The story of Akwe:kon, the first university residence in the country purposely built to celebrate Native American heritage, began with a contradiction: Even though the campus was built on their ancestral homelands, many Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) students felt unwelcome and isolated in the university community.
Akwe:kon opened 20 years ago at Cornell to change that. Taken from the Mohawk language and pronounced "a-gway-go," it means "all of us."
"The foundation of Akwe:kon 20 years ago was a milestone," said Cornell President David Skorton Sept. 9 at Akwe:kon's 20th anniversary celebration in the Appel Commons Multipurpose Room. Skorton was one of eight speakers to deliver tributes to a place that seemed to have shaped the lives of many in the crowd.
Jane Mt. Pleasant, former director of the American Indian Program and associate professor of horticulture at Cornell, noted, "In the 1960s and early '70s, the few Native students who enrolled at Cornell, for the most part, found enormous alienation."
The idea of Akwe:kon first surfaced in April 1972 at a conference on Iroquois education after some members of the Cornell community had been demanding for quite a while that the university devote more resources to Native students. At the end of the conference, they presented administrators with a list of seven demands.
Most of the demands were met, including more aggressive recruitment and retention of Native students, the creation of an academic program in American Indian studies and an Indian residential center (which became Akwe:kon). Two demands have not yet been satisfied: the return of Cayuga and Oneida lands (currently under university control) and the development of an Indian-controlled college.
"Cornell is first and foremost an intellectual space," Mt. Pleasant said. "We deal with ideas and knowledge and the life of the mind. Today, Akwe:kon is 'Indian country' for Cornell's Native community in a profound and very real way.
"But [Akwe:kon's founders] saw that success for Native students depended first on meeting their emotional and personal needs. ... [They] needed to feel at home, within their own homelands. It required creating new 'Indian country' within the Indian country on which Cornell stands."
Not everyone at the time, however, supported the idea.
"I was totally against it," said Frank Bonamie, a Cayuga chief who was living in Ithaca at the time and who was a driving force behind the American Indian Program. "Mainly because I wanted to invest money in the program, in the students. But I was wrong. It did everything that I wanted it to do."
The founders' philosophy of inclusion has shaped the residence hall's approach to programming, noted the speakers. Today, students interested in Native culture can participate in a wide array of cultural and community service activities. As the founders hoped, the center provides many students with a home away from home.
"I'm so happy and so thankful for AIP and Akwe:kon," said Abraham Francis '14, who lives in Akwe:kon. "If it weren't for them, I wouldn't still be here this year."
After many of the speeches, the speakers were presented with traditional handwoven baskets and blankets. Skorton received a large Mohawk basket, which he held up to applause.
Elisabeth Rosen '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.