On Sept. 7, 2022, more than 100 students, faculty, and staff celebrated the reopening of Locust Walk’s Arts, Research and Culture House (ARCH). After decades of being a hub of student advocacy, cultural houses once relegated to ARCH’s basement like Makuu: The Black Cultural Center, La Casa Latina, and the Pan–Asian American Community House (PAACH) now technically were allowed full use of the building. 

Space was allocated to a new addition to the ARCH family: Natives at Penn (NAP), a student–run club representing Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, Alaska Natives, and Indigenous students on campus.

Formerly housed in the off–Locust Walk Greenhouse Intercultural Center (GIC) at 37th and Chestnut Streets, NAP now had a place to gather in the heart of campus. But in stark contrast with their more expansive space in the GIC, complete with a fully stocked kitchen, NAP’s location in ARCH is a small printer room nestled inside PAACH—with both groups (and the other cultural houses) still located in ARCH’s basement as of October 2022. 

In an email to Street in response to being asked about PAACH’s decision to cede space, Cindy Au–Kramer, PAACH’s finance, operations, and program coordinator, writes: “This topic has been discussed with University Life Administration, GIC and PAACH team members. There is no controversy as the 6 [cultural resource centers] support each [cultural resource center’s] distinct community across the board.”

“It was an active decision made within PAACH to cede some of their space to us. It feels very special that they would be willing to do that, especially when [the ARCH basement] is so cramped anyways,” says Nyair Locklear (C ‘23), co–president of Natives at Penn. 

In spite of PAACH’s generosity, NAP’s room in ARCH is still too small to host meetings regularly. As such, the group continues to hold most meetings in the GIC. 

“It feels symbolic being pushed to 37th and Chestnut. It’s not that far, but it’s significantly farther than ARCH,” says Keaton Mackey (C ‘23), social chair of NAP. “Since I was a freshman, I was trying to get [Natives at Penn] into ARCH. But it’s disappointing, because it’s like a closet.” She emphasizes that she’s grateful for the space that PAACH has provided, but says that “you shouldn’t have to ask another cultural group to give you space.”

Penn’s campus sits on indigenous land known to the original Indigenous people as Lenapehoking. Lenapehoking is the homeland of the Lenni–Lenape people, centered in New York City and spanning from Western Connecticut to Eastern Pennsylvania and the Hudson Valley to Delaware. 

The Lenni–Lenape lived in the Philadelphia area for almost 10,000 years before the European occupation, and served as caretakers to the land. However, in 1737, the sons of Pennsylvania’s namesake, William Penn, falsely represented an old draft of a deed as a legal contract previously signed by elder Lenape generations. Known as the “Walking Purchase,” the false deed allowed the Penns to steal 1,200 square miles of Lenape land, and the Lenape trekked westward for over a century until they could settle in Oklahoma, or were displaced northward to places like Ontario and Wisconsin. A majority of tribe members still reside in these locations today. 

Many places in the Philadelphia area still bear Lenape names such as Manayunk, which means “place where we go to drink,” Passyunk, which means “in the valley” or “place between the hills,” and Wissahickon, which means “catfish stream.”

The history of the land that Penn sits on often goes unacknowledged by students, faculty, and administration. Keaton notes a consistent lack of land acknowledgements across campus, and multiple members of NAP have observed that some Penn students falsely believe that Native Americans no longer exist.

“This is Lenape land,” Keaton says. “The University doesn’t really like to remember that sort of thing. They don’t really do much in reaching out to the Lenape community except through us.”

Formerly known as “Six Directions,” Natives at Penn was founded in September 1993 by Desiree Martinez (C ‘95) as “the University’s first organized cultural group for Native Americans,” according to an article from The Daily Pennsylvanian. Now, NAP aims to increase Native and Indigenous visibility on campus and create awareness about Indigenous culture and history by engaging with both Penn’s community and local tribes.

In 2020, NAP organized a petition calling for Penn to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day—garnering over 2,000 signatures and asking the University to “uplift Indigenous students and their communities, and actively fight against barriers that prevent Indigenous students from thriving at Penn.”

Lauren McDonald (W ‘23), co–president of Natives at Penn and the author of the petition’s statement, says that the attention the document received led to multiple meetings with University administration. These meetings eventually led to Indigenous People’s Day being placed on the academic calendar in fall 2022. 

“I don’t think there was any resistance at all. It’s just sometimes we say things, and it’s usually pushed under the rug, or [there’s] not a sense of urgency,” she says.

As NAP’s visibility continues to grow this year, they’re prioritizing community building and programming, holding their first in–person Powwow since 2019 in September 2022. The Powwow was meant for both Native and non–Native students to learn more about Indigenous culture and engage with Native performance and visual artists. Now, the group is planning activities for Native American Heritage Month in November. 

They’re also focusing on garnering cultural resource center (CRC) status, which allows centers like Makuu, La Casa Latina, PAACH, the LGBT Center, the GIC, and Penn Women’s Center to employ paid, full–time staff members and receive more funding. While Natives at Penn’s recent induction into the 7B—Penn’s minority coalition group—allows them to have the same input on advocacy matters as other CRCs, the group doesn’t get the same financial or administrative support that other CRCs are afforded. 

Currently, Toyce Holmes, a first–generation, low–income program coordinator who works under the GIC, is dubbed “the unofficial director of NAP,” spending extra time working with Native students outside of her work duties. “[Holmes] basically volunteers her time working with Natives at Penn because she loves all of us. But we want to see her be paid for all of the work that she does,” Nyair says.

Holmes declined an interview request from Street, writing in an email that “The students are the greatest resource for information and I believe their opinions, thoughts, and feelings should be the focus, after all it’s their community and identity.”

“Penn has the funding. There have been words saying, ‘You will have a staff member,’” Ryly Ziese (W ‘25), the communications chair of NAP who worked to secure the organization a space in ARCH during summer 2022, adds. “Where are they? They’re not here.”

Holmes isn’t the only person employed by the University who has chipped in extra time to support Native students. 

Margaret Bruchac, professor of anthropology and coordinator of the Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) minor, is currently the only tenured Indigenous faculty member at Penn. 

Bearing this status in mind, Bruchac feels that she’s often tokenized. “I think [about] how over the years, how many times people in other departments have contacted me because they simply want something Native. They want someone to read a land acknowledgement or they want some token inclusion,” she says. “And token inclusion is never enough because it remains tokenism.”

Bruchac, who’s currently on leave of absence, left the third year of a tenure–track position at the University of Connecticut—where she began a still–existing NAIS program—to begin a new Native American and Indigenous studies program at Penn in 2013. “I literally started the whole tenure system over again,” she says. “But I was quite excited—I really expected a lot of support.”

She worked from the ground up to build Penn’s NAIS Program, creating an interdisciplinary, cross–departmental program based off of existing classes in the School of Arts and Sciences, Penn Carey Law, and the School of Nursing that was officially approved as a minor in 2014. The program initially consisted of approximately 13 faculty members from 14 different departments across five different schools, who taught 20 to 30 classes that all counted toward the minor. However, as faculty who taught NAIS courses died, retired, or moved to other schools with more robust Indigenous studies programs, the program dwindled down to a couple of professors who mostly teach anthropology courses—and Penn seemingly has no intention to recruit more Native studies professors. 

Richard Leventhal, an anthropology professor who sits on the NAIS Program’s faculty advisory board, feels disappointed in the decline of the minor’s interdisciplinary nature. “There needs to be an understanding of [indigeneity] not just in anthropology, but what we teach in history, what we teach in sociology, what we teach in economics, and what we teach in anything within the humanities or social sciences,” he says.

Now, Bruchac says that she’s running a “skeletal version” of the program. 

Keaton, who’s pursuing the NAIS minor, has also noticed the number of Native faculty fall throughout her four years at Penn. “In my freshman year, we started with—I believe—four Native professors,” she says. Now, according to Keaton, there are only two. 

“[Bruchac] carries the weight of that whole minor. It’s like a one–person department,” Keaton adds. 

Ryly, who wants to pursue the NAIS minor, says few classes that counted toward the minor were offered this semester, and due to Bruchac’s leave of absence, there was no point person for her to contact about NAIS class offerings for next semester. 

Keaton says that on top of the administrative labor that Bruchac does for the program, the professor has also taught three of the five classes she’s taken so far that count toward the minor. Leventhal has taught the other two. 

While the minor doesn’t carry the initial heft or interdisciplinary nature that Bruchac originally envisioned when creating the program, Indigenous students pursuing the NAIS minor still find that the program allows them to better understand and contextualize their identities, heritage, and history. 

“It’​​s been really great to be able to learn more about Indigenous theory from a bunch of different authors, activists, anthropologists, and academics alike. I think that’s one thing that sets apart studying Native studies from just being Native—having somebody to guide you through all the theory and research going on in the academic space,” says Sophia Poersch (C ‘23), the treasurer of Natives at Penn who’s pursuing the NAIS minor.

Bruchac feels similarly, explaining that it’s important for Native students to feel that they belong at college. She also wants to emphasize that students can contribute to both their education and a better future for them and their communities by taking Native studies classes. Through her work and her mentorship, Bruchac aims to show Indigenous students everything that’s possible for them in higher education. 

The professor has witnessed senior faculty members question why funding should go to Native studies due to the small population of Native students on Penn’s campus. But for Bruchac, learning about Native studies isn’t solely just for Native students. “We owe a great debt to that population, to that history, and to these misperceptions that persist in the present and that shaped the way we think about sovereignty and land and heritage and human rights,” she says. “How can we possibly address these larger issues if we don’t first address the knowledge gap?

Despite Bruchac’s clear love for her students and passion for the work she does, it’s extremely difficult for her to carry an entire program on her shoulders, even down to making and maintaining the program’s website. “The [NAIS] office is my office. I have no assistance. I have no TAs,” she says. “I manage everything. I’m truly exhausted.”

Those involved with the NAIS Program look to other universities as models of what Penn could do to support their Indigenous students and the NAIS Program to a greater extent. 

“Harvard has made a solid commitment to working with tribal nations to recover and access cultural heritage,” Bruchac says. Keaton feels similarly, saying that Yale University offers Native language classes, and students there are currently pushing for a Native studies major. “The difference between what our school has done for us and Yale, it’s kind of mindblowing,” she adds. 

Dartmouth College also offers a major and a minor in Native American and Indigenous Studies, with over 20 students graduating from the department in 2021. Leventhal notes the college’s long history of working with Indigenous people and communities, and its focus on getting more Indigenous students to attend Dartmouth. 

Keaton, Sophia, Bruchac, and Leventhal all agree that Penn needs to hire more Indigenous faculty members. Keaton says that a lack of University attention to the NAIS Program and a lack of opportunity for tenured positions has caused multiple faculty members to leave for schools such as New York University, Dartmouth, and Yale. 

“And it’s not just faculty—it’s [also] students and staff,” Leventhal says when asked about hiring more Indigenous faculty. “I think there should be a much broader campaign to bring all three of those types of people here. [They’re] all the core aspects of what Penn is.”

Bruchac also believes that Penn should be focusing on cluster hires to strengthen the NAIS Program. “Part of why I’m struggling is the fact that I was brought in as an individual hire. If I had been brought in as part of a cluster hire, I would have naturally had a cohort of faculty in the same discipline,” she says. “If there were other faculty and multiple departments focused on [NAIS], I would have more success, and the University would have more success. More students would be attracted to these levels of study, and I think things would improve dramatically.”

Keaton and Bruchac also underscore that the Native American and Indigenous community at Penn needs a physical building. Through Bruchac’s experiences as a visiting scholar at universities like McGill University and the University of Victoria, she notes that “their Native studies programs survive because they have a building—they have a place.”

Penn’s treatment of both Natives at Penn and the NAIS minor is characterized by a lack of funding, a lack of attention, and a lack of care. However, in spite of this dismissive treatment by administration, Native students, faculty, and staff at Penn find solace in the supportive, tight–knit community that they’ve built together through groups like Natives at Penn. 

Bruchac always tries to financially support the NAP–organized Powwow using the little funding that the NAIS Program receives. 

Keaton calls Holmes the “most amazing person,” and reiterates over and over again how grateful she is to the GIC for providing NAP with a space to meet. 

Ryly, who went to an all–Native American high school, says that “[Natives at Penn] has been a great community to be around. It’s almost like I’m back home around the people I grew up with because they understand—they get it.”

Yet for Native students and faculty alike, it’s still difficult to navigate Penn while feeling overlooked by administration, colleagues, and peers. From a barely funded Native studies program to Natives at Penn not being recognized as a cultural resource center, the University has consistently failed to validate and support the needs of its Indigenous students and faculty. 

“Penn is not giving Native American studies its due ... I don’t think there is enough attention or support for anything indigenous on this campus,” Bruchac says.

“There are some days that I feel welcome here, and there are some days where I don’t,” Nyair echoes. “There are a lot of days where I just feel completely unseen. Not welcomed, not shunned—just as though I am invisible.”