The western New York region has traditionally been a center of Native American culture, politics and history and was the birthplace of the Iroquois Confederacy, one of the world’s first constitutional governments. However, the contributions of Native Americans are often overlooked by modern society. Today, educational and job opportunities for Native Americans fall far behind other racial and ethnic groups.
“Native Americans are the fastest growing affinity group, but are the least likely to attend college,” says Jason Younker, associate professor of anthropology, assistant to the provost for Native American affairs and a member of the Coquille Indian Tribe. “Studies also show that Native Americans earn less money on average than white Americans, due in large part to educational differences.”
In an effort to address these issues, RIT is conducting a unique initiative involving RIT students and faculty with area Native American agencies. The program seeks to increase college graduation rates among Native Americans, promote native science and increase understanding of Iroquois history and society.
The effort’s flagship is RIT’s Future Stewards Program, which provides on-campus support, student advising and research and cooperative education opportunities for American Indian, Alaskan Native and First Nations scholars. It also works with multiple reservations and assistance organizations to promote higher education opportunities in Native American communities. The program currently serves close to 70 RIT students who represent 26 tribes from across the country.
“Through the Future Stewards program, I have had the chance to both enhance my own college experience and give back to the Native American community,” notes participant Lauren Jimerson, a fourth-year fine arts studio major. “I was able to travel to Washington, D.C., as part of the Big Shot project at the National Museum of the American Indian and have also served as a tour guide and speaker for local Indian reservations who have brought high school students to campus for tours and social activities.”
RIT has also sought to develop connections with the area’s Native American organizations to increase opportunities both for Future Stewards scholars and RIT faculty. Earlier this year, the university entered into an educational partnership with the Ganondagan State Historic Site, a museum and resource center located in Victor, N.Y., promoting the culture and history of tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy.
“This partnership will further our efforts to expand educational opportunities for Native Americans, while also promoting the rich history and culture of the Iroquois Nations,” notes Jeremy Haefner, RIT provost and senior vice president of academic affairs.
The efforts undertaken by RIT and Ganondagan include cooperative education opportunities for students as well as multidisciplinary research designed to enhance native science and technology and improve environmental quality at the historic site.
For example, Jimerson is working at Ganondagan this summer managing the site’s gift shop and information center.
“I am able to interact directly with numerous scholars and educators working in Native American culture and history,” she says. “I have also assisted in educating Ganondagan’s many visitors on the importance of the Iroquois in the development of the region and the United States as a whole.”
RIT imaging scientists are also working with Ganondagan and the New York State Department of Parks and Recreation to map the spread of swallow wort, an invasive species and poisonous plant, which can trick monarch butterflies into laying their eggs in its pods due to the plant’s similarity to native milk weed pods.
“Butterfly eggs laid in these plants will not hatch, so the spread of swallow wort is negatively impacting the local monarch population, while also inhibiting native plants and the overall ecology of the region,” notes Roger Dube, professor of imaging science in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science at RIT. “We are using global positioning technology to analyze the spread of the plant and to assist in collection.”
A pilot removal program is underway at Ganondagan and the team hopes to work with the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy as well as parks and recreation to duplicate the effort at other sites throughout the state.
Furthermore, Younker, Dube, and Jeffrey Burnette, visiting assistant professor of economics, are working with Ganondagan to integrate the use of Native American techniques to support modern sustainability and environmental responsibility efforts in the region. Eventually, this coalition will result in the development of a proposal for a Native American Arts and Science Center.
To assist in overseeing RIT’s Native American initiatives, RIT President Bill Destler has formed a Native American Advisory Council including leaders from the Iroquois tribes and government officials from the state and local level.
“Through the advisory council, the Future Stewards initiative and efforts such as our Ganondagan partnership, RIT is working to improve educational opportunities and ultimately the quality of life for Native Americans both here in Rochester and throughout the country,” Destler says.