Recently appointed director of the Native American Program Susan Taffe Reed said she hopes to contribute to an environment in which Native students at the College continue to thrive. The appointment, however, has sparked controversy from some alumni and students alike.
Reed began her job on Sept. 1 after completing her Ph.D. in musicology and American Indian studies at Cornell University and doing post-doctoral work at Bowdoin College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She came under fire from some Native students and alumni after a post on the blog “FakeIndians” surfaced questioning her ethnic background. Reed said she is president of the Eastern Delaware Nation — a non-profit organization and federally unrecognized tribe that allows non-Native people to join as social members — and identifies as a person of mixed Native and European ancestry. The blog post claims that Reed is solely of Irish descent.
Reed wrote in an email that the purpose of the Eastern Delaware Nations is to bring together the Native people of Delaware and related heritage to restore traditional culture and promote cultural awareness.
In terms of her goals at the College, she wrote that she wants to continue to make Dartmouth a “home away from home for Native students” and to advocate for students and support their educational experience. She wrote that she will draw from experiences teaching and working with students at other universities to provide “academic, cultural and personal support to all Native students.”
Alumni took to the public Native American Alumni at Dartmouth Facebook group to voice their discontent and confusion about the appointment. Many alumni expressed greater frustration with a perceived lack of transparency than with the alleged fact that Reed is of solely European descent.
In a statement to the Valley News, College spokesperson Diana Lawrence said that Reed never misrepresented herself as a member of a federal- or state-recognized tribe and that she was transparent about her professional and personal experience during the search process, and Reed maintains that she is of mixed ancestry.
Reed added that it is not uncommon for Native identities to be mixed and complex, and that the Native community at the College is “inclusive of all backgrounds and experiences.”
Lawrence did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
One of the critics, writer and Native American activist Jacqueline Keeler ’91, said the appointment of Reed was a disappointment and an example of Dartmouth’s administrators failing to live up to expectations.
She said, for herself and for many other Native alumni, the background of this type of leader did not matter because the job could be performed by a qualified candidate of any ethnic background.
“The issue here is one of integrity and honesty,” she said. “We have a situation here where the applicant was, to a certain extent, dishonest or delusional, neither of which is great considering you’re working with youth.”
Keeler also added that during her time at the College, this role was held by a woman who was “100 percent New England, but she didn’t pretend to be Indian.”
“She was just there for us, emotionally and otherwise,” she said.
Native alumni George Hill ’05 echoed that the alumni consensus was not that Reed had to be Native to fill this position, though the post does require a deep level of understanding of the Native world.
“The [Native American students at Dartmouth] student body is one of the largest Native higher education groups that exist,” he said. “It’s tremendously important to all of Indian Country that they have a good education here and get through the whole thing.”
He said the misleading nature of the appointment, however, makes Reed less relatable to Native students, especially those from reservations, for whom Dartmouth is “an alien world.”
“Dartmouth needs to take its commitment to Native students seriously,” he said. “It seems the administration does not know very basic, general things about Indian Country despite this supposed re-dedication to the school’s original, founding mission.”
The Eastern Delaware Nation should not be compared to unrecognized tribes, Keeler said, which can provide documentation and attribute their lack of recognition to historical oppression rather than having to craft stories about their ancestry.
“It’s very frustrating because there are real tribes that struggle with political recognition,” she said. “So many tribes on the East Coast are unrecognized because of some really terrible history.”
She said Dartmouth should apologize to the Delaware Nation, for whom there are three actual tribes.
“I talked to some Delaware tribal members and they are deeply hurt by this, because this gives credence to people who are practicing cultural theft,” Keeler said. “They can’t stand up for themselves in Pennsylvania because they were removed 200 years ago, so these groups are filling the vacuum.”
Corinne Kasper ’17 said the issue was very sensitive and confusing for many Native students on campus and upsetting for others. While the issue of identity policing and its detriment to Native communities is something she has encountered, she said this particular type of issue is new to many students.
She expressed concern for current students and said she is upset about a lack of transparency.
“I’m worried about the reactions of alums and other outside sources and how that will affect Native American students here,” she said.
Native American studies professor Bruce Duthu, who headed the search committee to fill this position, was unavailable to comment by press time.