In Junot Díaz’s talk last week, an audience member posed the question: What can people with more privilege do to help those with less privilege? Considering that 72 percent of Kenyon’s student population identifies as white, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), this question seems especially relevant to our campus.
The three members of Indigenous Nations at Kenyon’s (INK) executive board, Colleen Moore ’18, Teahelahn Keithrafferty ’19 and Rose Paulson ’20, often find themselves navigating this tricky question.
INK was founded in 2014 by Manny Loley ’16, a Navajo student that grew up in a community called Casamero Lake within the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. Since his graduation, no other Indigenous student has been a member of the group, and, according to IPEDS, the percentage of Kenyon students who identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native is zero. This puts the members of INK in an unusual situation. While none of them identify as Indigenous, they lead an organization that’s mission statement is to “raise awareness of Indigenous issues, Indigenous identity and Indigenous presence in the Kenyon community.”
Just talking with them reveals their caution to not overstep the boundaries of their identities.
“It’s not like we’re more knowledgeable than anyone else,” Keithrafferty said. “We’re just an organization that’s working to bring the voices [of Indigenous people] here.”
Partly because of the organization’s lack of Indigenous students, Keithrafferty said that she wasn’t sure INK could be identified as a cultural organization anymore. She pointed out that most cultural organizations at Kenyon operate as a space for people to share their own culture among themselves and with the broader campus, whereas INK only facilitates campus visits by various speakers.
In September of this year, INK organized a visit to campus by Indigenous activist Winona LaDuke. The group is also coordinating visits by the self-described “alter-native” band Scatter Their Own, who have visited Kenyon twice before, on October 25 and Native American writer Kimberly Blaeser on October 31.
For Paulson, the events and learning opportunities that INK puts on are what make the organization so important. She joined INK at the end of last semester after taking Assistant Professor of History Patrick Bottiger’s History of North American Indians class. “I wanted to be a part of INK not because I knew a lot about Native issues but because I realized I needed to learn more,” she said. “I wanted Winona LaDuke to come to campus because I knew I had a lot to learn from her.”
Keithrafferty said that she was hesitant to join the organization at first because she didn’t identify as Indigenous. She wondered if the same hesitancy is what prevents more students from getting involved.
But Loley, who now works at the Navajo Technical University in New Mexico, pointed out that there are benefits to having non-Indigenous students in the group. He focused on creating a more receptive environment for Indigenous students at Kenyon during his time in the organization. He admired that last year’s group went even farther by taking on the issue of the #NoDAPL movement, a collection of protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through the Standing Rock Reservation in North and South Dakota.
“I kind of shied away from the more extreme parts of Native activism [while I was at Kenyon],” he said. “When I attended Kenyon, I didn’t want to be perceived as an ‘angry Indian,’ which often happens to Native activists.”
He felt that the “allyship” of non-Indigenous students was an asset to the current iteration of the organization. He also mentioned that while Kenyon is a partner school for College Horizons, which means Kenyon will meet 100 percent of financial need for Indigenous students, very few Indigenous students choose to attend Kenyon. He saw INK’s work as important in trying to change that.
Bottiger sees the role of INK in an even broader scope. “The bigger push is not just Native culture, or Native students, or Native issues on campus,” he said. “It’s this place. Ohio is a Native place — it always has been.”
Reflecting on the current state of INK, Paulson weighed the pros against the cons. “Maybe it’s not the best case scenario that INK is all white people now,” she said, “but it seems to be better than if INK didn’t exist.”