APRIL 26, 2002
Dismantling Academic Freedom
-- Philip P. Arnold
A memorandum dated 30 November 2001 was sent from Governor George Pataki's office through the State University of New York University Counsel to all presidents of New York State operated campuses and community colleges. It stated that all contacts with Indian people (including anyone who purports to represent, speak on behalf of, or in any way is affiliated with an Indian tribe or nation) should be immediately reported to the University Counsel's office. After reporting such interaction all campus personnel should "await further instructions . . . before engaging in any further contact" including replying to correspondence, returning phone calls, holding meetings, or sharing information of any kind.
News of this memorandum broke two months ago in the February 24 issue of Indian Country Today. When I distributed the article to colleagues via email there was a tremendous reaction -- a mixture of outrage and disbelief. In effect, the Governor's office was directing that all faculty and staff at campuses supported by New York State suspend contact with Indian people. If the Governor had sent a directive suspending contact with African Americans, Latino/a Americans, Asian Americans, etc. there would have been massive protests.
Why did the governor single out Native Americans?For over two hundred years the land base of Indian nations has been eroded by federal, state, and local interests in violation of treaties between the federal government and numerous tribes, including the Haudenosaunee, or People of the Longhouse -- popularly know as the Iroquois. During the nineteenth century, the federal government forced a new elective style of government on some of the native nations of the Haudenosaunee. These "federally recognized" governments, designed and then controlled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), were formed in opposition to "traditional" governmental structures.Because Longhouse traditionalist groups controlled vast amounts of land and were ceremonial, political and economic centers of Haudenosaunee communities, federal, state and local governments did everything they could to undermine them. The people who defended the Longhouse system underwent incredible hardships, including attempts at forced assimilation through boarding schools, religious conversion, and direct military action.
Today, it is not unusual to find both a BIA, or "progressive," and Longhouse, or "traditional," government on a single Indian nation territory. Relationships between these groups can often be tense. Particularly contentious are the ifferences between traditional and progressive factions with respect to casino ventures. Traditional Longhouse people see casinos as contrary and detrimental to their ceremonial emphasis on giving thanks. In contrast, progressive people who are organized by BIA governments have embraced casinos as a way out of generations of crushing poverty. Last year the state legislature determined that there would be six more casinos developed in the Catskills near New York City, and that Indian nations would have to bid for these new sites. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer stated that any negotiations with Indian nations about these casino sites would have to include land-claim settlements. In other words, in order for Indian nations to get access to big casino profits they would have to give up their claims to land.
Given this background, why would Governor Pataki send such a directive to SUNY campuses? Many academics at universities in upstate New York have been working vigorously toward a cultural solution to the terrible legacy of relations between Native and Immigrant peoples. In the last few decades several schools have developed programs that bring university students, faculty and staff into contact with local Native communities to promote awareness and understanding. There are important programs at SUNY Buffalo, Oswego, Cortland, and Plattsburgh; and the state sponsored colleges within Cornell and Syracuse-to name just a few. There are also countless programs at local community colleges located near Native communities with several Native American members of the faculty and staff. In these environments, the Longhouse groups are a strong presence. The Longhouse people have borne the traditions of their ancestors and are of great interest to academic communities-particularly in the humanities and social sciences. But because the Longhouse people represent the most persistent obstacle to the State's efforts to settle land claims, their interaction with scholars and students is seen by the governor's office as a threat.
Pataki's directive and memorandum state explicitly that it is the policy of the state to engage in formal government-to-government dialogue with only legitimate representatives of federally recognized Indian nations or tribes. Only official Indian epresentatives are to be in dialogue with the state. Any other person or group is considered a "dissident faction." The presence of dissidents in the dialogue, according to the memo, causes unnecessary confusion in state negotiations with federally recognized Indian nations. If New York had been negotiating a free trade agreement with Mexico, would it have been the policy of the state that no Mexican citizen who was not an official representative of Mexico could visit SUNY campuses and lecture in classes or speak to the university community? If that person were particularly critical of a free trade agreement between Mexico and New York would their presence have been considered unnecessarily complicating of already complicated negotiations?
The directive and memorandum are not, as advertised, designed to facilitate uncomplicated negotiations between state and Indian Nations. They are attempts to silence what the state regards as "dissident" voices so it can carry out a political agenda at the expense of academic freedom. They restrict the ability of academics to explore and articulate intellectual areas that are controversial.
The university has a role to play in the current events. But it is as an interpreter of those events, not as an extension of state government. The situation in upstate New York is at a critical point, but it is precisely in this kind of political climate that academic freedom becomes most important. Rather than affirming the credibility of the Pataki directive, universities ought to stay with their educational missions and continue to search for constructive cultural interactions between different groups. It is not ours to pay homage to a state government's political agenda, but to promote dialog with the widest possible selection of people.
-- Philip P. Arnold is the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University.