Texas Christian University (TCU), a private institution with just under 10,000 students, is becoming a model school on how to engage Native American and Indigenous people on campus. Just five years ago, the only connection TCU had to Native Americans was a class taught by Dr. Scott Langston, a professor in the Religion department. The class focused on the role Christianity played in the colonization of the Americas.
“I was looking for ways to bring Native voices into the classroom and to interact with them when I read an article about The United Methodist Church’s Act of Repentance,” said Langston. The denomination held an Act of Repentance Toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples service at its 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida. Since then, twenty-six Acts of Repentance services have been held across the denomination as a show of commitment to heal relationships with Native and Indigenous peoples.
Langston contacted the Rev. Chebon Kernell, member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, who led an Acts of Repentance service for the Council of Bishops meeting in November 7, 2014, in Oklahoma City. Soon after, Kernell made several visits to the TCU campus as a guest speaker.
“The Native American literacy rate at TCU was very low,” said Langston referring to the basic understanding of Native American and Indigenous peoples among faculty, administrators and staff. “For most, what they know about Native American peoples is based on stereotypes and little tidbits they may have learned in middle school and in the movies.”
The conversations with Kernell spanning cultural identity, historic trauma, and other issues facing Indian Country grew from classroom presentations to a campus wide symposium. The goal was to raise awareness about Native issues as well as build relationships with Native communities.
“TCU leaders have been very receptive to suggestions and recommendations on how to grow their relationships with Native American and Indigenous peoples on campus,” said Kernell. “They have respectfully engaged on many levels with Native and Indigenous peoples in a way that acknowledges historic trauma and takes small steps to improve future relationships.”
Each year the TCU commitment has grown. In addition to the symposium, which now has more than a thousand participants annually, they have declared the first Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day. They have also added courses to highlight Native perspectives; created a Native and Indigenous Student Association to support students on campus; and dedicated a monument acknowledging the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, the original inhabitants of the land where TCU now resides. In 2018, members of the Wichita Tribe of Oklahoma were invited to campus to dedicate the monument along with students, faculty and staff of TCU.
“In the past three years, there have been some amazing strides,” said Sarah Tonemah, a 7-year staff member in TCU’s Theater department and member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma. She recalls a time in her department when she looked around during a meeting and realized she was the only person of color at the table. “I think there is an opportunity to grow the native population, but we’re going to need everyone, faculty, staff and our Native students to work together to do it.”
Langston says part of the challenge in attracting Native American and Indigenous peoples is the historic trauma that is embedded in the name of the Disciples of Christ-related University itself.
“I often say that at TCU we have three immediate problems in building relationships, and they are ‘Texas, Christian, and University’ because all three of those institutions have been amongst some of the most destructive institutions to Native peoples,” he said. “Part of our goal is to develop respectful, trustful, meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships on both ends to address it.”
This year, TCU acted on a recommendation by Kernell to bring awareness about the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) by offering a scholarship established in honor of those who have been impacted by the violence against Indigenous women. More than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetimes, according to a study by the National Institute of Justice. TCU’s MMIW scholarship seeks to honor missing and murdered Indigenous women, raise awareness about the issue, educate future leaders who will address this and other Native American issues, and provide financial support to graduate or undergraduate students at TCU who demonstrate a commitment to these issues.
Class of 2021 pre-med student, Angel Guyton, is the first recipient of the $5,000 award.
“Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is an issue that should not continue to be unnoticed in our society,’ said Guyton. “I love being able to raise awareness on the TCU campus about the issue and to honor those who have been victims.”
Langston says some of the major goals they are working towards at TCU includes hiring a Native American administrator; adding Native American faculty; and focused efforts on recruiting Native American students. He says they would like to also have a tribal liaison, a Native person who could build relationships with indigenous communities.
“We don’t want to replicate the old paradigm of the university using Indigenous peoples to get information so that it furthers careers, or whatever,” said Langston. “We want it to be relationship that allows us to be responsive to Indigenous views, issues and challenges and to find ways to support the needs of those communities and individuals in a mutually beneficial partnership.”
Kernell says it is important to note that TCU is a tangible outcome from the reconciliation work of The United Methodist Church with Native American and Indigenous peoples which started seven years ago.
“Whenever institutions recognize indigenous contributions, our stories, our presence, it is a turning point,” he said. “These moments help us reconstruct our identity and our place in this world that has been shattered through colonization; it is crucial that institutions such as TCU and other non-Indigenous entities continue to seek healthy relationships with Native American communities in the U.S. and Indigenous communities worldwide.”
Kernell is currently the executive director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan of The United Methodist Church which focuses on raising the visibility of issues facing Native American and Indigenous Peoples within the denomination and beyond.