A Win for Indigenous History at Columbia University

Students in Columbia's Native American Council think the University could do more to acknowledge indigenous history, and they're helping to make it happen.
Columbia University

Columbia University Library. Photo by Stefano Arteconi / Flickr.

On Sunday the Columbia College Student Council passed a resolution to install a plaque on campus commemorating indigenous history.

The plaque was an initiative started by the university's Native American Council, as a way to draw attention to the native history of the land on which the University is built.

"There's an imperative to remember that this was once indigenous territory and it was appropriated by the colonial powers that came here," said co-president of the Council, Julian Noisecat, of the Shuswap and St'at'imc tribes. "The narrative of this place is not told in the architecture or the curriculum."

Along with his fellow co-presidents, seniors Megan Baker and Sara Chase, and freshman Michelle Crowfeather, Noisecat presented the case for the plaque to the student council on Sunday. The group also presented a petition signed by nearly 1,000 community members.

Lenape Map

Traditional territories of Delaware tribes. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

"This campus has many statues, monuments, and plaques celebrating a colonial heritage and legacy," the petition reads, "but neglects to mention the first inhabitants of this land."

Their presentation was positively received, the students said.

But the initiative is not without its challenges. "Nobody has ever asked for Columbia to install a plaque, so nobody really knew the process," Baker said. The students enlisted the help of Terry Martinez, Columbia's interim dean of student affairs, who agreed to be their sponsor and guided them through the process.

Because this is the first initiative of its kind, no one is sure how long the process will take. It could be one to three years before the process is completed and the plaque is installed, according to Baker.

For now, it's up to Dean Martinez to present the students' case to the various administrative committees who need to approve the request.

But the students still have their work cut out for them. Since most of the Native American Council’s leadership consists of upperclassmen, they will have to enlist the help of freshmen and sophomores in order to ensure that the initiative continues to move forward after they graduate.

And they still need strong support from the student body. "One of our main focuses is building a solid foundation for the university community to back us," Chase said.

That means raising awareness for their group and the issues they feel are important, which the group has been doing for several years.

"When I came here, there was a very small indigenous community," Noisecat said. "Since then we’ve tripled in size, and we’ve become a significant group on campus." The Council has also won a shared living space in a brownstone that the College recently acquired, and has started a mentorship program where indigenous upperclassmen provide support to freshmen as they transition into college life.

"The [plaque] is part of a larger push to get more recognition and support for indigenous students and indigenous narratives on campus," Noisecat said.

What will the plaque actually say? The words to be inscribed on it haven't been settled on yet, but Noisecat says they will be written both in the Delaware and English languages, and he's sure that they will be true to the history they aim to represent.