Victory won by the few at Vanderbilt

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By Krystal Tsosie, May 2016
Krystal Tsosie (left) with Dr. Laurel Schneider (right) at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine commencement ceremony in May.
Krystal Tsosie (left) with Dr. Laurel Schneider (right) at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine commencement ceremony in May.

Last month, I had the pleasure of standing with my classmates and receiving my diploma for a Master in Public Health. That honor was made even more significant because I was the first Native American student at Vanderbilt University who was able to wear an eagle feather across the commencement stage.

When I first arrived to Vanderbilt, I was used to being one of hundreds of American Indian students at Arizona State University (ASU), my original alma mater. ASU is the nation’s largest public university, and it follows that they would have the nation’s largest number of American Indian students. Contrast that with Vanderbilt, which according to most recent statistics has an American Indian student population of less than 0.1%. Of graduate students, I was the only one.

That is not to say that I did not form a bond with the few other American Indians at my school. In the fall of 2014, I and six other people formed the Native Americans in Tennessee Interacting at Vanderbilt, which is very cutely abbreviated as NATIVe. We pretty much comprised the entire American Indian population at Vanderbilt, and we became the de facto representatives of all things Native for the other students and faculty. We were, and still are, awesome.

One can imagine my dismay when I found out that the university has a No Adornment policy that prohibits students from wearing unsanctioned honorifics on their graduation caps and gowns. There was a cultural exception made for African American students to wear kente cloths, but no exceptions for other cultural groups. It was clear this had to change.

American Indian students at all levels nationwide have encountered issues with wearing their hair long, or wearing moccasins or eagle feathers at graduations or in compliance with acultural dress codes. Such prohibitions of expression of our Native American heritage unfortunately reminds us of the recent historical practices of the boarding school era. As Natives, our parents’ generation were among those that were forced to attend schools hundreds of miles away from home. Hair was chopped and punishments were doled for speaking in our indigenous languages.

Today, American Indian students consistently graduate at lower percentages from secondary institutions than any other minority or ethnic group. When one of our own makes through a four-year institution, we want to express our achievement as a victory for all American Indians. That act is made impossible by dress or commencement codes.

Upon finding out about Vanderbilt’s injunction on eagle feathers, our NATIVe student organization then reached out to current and past American Indian students, the supporting community through Facebook, and also faculty.

Mary T Newman, Director of Native American and Indigenous Peoples with the United Methodist Church, brought our plight to the attention of Dr. Laurel Schneider, a Professor of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Schneider appealed to the university deans and chancellors on behalf of American Indian students, citing the religious and cultural significance of eagle feathers during wartime and the more modern education war. It is with their influence and the collective letters from the outside community that we few Americans Indian students at Vanderbilt University were able to overturn the No Adornment policy.

Now, any American Indian student who graduates from Vanderbilt University will be able to proudly wear an eagle feather across the commencement stage. It is with the power of a united community that such an attribution of culture and pride could have come to fruition.

Thank you, Mary T Newman, on behalf of the Native American current and future students at Vanderbilt University.