By Maxfield Evers '25 with the Department Detectives for ANT 245
There are many things that were deservedly left behind in the 70’s: bell-bottoms, floppy discs, and Nixon come to mind. But there are some things that, after 50 years, are getting the recognition they deserve: movements like environmentalism, youth suffrage, and feminism are bubbling back up in the public consciousness.
Indigenous affairs, too, are re-entering the minds of the American people. Over 50 years after the initial surges of the American Indian Movement, examples of Indigenous activism like the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline have once again made front-page news. This renewed surge is now knocking on the doors of Nassau Hall, yet Princeton surprisingly finds itself in a worse state than the 1970’s in terms of support for Native students.
In a previous piece in the Princetonian, Natives at Princeton (the affinity group for Native and Indigenous students) exposed how Princeton was severely lacking in their support for Native students compared to the rest of the Ivy League and other peer institutions (Reynolds). What makes their conclusions even more upsetting is that an affinity space, active recruiting, and a fund to pay for students to return home for crucial ceremonies existed 50 years ago and have since disappeared (“Alfred Bush”). We, as one of the richest universities in the world, have somehow regressed.
Interestingly, this regression is so apparent that the 1970’s remained the focal point of our interviews with faculty on the topic of Native life at Princeton. But how did Princeton build these supports in the 70’s? What caused their disappearance? How can we get back to and exceed the level of support we had for Native students 50 years ago?
In discussing Native life in the 70’s, one name seemed to keep coming up – Alfred Bush. Bush served as the head of the Western Americana collection in Firestone from 1962 to 2002 and was known to support the cohort of Native students at Princeton during his 40-year career. In fact, he and his Pueblo colleague Alfonso Ortiz built up a group of Native Princetonians larger than that of today, with over 20 students in its ranks.
In a 2010 interview with now-retired Professor of History Martha Sandweiss, Bush was asked how he managed to build and support such a large cohort of Native students in the 70’s. He had three main answers, a large grant from the Ford Foundation sponsored by “some little group from California that’s come and gone”, the active recruitment of Native students from prep schools (first only prep schools in the east, then later throughout the country), and the presence of Native faculty like Ortiz, saying “That’s why they chose Princeton” (“Alfred Bush”). What Ortiz and Bush were able to do was remarkable, especially for the time.
However, the money of the grant has run out, Ortiz and Bush are gone, and the admissions office not only does not recruit Native students, but doesn’t even tell Natives at Princeton when Native students are enrolled. The cohort slowly withered away as the years passed, despite the successes of Ortiz and Bush, or even Bush’s explicit spelling-out of what they did in his 2010 interview. Princeton had the model, it had the voices of Ortiz, Bush, and Native students both past and present, it just decided not to listen.
I spoke with Bush’s successor as the head of the Western Americana, Gabriel Swift, who had some novel insights into what motivated the growth of the Native cohort under Bush and Ortiz: the activism of the American Indian Movement during the 70’s.
He remarks that “What you’ll notice is that the changes in Princeton…came about roughly the same time [the 1970’s]. And the changes were not just for indigenous students, the movements of the 70’s led to things like the African American Studies program and an increase of minority student populations across the board.” Public attention and activism brought the necessary pressure upon Princeton administration to make important changes for minority students. That pressure is what made possible the hiring of Ortiz, the ceremony fund, the recruiting of Native students, and ultimately the expanded Native student population.
So, social progress at a national level had a direct impact on Princeton’s campus, although for Native students, this impact seemed to live and die by public attention. Nothing was created for indigenous students, despite their continued activism for the creation of an Indigenous Studies department, a certificate program, or even an affinity space.
But with America being so much more conscious of societal issues as a result of a new era of social progress, Princeton has another chance at real change for Native students. Swift is extremely optimistic about Princeton making lasting change, saying “I think that institutions are ready to listen…and that before they simply weren’t ready.” He cites the repatriation of Indigenous items, increased funding, new hires, and even the very act of students asking archives staff for interviews as concrete evidence that things are changing as a result of student pressure, “The time is coming. I can see it, I can feel it in the students” says Swift, “Hopefully this time it can be permanent.”
In a larger sense, Swift's optimism appears to be well-placed. Princeton has most of the conditions it needs to rebuild a strong Native contingent once again, Indigenous affairs are on the forefront of the public consciousness, the University is wealthier than it has ever been, and most importantly students are actively calling for change. It is up to us students to continue our advocacy, and it is up to the Princeton administration to listen. While discussions with faculty on Native life seem to be stuck in the relative golden age of the 70’s, tapping into the socially progressive legacy of that same decade could be the key to making lasting changes for one of the University’s most vulnerable groups. Student activism cannot be left behind in a bygone era. Let’s make an effort to bring back Native support from the 70’s. And okay, maybe bell-bottoms can be brought back too.
“Alfred Bush.” Princetoniana Committee Oral History Project Records, Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library, 15 Dec. 2010, https://findingaids.princeton.edu/catalog/AC259_c048
Reynolds, Hannah. “Nuclear Princeton: Indigenous Scholarship and Representation in an Institution ‘not Designed’ for Native Students.” The Princetonian, 4 Oct. 2020, www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2020/10/nuclear-princeton-indigenous-scholarship-and-representation-in-an-institution-not-designed-for-native-students.