Community in danger of losing Native voice with low HLS student numbers


As the law school community and administration begin to take a closer look at issues of diversity on campus, BLSA’s ability to influence the public discourse about race at the Law School has been and should be applauded. Their ability to mobilize such large numbers for the protest Monday afternoon (which I and other members of the Native American Law Students Association joined) is a testament to the community that they have developed and maintained. Unfortunately, NALSA has systematically been denied such a critical mass.

When I read the statement that “African-Americans are clearly the minority at HLS” (RECORD, 3/21/02), I recalled a prior article (2/21/02) lamenting the gender mix of the incoming class of black students: only 14 men as compared with 45 women. Although front-page news, the fact that there are zero Native students in this year’s 1L class has never been mentioned by any HLS news source. My intent is not to belittle anyone’s claims of under-representation but instead to demonstrate how marginalized we have become. NALSA would love to have fourteen incoming students of any gender … we’re not picky at this point. We have never had admissions numbers even close to those levels. This marginalization is all the more egregious in light of the fact that Harvard’s charter specifically calls for the education of Indians.

In October 2000, the RECORD printed NALSA’s letter lamenting the dwindling size of the Native community at HLS (“Two little, one little, NO little Indians: The Disappearing Native Community at HLS”). Unfortunately, our predictions came true within the year.

In all fairness, the admissions office did admit two Native students, both of whom deferred. Neither student, however, has thus far expressed interest in participating in the NALSA community upon matriculation. The fact that NALSA can be so dramatically impacted by the choices of only two students clearly highlights the problem we face. Our numbers continue to decline despite the fact that more than 50 Native students apply to HLS each year on average.

Currently, a total of three Native students have been admitted for next year, but no word yet on whether they will matriculate. It is possible that all three could choose to go to schools that better maintain a sustained critical mass of Native students to ensure the continuity that other affinity groups at HLS enjoy. Many top tier schools sustain critical masses of Native students, and not all of them have better weather than Cambridge (i.e. Ithaca and Ann Arbor).

Racism is not a disease of the South. Here in New England, racists are often privileged elites who pay lip service to racial harmony only so long as “those people” don’t live in their nice neighborhoods. They are happy to visit Indian reservations in the West to buy jewelry; however, Indians have no business protesting Columbus Day or Thanksgiving festivities at Plymouth. And those damn Wampanoag Indians better not mess with their vacation homes on the Cape and on the Vineyard. Many of the large Boston law firms have developed quite a practice fighting Indian tribes on the East coast. In fact, Hale & Dorr’s managing partner (also an adjunct professor at HLS) cut his non-IP teeth fighting Indian tribes as an associate. The fact that HLS has a legal services center named in honor of that firm is highly troublesome.

The racist e-mails and fliers distributed on campus recently clearly demonstrate the latent racism present in much of New England, Boston and HLS in particular. NALSA condemns all forms of racial and ethnic harassment, from the use of the N-word in an outline all the way to the unapologetic and all-too-frequent display of Cleveland Indians or Washington Redskins paraphernalia on campus. Given that the term “Redskins” is the reservation equivalent of the hated N-word and was found sufficiently disparaging to justify canceling the relevant trademarks (Harjo v. Pro Football), it is surprising that anyone — especially those ostensibly committed to racial tolerance and sensitivity — would wear such clothing in public. Imagine the outrage if a student wore a shirt with “Nigger” on it or a Little Black Sambo logo.

With Dean Clark, Alan Ray, Joe Singer, and others being strong NALSA supporters, the U.S. Supreme Court hearing a disproportionately high number of Indian law cases each term, and many states starting to add Indian law to their bar exams, it is incongruous that HLS does not have a faculty member whose primary interest is Indian law.

It would be irresponsible to write this complaint without proposing corrective action, but most of what is required was recommended in NALSA’s October 2000 letter.

Without a sufficient number of Native students to explain the intricacies of the mascot issue (or other Native issues for that matter) most students at HLS will probably get the bulk of their information about the mascot issue from Sports Illustrated. (NALSA will host a presentation on the mascot issue and the SI poll next week.)

When the law school community and administration discuss the merits of BLSA’s demands, it should be pointed out that there are communities that are even more marginalized. Without significant corrective action, the Native American community at Harvard Law School is in danger of disappearing altogether. Without a strong commitment to maintaining a sustained critical mass of Native students at HLS this trend will continue: two little, one little, NO little Indians …

The author is president of the Harvard Native American Law Students Association

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