A few hundred Native American high school students are trying out college life this week at Dartmouth. They’re learning about financial aid and setting ambitious academic goals. It’s part of a nation-wide effort to improve access to higher education for tribal members.
Dartmouth was founded in 1769, according to its charter, "for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes.” But for two centuries, even its own historian writes, the college failed to live up to that promise. Now there’s a house where students from tribes may live and learn. They hold an annual Powwow. There is a Native American Studies Major. And this week Dartmouth is hosting College Horizons, a national non-profit that brings native students from all over the country to some of America’s most elite campuses.
A native song from Hawaii spontaneously erupted at an afternoon workshop for high school students shopping for college. Native American Studies Professor Bruce Duthu touted the value of a challenging, multi-faceted education for ambitious young people who want to solve pressing problems in their tribes.
“The Liberal Arts Education. Schools like Dartmouth—that’s what we do. That’s what we teach. You get a bit of knowledge in all of these areas so you can see the interconnection of all of these fields," Duthu told the students.
Hillary Abe, Dartmouth Class of 2008, is a native Hawaiian and a member of the Eagle Clan. He’s a film-maker now, but when he was younger, he had no idea what he could achieve.
“Basically I wasn’t being given the information in high school through my college counselor where I would look at a school like Dartmouth and realize that I was not only a competitive applicant but that through financial aid initiatives offered here and at other schools and at peer institutions that I would be able to afford these institutions more than even perhaps the community college in my home town or the state institution that I would be looking at,” Abe explained.
He and other alumni at this workshop are grateful for their shot at the Ivy League. But the Director of Dartmouth’s Native American Program also warned that traces of discrimination remain at colleges where minority students are relative newcomers.
Kapi'olani Laronal says just this week she was offended by a slice of Dartmouth history she saw in a display case, circa 1951.
“They have canes that the senior societies carry around but it had an Indian head on it. It was an Indian head cane and it was put in a display case,” she said.
Advocates for Native Americans at Dartmouth say today’s students are more sensitive to cultural differences. But many believe there’s more work to do to build an inclusive college community. For example, the Director of College Horizons, Dartmouth alum Carmen Lopez, thinks all students, whatever their heritage, should be required to take at least one Native American Studies course.
“This is the history of America, this is the history of the United States,” she said.
Lopez says there were no attendees at the College Horizons workshops from New England’s own Abenaki tribes. Dartmouth admissions office says it would like to see more. But Professor Duthu speculates that tribes without federal recognition, including the Abenaki, may assume that they qualify for fewer scholarships and other forms of college assistance than sovereign nations, and therefore may not be as likely to consider prestigious schools like Dartmouth.