Education

Indiana U Denounced For Hiring White Male To Run Indian Cultural Center

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Blake Neff Reporter

Indiana University (IU) is under fire for hiring a white man instead of an American Indian to serve as director of the school’s Indian cultural center.

At first glance, it would seem Nicholas Belle has several valid qualifications for running the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center. He volunteered extensively at the center while in school, helped found IU’s annual Traditional Powwow event, and has spent time on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, one of the most desperately poor Indian reservations in the country. He has a Ph.D in anthropology with a particularly strong focus on the Lakota language and culture of the Plains Indians.

But critics claim it is simply impossible for Belle to fulfill all of his job’s requirements, purely because of his race.

“Minority students need to have places they feel safe, places where they can be understood,” Indiana alumnus Joe Stahlman said, according to The Herald Times. “They need a respite. They need to see leaders who look like them, so that they may aspire to be the same.”

Rebecca Riall, who claims Cherokee descent and is also an IU alumnus, told The Herald Times a key part of Belle’s job is helping Indian students overcome racism or understand how to make their degrees useful back home. A white person can’t possibly do this, she said.

“I don’t see how [Belle] has those qualifications,” she said.

The complaints have been circulating in Indian circles since June, when lengthy complaints about the hire were published online. Many accuse Belle of essentially being an Indian cultural enthusiast with no deeper understanding of the Indian experience. In a Facebook post, William Yellowfeather cited Belle’s alleged lack of knowledge about frybread as a disqualifying factor.

“We all know the many Native American individuals and communities have embodied the power of frybread,” Yellowfeather said. “It is the one food that reminds us of the ongoing colonization of our lands, homes, diets, and sovereignty, but it is also the one topic that allows me to talk to Davina, Rebecca, or Terri and share how our grandmothers made their ‘secret recipe’ for us. Mr. Belle does not have that connection, nor can he ever have it. The most he can do is share how the Native club at his undergraduate university made him some for the first time or how he made some for his Boy Scout badge.”

Meanwhile, in an open letter, Muscogee tribe member Terri Miles outright accused Indiana of racism, suggesting it rejected other applicants specifically because of their tribal affiliations. She also accused Belle of deceptively posing as an Indian, citing a photo caption from two years ago that apparently describes him as a Lakota.

“He did not grow up Ndn, does not live as Ndn, and his risk of being murdered/disappeared/raped/incarcerated/shot by police like too many Ndn’s is much, much lower. He doesn’t have to balance academia and his community because you gave him ours.”

Miles’ complaint is reminiscent of an incident last year at Dartmouth College. The school hired an ostensibly Indian woman to direct its Native American Program, only for her to be exposed as a member of Eastern Delaware Nations, a non-federally recognized tribe regarded as fake by most other Indians. After enduring substantial criticism and ridicule, Dartmouth reassigned the woman to a different role.

IU, for its part, has responded to the controversy by simply emphasizing it is an equal opportunity employer.

“All qualified applicants receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, ethnicity, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation or identity, national origin, disability status or protected veteran status,” the school said in a statement.

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