Pivotal Transitions in the Five College Native American Community

Fall semester of 2012 was a controversial time for Amherst College. No one can forget Angie Epifano’s landmark article, but there were other incidents that rocked the school, though to a lesser extent. An offensive poster concerning autoclaves, Jeffrey Amherst and smallpox blankets was found on the wall of a biology classroom and the menorah on Valentine Quad commemorating Hanukkah was defiled. While this is, unfortunately, not an exhaustive list of provocative events that have scarred the school, the purpose of this article is not to further scar the student body but rather to show that these events did lead to some positive developments on campus.

These tragic events allowed for a dialogue on campus to flourish. This dialogue centered around equality, sensitivity and community building. As the semester progressed, the dialogue continued to be relevant, but many still wondered if that dialogue would continue to enact change for future, for even more diverse students of Amherst College. The momentum for change is still alive and present on campus.

In efforts to continue the campus’ progression towards inclusivity and sensitivity to people of all backgrounds, the Native American Student Organization (NASO) was founded. The organization was founded in the fall of 2012, but did not become operational until the following semester. Danielle Trevino, a junior at the time, founded the organization as a way to give Native students a community on campus, while also providing a space that would allow all students to learn about Native history and culture.

NASO is part of a growing campaign to bring Native issues to the forefront, not just at Amherst College, but in the Five Colleges as well. The school just acquired the Pablo Eisenberg Collection of Native American Literature, has expanding course options for the study of Native history and culture and hired scholars Kiara Vigil and Lisa Brooks.

Hiring Professors Vigil and Brooks in particular signal to the Five College community that Amherst is serious about its growth of both Native scholarship and of community. Vigil belongs to the American Studies department and teaches the increasingly popular Rethinking Pocahontas, an introductory course to the field of Native American studies. Brooks is a member of the English and American Studies departments, specializing in the intersectionality of early American literature and Native American studies.

Vigil and Brooks have also made an impact in the Five College community where they are involved in the Five College Native American Indian Studies Certificate Program (NAIS). Professor Brooks even co-chairs the program. NAIS is in the midst of a transition, much like Amherst College, albeit one occurring for vastly different reasons. The program is looking for ways to become more visible in the Five College community, as well encouraging more exchange among the institutions. The Univ. of Massachusetts specific Certificate Program in Native American Indian Studies is currently being phased out, which provides the Five College certificate program a unique opportunity to increase its student participation.

The changes in the valley are not just at Amherst and the Univ. of Massachusetts. Smith College is revitalizing its Indigenous Smith Students and Allies (ISSA), which last semester had the honor of welcoming prominent Native author Craig Womack to their campus.

All these changes in the Native community in the Connecticut River Valley are signaling a fortuitous shift in awareness of Native issues, cultures and histories that NASO has every intent of capitalizing on. NASO hopes to reach out to every student on campus and offer a wide variety of programming. In the fall semester alone NASO plans to celebrate South Dakota’s Native American Day, commemorate Native American Heritage Month in Nov., and promote the “We’re A Culture, Not A Costume” campaign.

NASO wants to be a visible and active organization on campus. As such the organization hopes to pursue connections with other campus organizations such as the Multicultural Resource Center, Pride Alliance and the Black Student Union, La Causa and Mead Art Museum.

Most of the programming mentioned is still in the stages of being coordinated by NASO, but it cannot be stressed enough what an undertaking running the organization is. Amherst College is home to very few Natives, which guarantees that there are few students to build the initial base for NASO.

According to Amherst’s 2012-2013 common data set, 42 percent of students on campus are students of color, but only two Native students contribute to that larger figure. While the number could be larger due to 117 students falling into the multiracial category, it doesn’t alter the fact that Amherst is lacking a cohesive population that would allow the organization to thrive. This issue is further compounded when students assume incorrectly that NASO is solely for Native students. Even students who know this is not the case often feel uncomfortable attending meetings, but everyone is welcome and encouraged to attend. Even if your interest is only in one particular tribe, come talk to us. We would love to help you further your interest and even make it the theme of a meeting. The meetings are every Wednesday in the Stearns first-floor common room at 8 p.m.