Aaron Sims, a member of the Pueblo of Acoma, visited Dartmouth for the first time for Dimensions in the spring of his senior year of high school. He arrived at Collis Student Center to check in for the weekend, and then waited there for four hours. His host student forgot about him. Eventually someone came to bring Aaron to the NAD house where they found him a replacement host. It was already late by the time Aaron got settled, but he had time to spend hanging out in the dining room. There, he met Lindsay Holiday, a Navajo woman from Arizona – someone Aaron, who was born and raised on the Pueblo in New Mexico, considered a neighbor. Lindsay came from a small community just as Aaron had, she shared his fears and anxieties, and yet she was finding success, safety, and community at a place like Dartmouth.
Aaron hadn’t seriously considered Dartmouth as an option up until that point. He had not been expecting Dartmouth to accept his application in the first place. He applied mostly to local schools – expecting to end up in New Mexico, or maybe as far away as Arizona. He learned about Dartmouth when he attended the College Horizons program, but didn’t allow himself to get his hopes up about it. When he got around to the college application process, Dartmouth was what he called his “hail Mary pass” – something he just threw out there in case if in some stroke of fate something might come of it. And even after he was accepted, Aaron had his doubts about going all the way out to the East Coast. After talking to Lindsay and seeing the Native community during Dimensions, all of those doubts faded away.
“What was really important was seeing other students who I think I could be familiar with,” Aaron said. “There were other Native students who were in the same boat as me and it showed to me there was a pretty strong and active Native community [at Dartmouth] that made me feel, Okay, maybe I can do this. Maybe I can move across the country and survive out there. So I think that’s what really had an impact on me deciding to go. I think of course the potential education you can receive from a school like Dartmouth is undeniable. All of those factors played in, I kind of got over my fear to leave home and go out to Hanover.”
His freshman year, Aaron joined the Occom Pond Singers. When he first started, the group was small, and only kept alive by a handful of older students. Occom Pond’s drum was torn and taped back together with Duct Tape. They had an odd assortment of drum sticks – mismatched and beaten up. And at that time, the group wasn’t that good. But they kept getting better each year. Aaron’s sophomore year they got funding from the NAP to repair the drums. They started travelling around – going to powwows at other schools like Brown and Harvard to play. Their membership grew to include many singers, both men and women, from tribes across the country.
After Aaron graduated, he came back to Dartmouth for one more powwow. He played with the Occom Pond group and sang. A professional drum group, Mystic River, used to play at the Dartmouth powwow as well. Mystic River would always win the drum contest “because they’re pros.” In 2010, when Mystic River won the contest again, they offered Occom Pond their winnings.
“They said, ‘we’ve been watching you guys for a couple years now and we just want to acknowledge how proud we are to hear how far you guys have come,’” Aaron said.
With the winnings the group bought a couple new drums and new sticks.
Outside of Occom Pond, Aaron didn’t engage much with the Native community at first. He lived in the river dorms his freshman year and the walk to dinner, meetings, or events at the NAH seemed almost insurmountable – especially in the winter. He was also busy trying to engage elsewhere – like with the kids he met on his trip, or his freshman floormates. And he was busy adjusting – adjusting to the weather, to the community, to the level of academic rigor.
Aaron took math his freshman year – he thought he would be an engineering major. He and his friend used to sit in the hallway with a girl that lived on their floor – they would buy her a pizza and she would tutor them in math. He struggled through a couple classes like that before changing his mind – he couldn’t afford that many pizzas. For a while, he didn’t know what he was going to do. But throughout his time at Dartmouth, he consistently took NAS classes – not because he intended to be an NAS major, but because he enjoyed it so much he ended up with a major in it.
His first term at Dartmouth, Aaron took Colin Calloway’s intro NAS history course. One of the first things the class covered was the 1680 Pueblo revolt – something that happened in the history of Aaron’s own community.
“I was like, Woah! That's me! That's me up on the screen,” Aaron said. “That was really empowering – to feel seen. In high school here in New Mexico, [Pueblo history] is something that’s not covered, even locally. It takes me having to go to New Hampshire to have someone talk about it.”
Aaron later became a Government major as well, in part because of a series of incidents that occurred on campus that target the Native community.
“It wasn’t anything coordinated,” Aaron said. “It’s just kind of that ugly head of Dartmouth that rears its head every four or five years when everybody clears out and a new batch of people comes in thinking they understand what Dartmouth is about and they're banging their chests about ‘tradition.’”
Aaron’s sophomore homecoming, the football team sold their own custom designed T-shirts. Dartmouth was to compete against Holy Cross, so the T-shirt depicted an Indian figure receiving a blowjob from a knight. “Strike one.”
At midnight on Indigenous peoples’ day, the Native community was holding its annual ceremony on the green. A circle of Indigenous students surrounded the drum group in the middle. A group of drunk men busted through the circle, they were running and yelling, they tried to jump on the drums – Aaron and other NADs had to hold them off. “Strike Two.”
That Halloween, just a couple weeks later, a party was thrown at the Collis Center. The theme was Cowboys and Indians. “Strike three.”
There was more. Native students would get yelled at by passing cars – hateful speech. The Dartmouth review sold T-shirts with the Indian head symbol. Dartmouth Hockey played North Dakota – which at the time still had their Indian mascot – and Dartmouth wanted to bring back the Indian head for the game. Finally, after all of this, the Dartmouth Review published a piece with the title The Indians are getting Restless. On the front cover of the paper was a picture of a “wild eyed” Indian caricature with a knife and a scalp in his hand. The story covered the incidents and the review’s analysis of NAD’s criticism of those incidents. Aaron said it put the whole community under a microscope – CNN came to campus to cover the administration’s response, NAD held an emergency meeting, NAS professor’s came together to support the Indigenous students.
Aaron was sitting in his friend’s dorm room lamenting about the situation on campus when he got the idea to major in government.
“I was like, ‘You know what really upsets me about what’s happening?’,” Aaron said. “‘It's not the fact that it's happening here. What upsets me is that it’s students like our classmates who go on to be policy makers, who go on to have positions of power, and who go on to make decisions about our communities. And what sets me off is that it's these kinds of people who will go on with that idea of Native people to make those policy decisions.’ So [my friend] said it as a joke, he said, ‘Well, why don’t you become president?’ And I was like, Huh, I never thought about that. Like, Oh yeah, I'm here too, just like they are. I can be in that same kind of policy position and advocate for Indian people forever.”
Now, Aaron’s a tribal attorney. He’s been practicing law for about seven years. He’s a partner at a law firm that has represented his community for thirty years.
“I’m setting out to do what I wanted to do when I changed my major way back when,” Aaron said. “I’m in this position to be an advocate for my community. It’s a lot of work but I'm happy to do it. It gives you that extra fire when it’s for your own community.”