Penn seeks wisdom from Pequot rep

In the early days of what became the United States, colonial settlers and Native Americans studied and broke bread together at such places as Harvard, William and Mary and Dartmouth.

Now, more than three centuries later, one would be hard pressed to find Native American faces among the students and faculty of these schools and their peers, including Penn.

But those early cross-cultural contacts proved valuable, and they can do so again today. So said Buddy Gwin, spokesperson for the Mashantucket Pequot of Connecticut. That small tribe is best known for its successful Foxwoods casino, but Gwin wasn’t at Penn to tout gambling. Instead, he was here by invitation to help Penn administrators figure out what they can do to increase the Native American presence on campus.

Gwin, himself a Mandan, spent Feb. 7 meeting with Provost Robert Barchi and other top administrators, touring the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the University libraries, and dining with students, faculty and a local Native American representative.
The impetus for the visit came last fall, when the United Minorities Council pointed out that Native Americans were missing from Penn’s mosaic. That led Valerie Hayes, director of the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs, to start thinking about how to change that situation.

As she spoke with administrators, admissions officers and students, she said, she found out that “there is a large interest on campus in seeing a greater Native American presence.” And, she added, many suggested that the key to that greater presence lay in Penn’s home territory of the Northeast, where a number of smaller tribes still occupy their native lands. “Go East!” she said one Wharton administrator told her. “They’re right in the next state.”

Indeed, they’re even right here in the Philadelphia area.

Hence Gwin’s visit, which turned out to be a voyage of discovery for both visitor and hosts. In the library, he discovered a book containing an image of his great-great-great-great-grandfather, the Mandan chief Mah-toh-toh-pa, and two other volumes written by the first Pequot to graduate from Harvard, William Apes, who was born in 1798.

Gwin noted that Penn, like many other institutions, had symbols that indicated respect for the Indians that lived in the area, such as memorabilia from the Lenape Club, named for the tribe that granted William Penn rights to settle Philadelphia. But he also noted symbols that were a bit less respectful — that cigar-store Indian, for instance, in the private dining room of the Faculty Club, the Lenape Club’s successor.

Gwin also soaked up information about the Native American past and presence at Penn. He found it interesting that the Native American student group on campus, Six Directions, is inactive, and that there are almost no Native Americans on the faculty. He used all this to drive home a point: Everyone, from the top down, needs to commit actively to recruiting and retaining Native Americans for the situation to change — and Native Americans themselves can show the way.

“What needs to be done is that there needs to be a map drawn in colored crayon that leads administrators and recruiters to Indian country so they can help [Native Americans] find their way here and then wherever they want to go,” he said.

Gwin was impressed, though, with the level of interest administrators showed in raising the profile of Native Americans at Penn. “Your provost seems committed to building bridges and gaining a better understanding of First Nations [i.e. Native American] issues,” he said, “and I’m confident that under his administration there will be a stronger Native presence at Penn.”


Originally published on February 15, 2001