Reflections on the history of NAIE

by Debra Vidali, Associate Professor, Anthropology
September 17, 2020

I can say some words about the history of Native American and Indigenous Engagement at Emory University from my perspective as a non-Native white faculty member who has been at the university for more than 25 years. I come to these reflections as a committed scholar-activist and anthropologist who for the past five years has been teaching and conducting research on issues of Native American sovereignty and non-Native allyship. I am from the Seneca (Haudenosaunee) region / Western New York State.

Up until recently, erasure, invisibility, and general lack of knowledge have been pervasive at Emory University. A significant momentum in Native American and Indigenous Engagement started to form beginning around 2017, with a small number of faculty and students working in Native Studies across a range of departments. We’ve been advocating for greater visibility, inclusion, and representation of historical and contemporary Native American peoples and concerns at Emory, as well as committed resources for faculty hiring, student recruitment, staff positions, and programming. Strong supporters of these developments at the level of administration and other units on campus are the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI); Dean of the Emory College of Arts and Sciences (ECAS); Office for Racial and Cultural Engagement (RACE); Carlos Museum; and Office of Undergraduate Admission. There have also been exciting developments recently as we’ve fostered links to Native public health professionals at the Centers for Disease Control and to regional Native representatives at the New Echota Historic Site.

One of the major turning points in this recent history was a far-reaching three day symposium in November 2018, organized by the Office of Undergraduate Admission, which produced the report, A Community for All: Indigenous Student Initiative Committee Statement. The report contains more than 25 specific bullet points with implementation recommendations and ends with “10 Key Steps to Indigenous Engagement.”  Another phenomenal development was Emory hosting the 2020 College Horizons pre-college workshop for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian high school sophomores and juniors. Approximately 200 students from over 50 different Native American nations participated.

In recent years, programming has featured Native scholars and artists such as Kahente Horn-Miller (Kanien:keha’ka/Mohawk), Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel (Mohegan), Cannupa Hanska (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, European), and Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muskogee). One of our outstanding undergraduates Klamath Henry (Tuscarora/Shasta) was the recipient of the Brittain award in 2019, Emory’s highest student honor, for her advocacy for Native American students and racial and social justice.

There’s currently a lot of excitement on campus around building coalitions related to contemporary social justice themes, and increasingly Native students are taking an active role in programming and outreach. You’ll see that here on many of these pages. I hope you find some good things here, and become part of our growing community.