A Leader in Native American Studies

Jim Wright | Professor | Dartmouth President | 1969-2009

Jim Wright came to Dartmouth from the University of Wisconsin Madison in the fall of 1969 to teach history. He was asked in 1970 to teach The History of the American West – a course originally named Cowboys and Indians – which hadn’t been taught in several years. He agreed under the condition that if he taught this course, he’d like to teach more Native American history. A student at the time, Howard Badhand of the Lakota tribe, gave evening lectures about Native American history at College Hall (now Collis Center). As a faculty member during his first year at Dartmouth, Jim sat in on some of those lectures. Inspired, Jim reworked over half of the course on the American West to include Native American History. In 1971, after Jim had been teaching his Native History course for a year, Native students on campus began petitioning the college to more aggressively recruit Native students, derecognize the Indian mascot, and offer more Native American Studies classes. And it was in 1971 when Leonard Rieser – the Dean of Faculty – asked Jim to co-chair a committee to develop a Native American Studies program at Dartmouth.

“I was a second or third year assistant professor,” Jim said. “Normally such people are not asked to chair major committees. But I was probably one of the few people at Dartmouth then who was teaching something in Native American studies.”

Jim’s co-chair was Stuart Tonemah. Several Native students at Dartmouth at that time were on the committee, including Duane Bird Bear, Harry Buckanaga, Michael Cornelius and Donald Hebert. The first thing the committee did was split up and travel to different Native Studies programs across the country which could potentially serve as a model.

“Frankly, there weren’t many of them,” Jim said. But Jim and Duane went to visit programs at the University of New Mexico, Arizona State, and the University of Arizona. Of the programs they visited, Jim was most impressed with the recently-started NAS program at Navajo Community College, which was later renamed “Diné.”

After visiting different programs, the committee developed a recommendation to establish a Native American Studies program, and Jim made the presentation to the rest of the faculty. The faculty voted and approved it, and Jim was tasked with finding someone to chair the program. He recruited Michael Dorris, an anthropology professor at Franconia College in New Hampshire. At the time, Micahel Dorris was one of the few people in academia focusing on Native American Studies. His field was Anthropology. Jim wanted to hire him because of his expertise, but also because he was a young, energetic man with good ideas which he was eager to apply. It was also important to Jim that he appointed someone who was already an established academic, to make certain that the program was recognized and respected by the higher education community. Jim went back to teaching while Michael took off organizing and managing the program.

“I often said that Dartmouth was a leader and has been a leader in Native American Studies and the education of Native students,” Jim said. “But I've always qualified that by saying that our leadership role on this has as much to do with the fact that other schools have done little or nothing, and that our programs stood out. I think our program has stood out for fifty years now because of the quality of the program and the quality of the students who have come here. Many students who have been part of this program have gone on to do just exceptional things. But, I also think that until now, maybe in the last twenty or thirty years, more schools are doing more imaginative things, they're contributing more money, they're making more of a commitment to this. But for the first twenty years or so, there wasn’t a lot out there.”

The college also created a committee to address the mascot issue. A man named Bob Kilmarx chaired the committee, and thus the committee was named the Kilmarx Committee. This committee learned that the “tradition” of the Indian mascot was not something that was two hundred years old, but rather something that the college adopted in the 1920’s. Sports writers at the time would refer to Dartmouth athletics teams as “the wild savages from the North,” or sometimes “The Indians.” Dartmouth embraced those references, but never formally adopted the mascot. Since the Indian mascot was never formally adopted, there was nothing for the college to formally unadopt. But in 1972, the college made it clear that they would not use the Indian symbol again as a mascot, and the athletic department took the Indian head off of all their uniforms. The Dartmouth Indians became the “Big Green.” Some alumni hated this – they wanted a more active symbol. And students and alumni did not quit using the Indian head just because the college did. It was still printed on T-shirts and jackets that students wore around campus. Jim remembers that Duane Birdbear had one of those jackets, and he wore it around. But he cut the Indian head off of it, and patched it back up.