Strangers in a Strange Land

Little came easy for the Native American students who arrived on campus more than 40 years ago, when the College recommitted to its original mission.

It was President John Kemeny who made a commitment to strengthening the presence of Native American students at modern-era Dartmouth, pledging in his March 1970 inaugural address that the College would increase opportunities for Native Americans and directing the admissions office to recruit Native students.

In 1972 then-professor James Wright was instrumental in getting faculty approval for a Native American studies academic department, which has led to Dartmouth graduating more Native students than all other Ivies combined. Currently, the College has 180 students enrolled who identify as Native American.

Last winter, when the College celebrated the 40th anniversary of the department’s establishment, DAM spoke with Bill Yellowtail ’69 and sat down with Howard Bad Hand ’73, Drew Ryce ’74 and Dave Bonga ’74 when they came to campus. All have successful professional lives: Yellowtail now heads Off the Beaten Path, a Montana-based travel company; Bad Hand, a singer and composer in New Mexico, lectures about Lakota music around the country; Ryce, who earned a degree from Yale Law School, runs a private practice in Chatsworth, California; and Bonga, who has a law degree from Gonzaga University, is a senior attorney for the Kalispel Tribe in Washington State.

DAM: What brought you to Dartmouth?

Bill Yellowtail: My dad’s best friend, who was a car dealer in our Montana town, had a son who had graduated from Dartmouth. Dad got to talking with him and insisted that I apply to this place, which by the way, had as its mascot the Indian. So it had to be a good place! Dad volunteered the $10 to apply, so I dutifully did. It was as straightforward as that. I had never imagined going outside of Montana to go to college. It was a life changer for me when I matriculated in 1965.

Howard Bad Hand: I was here in 1965 as a participant in the program called A Better Chance (ABC) run by the Tucker Foundation to prepare students for prep school. I went to the Lenox School in Massachusetts and applied to Dartmouth from there.

Drew Ryce: I was literally homeless on the south side of Chicago when I got the acceptance letter to Dartmouth in the spring of 1970. I’d been out of my parents’ house since November. As a student at a predominantly black high school I had become aware of something called “affirmative action.” One of my best friends, a spectacular football player, was recruited to Yale. He made me aware there was this thing called the Ivy League and we could get into it, so I got a list of schools and applied without knowing anything about any of them.

Dave Bonga: When we were recruited to Dartmouth, there were 15 of us from across the country. Three or four of our group already had that ABC tie with Dartmouth and knew what they were getting into. The majority of us had heard of Dartmouth only through the Indian education grapevine. I heard of it from my aunt, who worked at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.

How did you come together as a group?

DB: The summer before we got to campus Dartmouth sent out a letter to all 15 of us, and you could check a box saying, “I do not want to live with an Indian,” “I do want to live with an Indian” or “It doesn’t matter.” The majority of us checked “It doesn’t matter.” I think there was only one student who actually checked the box that he wanted to live with another Indian student. There were about five Native upperclassmen on campus already. They had recommended to the new program that we should all live together, so the College put, I think it was 11 of us, in Chase Hall. The other Natives were kind of scattered around. Chase gave us an opportunity for peer counseling. If anybody had issues with academics or personal problems we could kind of help each other. That was real important for us to survive that first year.

BY: I was at Dartmouth long before Chase Hall housing happened. I lived in what became Hinman Hall [demolished in 2006 to make way for a Tuck School complex]. When I arrived at Dartmouth in 1965, Hinman was known as North Wigwam. Somebody must have had a real giggle when they assigned me there.

Were most of your friends at Dartmouth other Native students?

HBH: Having been in prep school I was more open to befriending more people than just Natives. I even had a pet Caucasian, Russell Adams ’71, who is still a good friend. I called him “Custard,” because he looked like custard. I liked his fringe leather jacket. I got involved with things like the radio station, where I became an announcer.

DR: I immediately bonded up with the Indian kids, but I probably hung out with black kids as much as I did with the Indians. Hardly at all with Anglo kids. Not that anybody was unfriendly or anything like that, but you just tend to go with what you know. Then I moved off campus. Howard met a girl and I met a girl. Her father had a farm over by Plainfield [New Hampshire], so I was over there a lot.

Let’s talk about first impressions. Bill, there’s a story about when you got off the bus in Hanover for the first time.

BY: Actually, it was at the Lebanon Airport. I’ve embellished the story, but there was this guy with a big camera when a whole planeload of other freshmen and I got off our flight. I was somewhere in the middle of the pack or at the back. After I walked by this guy, he said rather loudly and in frustration, “I thought Yellowtail was supposed to be on this plane.” I’m a mixed-blood Crow, and I look like my Irish mother. I didn’t know what the deal was, but I identified myself to him. He looked at me with very obvious disappointment and took my picture. It was a big deal. I think two other fellows and I were the first Native Americans to arrive on the campus in some 20 years.

What did you come to think about the Indian symbol during your time here?

BY: I viewed the Indian symbol—and I’m guessing that up until shortly after I got there, others viewed it the same way—as complimentary. I learned that the College had originally been founded for the purpose of educating Indians, and I thought that was, frankly, pretty cool. Coming from a reservation in Montana, I was rather excited to be at a place that identified itself with American Indians.

Were you at all disappointed when you got to campus and discovered that the College’s identification with Native Americans was, perhaps, not as advertised?

BY: No. In 1965 the whole notion of Native American studies and special support programs for Native Americans had not even been thought of. I was just pleased to go to an elite college, one of the best in the world, and have an opportunity to be at a college that identified itself with American Indians. I go back so far it’s a whole different context.

DR: The Dartmouth acceptance letter was my get-out-of-hell ticket. I had no particular expectations—which is sometimes the best way of approaching life—and sort of dove in with both feet just to see what was here.

DB: Originally the Dartmouth American Indian program—as it was called when they recruited us—was part of the Tucker Foundation. The office was located on the bottom floor of College Hall. At the very back a big open space with a fireplace was kind of our lounge. That was where we were supposed to officially get together as a group of students and study together. There were all these tables, but the lighting was really poor. At night they would turn the heat down because all the administration people would leave, but we had that big open space back there where we burned things in the fireplace to keep warm. Then some alum gave the American Indian program a TV. One guy, Bob Abrams ’74, all he did was watch TV. Of course he didn’t finish the first year, but everybody likes to remember how, if you wanted to find Bob, you could find him in College Hall watching TV.

Howard, that first iteration of the program—with a dedicated space in College Hall—came about from your efforts a few years prior?

HBH: When I came to Dartmouth in 1969 I had the intention to “Indianize” it. I fathered a lot of the efforts setting up the Native American program, recruiting half of the first kids who were part of it and developing relationships. I negotiated the whole third floor of Chase House for the Native kids with Dean Carroll Brewster. I started to really push the idea of a support program, and because I had a lot of relationships with the Tucker Foundation through the ABC program, that became the unofficial Native American program office.

Very few of you guys made it through four years at Dartmouth.

HBH: I got drafted, so I took a semester off to go home to South Dakota and fight the draft. I didn’t want to go to Vietnam, so I declared that I was a conscientious objector for treaty reasons, not for spiritual reasons. By the time I came back they [the new class of Native students, including Drew] were already here. Having been here before they were, I came back as an outsider. They formed a bond because they were recruited together. My experience evolved outside of that bond. Part of me was trying to get back into Dartmouth, trying to get along with the new guys, and developing a reputation for being a womanizer….

DR: That wasn’t a reputation. That was the reality!

HBH: I became so involved with, you might say, the political process of the whole institution that I basically stopped being a student. I liked the courses I was taking, but I never showed up to them. I finally got confronted by the very committee that I was on with Drew, the Committee on Conduct and Standards, so my best buddies had to judge me.

DR: Well you have to picture Dr. Frankenstein being pursued through the blizzard by the monster he’s created! We both got kicked out of college—deservedly, I’d say.

HBH: I didn’t complain.

DR: No. It had been coming. I actually was wondering what took ’em so long. I had found “an educational experience.” The girl I was alluding to earlier was the daughter of J.D. Salinger. I was out in the boonies in Plainfield, but I was out in the boonies with the Salingers, kicking around Hindu mysticism for a couple hours at a shot, then meeting folks that they knew. If I’d been more sophisticated maybe I would have come back over here and hustled up some professor to give me some credit or gotten credit for writing a paper about it or something, but I didn’t know about that kind of stuff. I got kicked out and was out of school for a couple of years, then went to Oberlin. There’s kind of a colony of Native alumni who left here for Oberlin. We had a mini Indian program going on over there. I always had a bad feeling about the way I’d left things at Dartmouth, so I reapplied, came back here, aced some classes for a term, then left under my own power and went back to Oberlin. I was president of the student body there, got great grades, excelled—everything I hadn’t done here, then went to Yale Law School. But I absolutely want to attribute to Dartmouth the launch pad that opened the doors for Natives. I never could have qualified for admission just going in cold. If I’d applied Howard’s year I couldn’t have gotten in here. I didn’t go to Lenox, I didn’t have the grades, but they opened up the doors and softened the procedures, which is why you suddenly got 15 Natives when you didn’t have 50 Natives in the preceding century! You either rose to that opportunity or you didn’t. A lot of guys didn’t, they got depressed and left. There are not a lot of graduates out of that group.

HBH: I left here and went to Harvard. I became a degree candidate in the program in the Harvard Commission on Extension Courses. Then I got divorced. Woke up one morning, took the train to Logan Airport, hopped on a plane. I went back to South Dakota and became a tribal education director. Started teaching on a reservation.

BY: I was suspended from the College in 1967. I got into trouble with the law in Hanover. You can read all about it back copies of the Valley News. I had a problem, and the dean invited me to leave. Not to diminish my scrape with the law, but I was failing my classes and I was in what I now know was a state of pretty serious depression. I was not adjusting well to the academic rigor at the College, and that drove me into a deep pit. I returned to the old family ranch in Montana, where I worked for a few months. Then my alma mater high school heard that I was back and recruited me to stand in for the math teacher, who had been drafted into the Vietnam War. There I was, hardly older than the kids in my classroom, teaching mathematics for a year. I recouped my enthusiasm for college, and my family encouraged me to return, but I went for a year to Montana State University, where I work presently. Meaning no disrespect to Montana State—it’s a wonderful university—but it was not as rigorous as Dartmouth, so I kind of got my academic legs back under me. Then Thomas Mikula, a mentor of mine who was then the director of the ABC program, contacted me in the spring of 1969. He invited me to return to Dartmouth on a probationary basis to take a class or two and to serve as a student mentor for Native American high school students who were being sponsored by ABC. So I returned and kind of tiptoed back into the academic atmosphere and had a terrific experience. I was more mature and more confident by that time, so I fared better and, not to boast, eventually achieved the dean’s list. I owe Tom Mikula and Dean Seymour for having me back.

What were some of the most difficult things about your years at Dartmouth?

DB: I didn’t really care for the place. I couldn’t believe it started snowing Columbus Day and didn’t stop until almost Easter.

DR: I didn’t have a winter coat. I’d go into Professor Robert Lincoln’s remedial English class wrapped up in a blanket. That’s what you’d do: Grab a blanket, arrange it and trudge off into the snow. It was a scene out of Doctor Zhivagothere for a while.

BY: As I’ve said, the academic rigor was intimidating for a small-town kid from Montana. I was not self-conscious about being Native American, but I was kind of a fish out of water: a kid from the Crow Indian Reservation, a little tiny high school, a ranch background, very rural, so there was a large social gap.

DR: We all started taking anthropology classes, because that might connect to being Indian, you know, and my professor was a very nice man. He did this thing, though, every year or perhaps every semester. We would come into class and he would be sitting there, legs crossed, in full Indian regalia. I think it was Hopi, but I don’t actually remember. We were to ask him questions he would answer as a Hopi. And he would demonstrate the difficulties of cross-cultural communication. This didn’t go over well with us—it was sort of a high-tech version of the Indian symbol, as we looked at it. I remember one of the exchanges when he was trying to put forth that Hopis might be uncommunicative if questioned about their lives. The untalkative Indian was one of the stereotypes of the time. This was simply not what any of us would have recognized. Actually, the more traditional, the more talking.

Did anyone say anything to him about that?

DR: Oh yeah. We were not a quiet crowd.

So how’d that go over?

DR: It went over fine. It wasn’t confrontational. We had a Hopi in our group, and of course the rest of us were used to dealing with older Natives. We pointed out that we felt his depiction of our culture was one-sided and showed a lack of depth of understanding. At one point, he was trying to demonstrate that we had to learn this stuff academically, so what did he do? He posed us a question: “Under the Omaha kinship system”—which I think a good half dozen of us were in—“what do you call your father’s sister’s husband’s brother’s sister” or something like that. Of course Duane Bird Bear ’71 says, “Doris,” which kind of exemplified the gap between us.

What were some of the best things about your experience?

BY: I have marvelous memories of my friendships, particularly at Alpha Chi Alpha, which I joined as a sophomore. As an upperclassman I enjoyed my job as a student advisor to the ABC high school students. They were terrific, and the administrators I mentioned were tremendously supportive. Then I made friends with characters like Howard and Dave and some of the younger Native students. The Dartmouth Outing Club was another terrific home-away-from-home for me. I really enjoyed the sense of tradition at Dartmouth—the freshman trips, the Thayer Dining Hall family-style meals for freshmen. I never experienced any what you might call racism—not on campus, among my peers or in the Upper Valley. When people heard my name and were curious about it and then became curious about my background, they were nothing but interested and supportive.

I know the Indian symbol became highly controversial and roundly criticized in the not-long-later years, but for me, that fed into the overall sense of history and tradition at the College. Frankly, when it all became controversial I was a little taken aback. I never joined—although I never opposed—the almost militant Native American student movement against the symbol. I remain a little bit impatient with that as an issue. I knew then, and it certainly is true still today, there were much more pressing issues in Indian communities.

DB: Here at Dartmouth I saw the crossing of many languages and cultures. I enjoyed watching it.

Did you talk about that with other students?

BY: Yeah, I did. A Boston Globe reporter came to campus, I would guess around 1970 or 1971, and interviewed a group of us because by that time the American Indian movement was in full swing nationally. There was sort of this militant feeling growing, the Alcatraz occupation [by militant Native Americans who felt the island should be returned to them] was about to happen and the symbol had been brought up as an issue. The reporter eventually asked about the symbol, and while Howard and other students expressed their displeasure with it, my remarks were contrary to theirs. I said that I thought that was not the most important thing for a Dartmouth Native American student to be expending energy on. From privately, over a beer or two, to that sort of rather public forum, there were discussions. I appeared then and appear now to be a conservative old fart.

DR: As individuals we had different reactions [to the Indian symbol], none of them positive, but on a sort of continuum from disgust to a shrug and an, “Oh god, what kind of dumb crap is this?” We all combined to do something about it, because something had to be done. It was a tough transition time for the older members of the Dartmouth community. The 1960s had landed with a bang, but they hadn’t gotten here yet. I think they got here with us. That might be exemplified by the Indian symbol and by our reaction to the Indian symbol. We had weeping alumni because this was their beloved symbol of this institution they just adored, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. They also didn’t want women, didn’t want minorities, didn’t want new programs. They really wanted to skip the 1960s and go right into the 1970s. That wasn’t going to happen.

Dave, you were part of the group of students that in 1971 approached President Kemeny with a plea to revamp the American Indian program. How did that go?

DB: During my first year the very first get-together, before freshman week, was the American Indian program freshman trip to Harris Cabin. We went up there for a long weekend to get to know each other, and it turned into a great big drunken party. The director of the program, John Olguin, was there and got drunk and started stating that the program was for real Indians, and if we weren’t willing to make a commitment and support Indian things, we shouldn’t be there, we were taking somebody’s spot. Then he said he thought only three of the 15 in our group would graduate, that everybody else would either flunk out or give up and go home. Once we got back to campus, we met in Chase Hall and decided what a bunch of BS he had said, that we were there for an education so then we could all go home and do what needed to be done. We also felt that more than three of us would graduate. That’s what started our negative relationship with the director.

There were also a couple of upperclassmen who were leaders and opposed to him: Duane Bird Bear and Harry Buckanaga ’70. Harry’s brother Rick Buckanaga ’72 kind of led the charge as far as opposing things the program director had done. We decided to start Native Americans at Dartmouth, or NAD, because we didn’t want to be part of the American Indian program. During the winter things continued. The director would come and talk to us only when he was drunk. We really had a difficult time putting up with him. There was a visiting Indian lady, Denise Dean, from Oberlin. She had been part of the ABC program, so she knew all the older students and became acquainted with the freshmen. She was a breath of fresh air, but the director had it out for her. In spring we wondered, “Who’s gonna come back?” We started talking about what needed to happen. Then we figured we should go and talk to President Kemeny. It was really hard to make an appointment with him, so we decided we’d go up as a group and sit in his front office until he met with us. That’s what we did.

What happened next?

DB: We waited at Kemeny’s office until he met with us. We went in and told him the issue we had with the director—and that we felt he should be gone. We told the president we needed to get rid of the Indian symbol. Then we said, “We have to find a place to call our own,” that he needed to set up a Native American studies program, not for us, the Native students, but for everybody else here on campus because nobody had any clue what it meant to be Native. They all had these really crazy ideas about our backgrounds, where we came from, who we were. Then we said you have to fix financial aid and admissions, because we were all having issues with that. That was kind of where we left it. Kemeny said he would take it under advisement, and eventually all the things that we had requested, he fulfilled. They did replace Olguin after the first year. That was really great.

Were you surprised by Kemeny’s reaction?

DB: Initially we were in awe he was making this new commitment to the Native program, that he was actually a champion of getting that done. It was a nice surprise to have him listen and begin the process of having Dartmouth change. It was important and appreciated.

Dave, what was it like when you began working at the College for the Native American program in 1975?

DB: There was a deep divide between the 30 or 35 Native students on campus at the time. There was one group that was really active in NAD and doing a lot, and there was the other group that was more conservative and really didn’t participate. I think that stemmed from the College having tried another Harris Cabin-type trip that again turned into a great big party. Half of the students just got turned off and wouldn’t come around at all. One of my main goals was to try to get those guys back as a group because I knew that the strength of the earlier program was when we were all together and acted together. Having the Native American house really helped. We did activities there, we started doing student-faculty dinners and gradually pulled the Native students back together. They became closer because of the house, the dinners, the activities, the lectures when people would come over and talk with the students. I think that was really, really kind of key and really important.

Any final thoughts?

DR: There was a lot of student activism before we ever got here. And then during my time we did sit-ins over at the president’s office, protesting the Indian symbol and whatnot, but there was an evolution to it. The recruiting of more Native students led to a kind of critical mass on campus so that we could get more demanding, and now it’s a whole other thing. I don’t see a sense of fighting for survival with the program now.

HBH: I look at my Dartmouth experience as coming here to change this institution, and I did. I didn’t do it alone, but I changed the institution. And I have a certain satisfaction about that.

Svati K. Narula, a former DAM intern, is working as an editorial fellow for The Atlantic in Washington, D.C.

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