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FALL 2011
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End Note

Akwe:kon celebrates 20 Years of Inclusiveness

By Elisabeth Rosen ’12

Credit: Provided

The six stones to the west of the building represent the six nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Standing on the stones, from left to right (or west to east as they represent the confederacy): Mia McKie ’12, Tuscarora; Melanie Redeye ’10, Seneca; Joel Harris ’11, Cayuga; Bradley Carrier ’10, Onondaga; Jake Swamp ’11, Oneida; Mary Lafrance ’09, Mohawk.

Credit: Provided

Akwe:kon’s architecture and design

The two-story, wood-frame building was designed by the architectural firm of Flynn & Battaglia. Two of the architects, Peter Flynn ’69 and Nancy Redeye ’85, are Cornell alumni.

The building itself is an artistic achievement, representing an institutional commitment to Native peoples, and Cornell’s relationship with Haudenosaunee and other Native communities throughout the region. The footprint of Akwe:kon is in the shape of an eagle, and the design elements on its exterior walls are from wampum belt symbols that are the basis of Haudenosaunee history, politics, culture, and cosmovision. Its architecture and design are educational tools that represent Haudenosaunee culture and history.

The story of Akwe:kon, the first university residence in the country purposely built to celebrate Native American heritage, began with a contradiction: Even though the campus was built on their ancestral homelands, many Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) students felt unwelcome and isolated in the university community.

Akwe:kon opened 20 years ago at Cornell to change that. Taken from the Mohawk language and pronounced “a-gway-go,” it means “all of us.”

“The foundation of Akwe:kon 20 years ago was a milestone,” said Cornell President David Skorton Sept. 9 at Akwe:kon's 20th anniversary celebration in the Appel Commons Multipurpose Room. Skorton was one of eight speakers to deliver tributes to a place that seemed to have shaped the lives of many in the crowd.

Jane Mt. Pleasant ’80, MS ’82, former director of the American Indian Program and associate professor of horticulture at Cornell, noted, “In the 1960s and early ’70s, the few Native students who enrolled at Cornell, for the most part, found enormous alienation.”

The idea of Akwe:kon first surfaced in April 1972 at a conference on Iroquois education after some members of the Cornell community had been demanding for quite a while that the university devote more resources to Native students. At the end of the conference, they presented administrators with a list of seven demands.

Most of the demands were met, including more aggressive recruitment and retention of Native students, the creation of an academic program in American Indian studies, and an Indian residential center (which became Akwe:kon).

“Cornell is first and foremost an intellectual space,” Mt. Pleasant said. “We deal with ideas and knowledge and the life of the mind. Today, Akwe:kon is ‘Indian country’ for Cornell's Native community in a profound and very real way.”

“But [Akwe:kon's founders] saw that success for Native students depended first on meeting their emotional and personal needs ... [They] needed to feel at home, within their own homelands. It required creating new 'Indian country' within the Indian country on which Cornell stands.”

Not everyone at the time, however, supported the idea.

“I was totally against it,” said Frank Bonamie, a Cayuga chief who was living in Ithaca at the time and who was a driving force behind the American Indian Program, which is housed in CALS. “Mainly because I wanted to invest money in the program, in the students. But I was wrong. It did everything that I wanted it to do.”

The founders' philosophy of inclusion has shaped the residence hall's approach to programming, noted the speakers. Today, students interested in Native culture can participate in a wide array of cultural and community service activities. As the founders hoped, the center provides many students with a home away from home.

“I'm so happy and so thankful for AIP and Akwe:kon,” said Abraham Francis ’14, who lives in Akwe:kon. “If it weren't for them, I wouldn't still be here this year.”

After many of the speeches, the speakers were presented with traditional handwoven baskets and blankets. Skorton received a large Mohawk basket, which he held up to applause.