working in alumni relations, realized she wanted a job that could bring her closer to her Native American heritage.

Three weeks ago, she moved across the country to become the director of the Native American Program at Dartmouth College. 

“I wanted to be able to give myself to my job, 100 percent,” she said.

In her new role, Palacios is tasked with building a community of academic and emotional support. She’ll also help lead The Dartmouth Powwow, an annual Memorial Day weekend event with Native American music, art and dances.

Palacios is the first Native American Program director Dartmouth has recruited since Susan Taffe Reed resigned in 2015, shortly after she was hired, following a dispute about her ancestry and tribal affiliation.

Taffe Reed claimed she was president of Eastern Delaware Nation, a nonprofit organization, but not a federally recognized tribe.

Attempts to reach Taffe Reed, now an assistant dean at Dartmouth, weren’t successful.

The Native American Program is open to all students with an interest or commitment to Native American culture, but the issues surrounding Taffe Reed caused uproar among alumni.

Meghan Topkok, a 2013 graduate, said the issue “was a topic of extensive discussion” within the Native American community.

“It’s a really tricky issue when it comes to federal recognition,” she said.

N. Bruce Duthu, a Native American Studies faculty member at Dartmouth, who led the previous search for Taffe Reed, was also criticized at the time. He said the scandal represents a larger challenge to verifying Native American heritage.

“There are limits to what a college can legally do to say, ‘show us what your background is,’” he said.

Duthu directed the Native American Program program in the 1980s. He was a student at Dartmouth when the prorgram was just beginning in the 1970s. The white-male dominated college only had about 50 Native American students back then, he said. 

Dartmouth now has one of the largest populations of Native American alumni in the country, with about 1,100 graduates. This year, there are about 200 undergraduate students in the Native American Program and about 30 graduate students.

“The controversies that happened in the past are what they are,” said Dartmouth Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs Liz Agosto, who led the 10-person search committee for Palacios, involving alumni, staff and students. “The role hasn’t changed. We’re always looking for the same thing in this position — someone who’s going to build a community and support students.”

Palacios was selected from four finalists interviewed for the position on campus, said Agosto.

“She brought the whole package together — her skills, her experience, her passion,” Agosto said.

Palacios said she was aware of the previous issues at Dartmouth, but she was hoping to move past that.

“I’m coming into it with a forward-looking view,” she said.

A 2005 graduate of Stanford University, where she studied cultural psychology, Palacios grew up in a large, tight-knit family and lived just off the Pueblo of Pojoaque reservation.

Palacios said going away to college and moving from New Mexico to California was hard for her.

“I grew up sometimes not knowing if I could have the identity of being a Native American and pursue my academic passion,” she said.

Palacios was part of a similar student affairs program for Native American students at Stanford, which helped her academic and personal pursuits.

“I was able to really excel as a person and grow as a person,” she said.

Palacios earned an MBA at the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management.

She was most recently the director of alumni relations at Thacher School, a private boarding school in California. Before that, she’d been director of alumni relations at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M.

Palacios spent her first weeks at Dartmouth meeting faculty and students on campus for summer classes.

On a recent Friday, she made smoothies with fresh fruit, kale and almond milk for a lunch study break for students in the Sophomore Summer program, who were taking finals. Palacios organized a group yoga session to help students let go of stress later that afternoon.

The Native American Program at Dartmouth works closely with the Native American Studies academic department.

Native American Studies chair Colin Calloway was looking to Palacios to build a solid structure for the Native American Program.

“We hope Sarah will bring us that stability,” he said.

After coming from an unstable housing situation since the fire, Palacios was eager to do just that.

“Benefiting a community that means a lot to me and my daughter, that personally means a lot to me as well,” she said.

Katy Savage can be reached at katysvg@gmail.com.


 Sarah Palacios, the new director of the Native American Program at Dartmouth College, was  living in Ventura, Calif., last December when a wildfire struck nearby. One of her prior jobs was director of alumni relations at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified where she was living last December and the St. John's campus where she worked.