Make Dartmouth an Indigenous Place

Derek Johnson-Jennings | 1990-1993

As a student, Derek didn’t recognize NAD as a support system. But when he transferred to Dartmouth during his sophomore year, he naturally gravitated toward the NAP for help navigating the strange new world. For example, he didn’t know the Dartmouth terminology – slang like “Foco” and “Robo” and “NAH.” And being a sophomore, most people expected him to already know what was going on. But he was clueless. He had never been to New England before in his entire life. He remembers that there were “lots of smart people with privileged backgrounds.” And shortly after starting at Dartmouth, his sophomore summer, Derek entered into the lowest point of his life. He wasn’t doing well in his classes, he didn’t feel welcome around campus, he was terribly homesick, and all this on top of an undiagnosed learning disability.

“The NAP was the main reason I survived [at Dartmouth],” Derek said. “They went above and beyond their jobs. They single handedly helped me get through a lot of the academic stuff – helping me write, looking over all of my papers. Colleen would take me into her office and go over my work.”

In the NAP lounge, which at the time was on the third floor of Collis, NADs hung out at all hours of the day. Sometimes they’d even sleep on those couches.

“Most of us [NADs] came from west of the Mississippi. I think we gravitated towards each other because we came from somewhere different than most Dartmouth students,” Derek said. “Other Dartmouth students would ask me where I'm from and I’d say ‘Oklahoma’ and they’d go quiet because they don’t know what that is.”

During his second year on campus, Colleen offered Derek a job. She wanted him to lead student trips to the cabins on the weekends. Her hope was that she could create social options for NADs that didn’t revolve around drinking at the fraternities.

“I used to go duck hunting, and I would clean ducks on the steps of the NAD house,” Derek said. “There were also people who were getting in trouble for drinking. So Colleen started paying me to take groups of NADs who were trying to do something different on the weekends, taking them to all of the cabins.”

Derek remembers that Colleen was quiet and unassuming. She advocated for students, and helped them through hard times. She also helped Natives become more visible on campus.

“There’s an element of conformity at Dartmouth,” Derek said. “Ahni, [Derek’s daughter, a NAD ‘23] said somebody yelled out [to her] ‘Why don’t you go back to the reservation!’ Trying to make the Native students feel uncomfortable, like they don't belong there, that they got in just because they're Native. I try to teach my girls, yeah you got in because you’re Native and there’s nothing wrong with that. The white person got in because they're white. The NAP did a really good job at not just trying to blend in, but make Dartmouth an Indigenous place.”

For instance, during Derek’s time at Dartmouth, the NADs pushed to have powwow held on The Green. Every year, the administration said no, it would ruin the grass, so powwow was held in the BEMA. But, nearly three decades later, he came back to campus for his daughter’s first Dartmouth powwow, which was held on the Green.

“I like seeing all the colonial architecture all around and then having the powwow in the center," Derek said. "Instead of sticking us back in the BEMA like they were trying to hide us."