In my first Commencement ceremony at Vassar in 2018, I began with an acknowledgment of the Wappingers peoples, the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, and the Delaware Lenape—Indigenous peoples and their descendants who are still here, on whose land we gratefully gathered. At that time, I did not know that Vassar held Native American collections that should have been repatriated under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). In spring of 2020, the Native American Advisory Committee (NAAC) made up of faculty, students, and administrators was formed to ensure we complied with NAGPRA and to advise the College on developing more meaningful engagement with Native American history at Vassar. NAAC is working with representatives from the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, Delaware Tribe, and many Indigenous groups that once lived in this area, and on campus with the Native American and Indigenous Student Association (NAISA).
Our top priority was, following NAGPRA guidelines, to repatriate human remains and sacred items, returning them to their proper communities when claimed by them. For 10 months now, the college has been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as representatives from the communities to which the collections will be returned. We are far along in this vital task, using the most meticulous, collaborative, and respectful process.
In addition, with oversight from NAAC, we are completing an inventory of the campus to understand what other Native American collections Vassar might have, to ensure they are treated appropriately and repatriated as needed. This inventory is nearly complete; we expect it will be finished this calendar year. Some of the collections have already been returned, and the rest of the collections and individuals are ready to begin their journey home.
At the same time, Vassar has taken steps to further diversify its campus community. We joined College Horizons, an organization that works with Native American high school students to prepare them for college, so that we may be more successful in recruiting Native American students to Vassar. In addition, the Political Science Department is recruiting a tenure-track faculty position in Indigenous and Comparative Politics, which we hope will be filled this year; we look forward to further expanding Native American Studies faculty if such a proposal is supported by the faculty.
This year, the ALANA Center, in collaboration with NAISA, has hosted events—lectures, films, discussions—on Indigenous Peoples’ Day and during Native American Heritage Month. Working in collaboration with employees with Indigenous heritage, a consultant from the Tuscarora Nation, and the Meditation Center of Dutchess County, the Engaged Pluralism Initiative has introduced “circle practice” on campus. With the guidance of historical preservation and cultural affairs representatives from the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians and Delaware Tribe, we are developing land acknowledgment practices to be used at official academic ceremonies, as well as a Land Use Disturbance policy for activities that we do on or off campus that might impact significant Native sites and the heritage resources contained within them.
I am thankful to the many faculty and students who have put hours of time and much emotion into efforts to improve our relationships and respectful practices. I want to conclude as I began in 2018—by acknowledging the Wappingers peoples, the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, the Delaware Lenape Tribe, and the Delaware Nation—Indigenous peoples and their descendants who are still here, on whose land Vassar gratefully gather. When we convene as a community, we aspire to come together respectfully, mindful of the past and present custodianship of this place and our responsibilities to that.
Elizabeth H. Bradley, President
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604