Students of the Native American Council at Columbia University in New York City were poised to take back Manhattan with a pow wow on April 14. Now, they are demanding that the Ivy League institution honor the original inhabitants of Manhattan with a plaque.
On April 24, the students submitted an online petition to change.org. The petition reads: “’For Alma Mater on the Hudson Shore,’ we ask Columbia University to fund a plaque on the Morningside Heights campus acknowledging the Lenni Lenape people to whom we owe a debt by virtue of our sitting, standing, and learning on lands that were originally theirs.”
Tristin Moone, a Diné and member of the Native American Council, said the council members approached administrators in the fall to request the plaque.
Moone said the school’s response was, “We’ll think about it.”
She added, though, that the university is in dialogue with council members about its resources available to Native students.
“The university has reciprocated our demands for improving Native student services by initiating an audit of programs and services for Native students at Columbia,” she said.
Still, for Moone, the plaque is needed.
“Lady Liberty (the Statue of Liberty) is just down south of us,” she said. “Having something that is equally permanent, that can be a memorial … a recognition of the first peoples, would certainly mean just as much as any other temporary help that the school can give us.”
The Native American students at Columbia University are not alone in their endeavor to get school administrators to publicly acknowledge indigenous claims to land.
According to Moone, the idea was agreed upon at the All Ivy Council Summit, hosted in February at the University of Pennsylvania.
The All Ivy Council Summit is a gathering of all the Native American student organizations at each of the eight Ivy League universities.
Cornell University senior Mia R. McKie, Tuscarora, co-chair of the Native American Students at Cornell (NASAC), said her organization hopes to goad Cornell administrators into acknowledging the original inhabitants of what is now Ithaca, New York.
McKie said that the city of Ithaca was established on Cayuga territory. She added that Cornell administrators have yet to agree to NASAC’s requests that the university recognize the Cayuga people during graduation commencements and on their website.
NASAC does not seek the establishment of a plaque, but verbal and written recognition, McKie said.
McKie added that NASAC’s request has stalled due to the university’s “fear of land claims.”
“We are continually finding other methods to get our message across,” she said.
Meanwhile, at Columbia University, the Native students are taking to the Web via Facebook and Twitter to market their petition, which at the time of this publication has garnered more than 300 signatures.
“Our students are extraordinary engaged, collaborative. They continue to enliven dialogue all around this campus,” said Assistant Professor Audra Simpson, professor of anthropology at Columbia University and a Kahnawake Mohawk.
Simpson said she hopes Columbia’s administration will acknowledge the petition and establish a plaque to honor the Lenape people.
“That’s the least they can do,” she said, adding that it is not incorrect to state that Columbia University resides on traditional Lenape territory.
“It’s a matter of fact,” she said, “and Columbia is in the business of facts.”
Simpson encourages all Native students, including those attending other universities, to acknowledge the power they possess.
“You can move mountains with reason,” she said. “I’m excited for the world they are creating.”
Likewise, Moone said she’s optimistic that the plaque will be established and that the administrators will understand the importance of what recognizing the first inhabitants of Manhattan would mean for future Columbia students.
“We can only hope,” she said.
Native American Council Treasurer Julian Brave NoiseCat said he plans to reach out to the Lenape people for support.
He added that the next step is to secure an audience with Columbia University President Lee Bollinger.
Columbia University did not respond to requests for comment.