U. to offer Native studies program

By
Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 7, 2012

As the only Native American faculty member at Brown, Elizabeth Hoover MA’03 PhD’10 hopes to continue her efforts to bring American Indian culture into the University’s consciousness. Hoover held the first annual powwow on campus as a graduate student 10 years ago, and she now plans to help develop a Native studies program that will raise awareness of the culture in the academic sphere.

Hoover’s celebration of her Mohawk and Micmac heritage began at a young age, continuing through her undergraduate years at Williams College and her graduate years at Brown and finally culminating in her position as a visiting assistant professor of ethnic studies and American studies.

Hoover grew up in what she refers to as “the boondocks of upstate New York.” Because she lived in a diverse community where she had little contact with her cultural roots, she spent much of her childhood traveling across the Northeast to traditional powwows and ceremonies where she could get in touch with her heritage.  

“It was just something that was always important to our family, even though our neighbors didn’t all necessarily take part in the same traditions,” she said. “The way to hang on to Native traditions is by coming to these gatherings and going to ceremonies and going to powwows.”

But Hoover did not find this Native American culture accessible in her college years. Williams “basically had no (Native American) community,” Hoover recalled. She attempted to change this by organizing a powwow at Williams, a tradition she would later start at Brown. The powwows attract residents of local communities and feature ritualistic dances and ceremonies, she said.

“I wanted to bring more Native people to that campus,” Hoover said. When she attended Williams, there were only three or four other Native American students, she said.

As an undergraduate, Hoover’s attempts to recruit more American Indian students proved difficult. Upon asking an admission officer what the school was doing to increase recruitment of Native Americans, he said, “Oh, we just tell them to go for Dartmouth because they have a good program there,” Hoover recalled. “My jaw just dropped. It was just shocking.”

As a professor at Brown, Hoover said she hopes recruitment efforts will be more successful. Hoover has been active in University efforts to reach out to local Native people and make them aware of Brown’s welcoming community.

Hoover originally came to the University to get her master’s degree in anthropology and museum studies. With her expertise in museum studies, Hoover hoped to help display the crafts of Natives “in such a way that it doesn’t make these folks look like they vanished,” she said.

But Hoover soon decided the more urgent issues facing Natives were environmental, as the high chemical levels in many tribal areas affect their health. She pursued her doctorate degree in anthropology, focusing on how contaminates affect the reproductive abilities of the Mohawks in Akwesasne, N.Y.

At Brown, Hoover discovered a more active and slightly larger Native population than the one at Williams. Since her first year as a graduate student, Hoover has taken part in the activities of Natives at Brown.

“I was very happy that they had a Native student group here,” she said. “It was very nice.”

Soon after joining the cultural group, which currently has 10 active members who meet once a week, Hoover started a powwow much like the event she organized at Williams.

“I was like, all right, somebody else has to raise the money, but I’ll invite the drummers and the dancers because that’s the fun part,” Hoover said.

The tradition has continued with the University hosting its 10th annual powwow last year.

Hoover also hopes to leave a lasting legacy in academia with a Native studies program at Brown. Hoover and other professors are currently organizing all the classes that cover Native peoples into a cohesive group. In the fall, the professors of these classes will come together to create a Native studies program within the ethnic studies department.

“It’s going to be a while before we can get them to hire another Native studies professor,” Hoover said, “so it’s about how we can work with the resources we have to bring it together.”

Before the program is fully implemented, Hoover said she hopes Brown will attract more Native students by “letting people in the local communities know that they are welcome here and that their students will thrive here.”