‘Invisible Minority’

Syracuse University students share their experiences of being indigenous people on campus

Cody Jock was walking with a friend from home on a Friday night a few weeks into his freshman year when he came across a fraternity party. He immediately realized the theme.

Men were dressed as cowboys, and women donned feathers and headdresses — “Cowboys and Indians.”

Jock stood outside the house, arguing with a fraternity brother standing on the sidewalk who was in charge of letting people in or telling them to move along. Other people from the party then came out and tried to intimidate him, Jock said, but ultimately he ended up walking away, shaking his head in disgust.

“It just boggles me that this blatant racism is allowed on campus,” said Jock, a junior political science major. “If that were any other minority they were making fun of, whether it was African American or Asian or Hispanic, there would be hell to pay for that.”

Jock, who is from the Mohawk reservation, is a part of the indigenous student community, which makes up less than 1 percent of the Syracuse University population.

These students are working to make themselves more visible at SU and shed light on issues regarding their people. On Friday, Chancellor Kent Syverud sent an email to the SU community detailing the university’s new initiative to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, on a day traditionally known as Columbus Day.

“When it comes to being indigenous, we’re an invisible minority here on campus,” Jock said.

Frankie Prijatel | Senior Staff Photographer

Regina Jones – Oneida Turtle Clan

Just across the tennis courts by the Women’s Building on Euclid Avenue sits an old, white house. Paint peeling from the nondescript window frames, the house is sandwiched between a fraternity on one side and a sorority on the other, parts of the house are used for university offices and classrooms.

But as the sign on its front lawn indicates, 113 Euclid Ave. is the Native Student Building. This is the space where students eat snacks or nap between classes. The space where they make posters to educate the community about issues regarding indigenous people. This is where students come in to vent about something insensitive overheard in class.

“The first thing I asked for was space,” said Regina Jones, an assistant director with the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the director of the Native Student Program. “I knew the students needed their space, which is that lounge. You go in there, and that’s theirs.”

It’s been 27 years since Jones started working at SU and 10 years since she helped start the Native Student Program. The program was established the same time as the Haudenosaunee Promise Scholarship, which offers financial assistance to Native American students in the area who are admitted to the university and meet the scholarship’s qualifications.

“There are stereotypes. ‘You’re just here because you got that scholarship,’ students would hear,” said Jones, who is also a member of the Oneida Turtle Clan. “And I’m like, ‘You’re not here because of a scholarship. You’re here because you got yourself here.’”

Jessica Sheldon | Photo Editor

Dillon Point – Mohawk

In starting the program 10 years ago, Jones, known as “Grama” to her students, asked for one more thing other than a space: that the students be able to move in early.

What resulted was a weeklong orientation program that allowed indigenous students to move in early, get acquainted with the campus and meet upperclassmen who are part of the indigenous student community.

“I knew if our people came here, moving in with all those other thousands of students, that they would probably turn around and go home. I’m serious,” Jones said. “In fact, I’ve had some, even with the orientation program, turn around and go home.”

It doesn’t take long for the students to bond over shared values, common experiences and similar senses of humor. They may not have the same cultural practices, but they become each other’s support system at SU.

“You don’t really know these people at first, but the week brings you close,” said Rob Carrier, a senior information, management and technology major, and a member of Six Nations Onondaga. “Pretty soon, this person is like your brother or your sister.”

Frankie Prijatel | Senior Staff Photographer

Rob Carrier – Six Nations Onondaga

Among the 40 residents on the seventh floor of Haven Hall, 11 are Native American and 14 are members of the Indigenous Living Learning Community. The community is similar to any other group of friends on the SU campus: they go to dinner and the mall, and they hold study sessions.

Chrystal Yee has been a member of the floor family for more than two years now. She grew up in a conservative town in Maryland — one where the Confederate flag would be flown at games and Native American culture was not a topic of discussion.

Now in her junior year, and her third year of living in the community, Yee has no plans to leave. Since learning from her former roommate that Native Americans still exist, Yee has immersed herself in the community.

“It is such, such a privilege and I make sure I never forget that. Any time I’m invited to any of the indigenous events, I always tell the people that are hosting it, thank you for letting me be a part of this,” Yee said. “It’s such a privilege to be accepted into their community. I’m a complete stranger, I’m not even native.”

Jessica Sheldon | Photo Editor

Marcus John – Navajo

Yee’s freshman year roommate was Gabrielle Hill, a junior child and family studies major and a member of the Seneca nation. She said she loves that Yee has resonated with them as a group and that she is involved in the indigenous student community as much as she can.

“I love educating people about our culture and ways,” Hill said. “I was taught by word of mouth and that’s how I’m going to teach others.”

It’s this attitude, her motivation to educate people, that drives Hill to turn any negative experience into a learning experience.

“Someone can say, ‘Oh do you live in a teepee?’ or ‘do you wear the headdress with feathers?’ and I’ll brush it off,” Hill said. “If someone were to say anything like that to me, I would turn it around and make them learn something from me.”

Jessica Sheldon | Photo Editor

Maris Jacobs – Kahnawake

Maris Jacobs lives in the learning community — she is roommates with Yee this year. During her first year at SU, Jacobs experienced an incident right on the doorstep of her new home.

Halloween night, Haven seven. Jacobs was walking down the hallway that plays host to the Indigenous learning community when she saw a group of women preparing for a night out.

They were dressed as Pocahontas — or “Pocahotties.”

Jacobs wrote a message on the women’s white board, explaining how their costumes were offensive. In reply, she was confronted with a slur. After a long discussion, the women apologized and changed their costumes.

“They want the culture, and the costume and the feathers, but they don’t want the issues that come with it, or they just don’t know about the issues that come with it,” Jacobs said. “It’s much more than just a costume.”

Frankie Prijatel | Senior Staff Photographer

Honni David – Mohawk

Incidents like this do not stand alone on campus. Honni David, a senior illustration major, described seeing fellow students walking around with a “savage” on his shirt supporting one of the many sports teams that still have mascots that perpetuate negative stereotypes.

“It’s embarrassing that it’s still a thing, it’s embarrassing that in such a socially aware world that we’re living in right now that it still exists, that there’s still these stereotypical images of ‘the noble savage,’ or ‘the savage savage,’” David said.

David used to work in a museum and was often asked questions lacking thought and tact. People would often inquire about what is smoked in a peace pipe, or assume knowledge based on stereotypes.

“There’s all these things that people don’t know and won’t hear because textbooks — textbooks lie and history is written by the victors, and the victors in the American narrative really didn’t want to talk about how they murdered an entire civilization of people,” David said.

As a senior illustration major, David is trying to rewrite those stereotypes and educate others through his artwork.

Reaching into his backpack, David pulls out a black book, thicker than any of his college textbooks. Glued-in pages and scraps of paper line the edges and the spine bulges.

Each page reveals a new sketch, vibrant colors and a story. The book is lined with drawings of “Star Wars” characters, Dungeons and Dragons scenes and stories that have been passed down to David across generations.

David said he grew up idolizing his elders — his grandfather was an amazing storyteller. Now, he illustrates those stories, his favorite being the Iroquois creation story.

“I hope to preserve them and make them more accessible to the community, that they broker in a new era of storytelling,” David said. “I also hope that by strengthening our connection to the legends, support for our causes will not go so easily unheard.”

Frankie Prijatel | Senior Staff Photographer

Caleb Abrams – Seneca Allegany

Like David, Caleb Abrams uses his culture as motivation for his work as a documentarian. Abrams, a senior sociology major, created a documentary called “Remembering the Removal,” which depicted the forced relocation of the Senecas, his people, in the 1960s, despite a treaty that promised those lands to them. A third of the land, almost 10,000 acres, was flooded by a dam about 30 miles south of their territory.

“It was only supposed to be a five-minute thing, but I turned it into a 20-minute thing,” Abrams said. “I just ran away with it.”

It wasn’t until a year later that he got a Facebook message from two PBS producers who were looking to create their own documentary about the subject and came across his work. After exchanges with them and verifying they were who they said they were, Abrams is now the associate producer of the documentary “Lake of Betrayal: The Story of Kinzua Dam.”

The documentary will be broadcast on PBS in November, for Native American Heritage Month.

“If this is the only film project I’m ever involved in, cool. It’s our story. It’s my family’s story. It’s my people’s story,” Abrams said. “We’re getting it out there to a bigger audience and to let people know it happened. It’s not just forgotten.”

Frankie Prijatel | Senior Staff Photographer

Daniel Bissell – Onondaga

In Abrams’s perspective, education and visibility are the two key issues for indigenous people. As an indigenous person with a Native American studies minor, Abrams said he’s learned how to better engage with people who are less educated on the issues by first educating himself.

“Maybe I’m not as dark as they hope I’d be, or I don’t have braids. I’m not wearing moccasins or feathers or something. Maybe I don’t look like an ‘Indian’ — whatever that means,” Abrams said. “But once people start to learn, they’re willing to do better and behave better. They just need to be informed.”

That’s where the indigenous student community comes in.

For Jock, the student who confronted members of a fraternity, SU has created a safe place for those — like himself — who have never been away from home. The sense of solidarity and family is so strong he feels like he never left the reservation.

“What I love best is that I am the embodiment of our struggle,” Jock said. “The fact that I am here (at SU) — I am a testament to our people’s resiliency to adapt to certain situations.”

Jessica Sheldon | Photo Editor

Raohserahawi Hemlock – Kahnawake

Banner photo by Frankie Prijatel | Senior Staff Photographer