College of St. Joseph is hosting a collection of Native American artifacts gathered by Kurt Fetter, of Johnstown, New York, a professor who teaches a weekly course, “Introduction to Native American Studies.”
Fetter, whose Mohawk name is Kurt Fetter-Wenhnitiio, has been an educator since 1979. He’s teaching the Native American studies course at CSJ for the first time this year.
When he taught in New York public schools, he covered every course but U.S. History but he said he taught a number of seminars, on what he called, “the rez,” based on Native American studies.
“We would spend literally the whole day with high school students and introduce them to the food and the culture and the language and the Mohawk perspective of things.”
Said David Balfour, vice president for academic affairs at College of St. Joseph, the course was part of the effort to expand the college offerings.
“We think we give educational opportunities to a lot of students who would not have them at other institutions,” he said.
College administrators are considering expanding the curriculum to offer a Native American studies program.
“We think it fits in very nicely with the mission of the college,” Balfour said.
The course, which meets at night, once a week, has only about five students now, but Balfour said it was put together quickly and without much advance notice. He said he believes interest will grow as students learn the course is available.
One way students may learn about the course is the display case in the Giorgetti Library. Last Tuesday, Fetter said he had collected the pieces, which include pottery, tools, animal teeth, and bones and wampum, over a 30-year period. “The Haudenosaunee — that’s the Iroquois word for ‘people of the longhouse.’ It’s also known as the Five Nations, the Six Nations, the Iroquois Confederacy. What it was is from the whole, essentially, central part of New York state, the Seneca to the west, the Cayuga, the Onandaga around Syracuse and the Oneida and then the Mohawk, I’ve collected in that entire belt, right along the New York State Thruway now. I would have said before the Mohawk River, but it doesn’t go all the way to Buffalo,” he said. The items on display at CSJ are only about a third of Fetter’s collection.
“This is the best opportunity I’ve ever had to put them on display and maybe to create some interest in Native Americans and the culture, which is an ancient culture but still here,” he said.
CSJ staff and administrators like President Jennifer Scott and Balfour have been supportive of introducing students and staff members to Native Americans and their culture. The display has brought a “focal point” to the effort, Fetter said.
The history of Native Americans is essential to understanding the history of the United States, according to Balfour.
He added that CSJ administrators are considering incentives to encourage Native Americans to attend CSJ.
Fetter pointed out that it’s only been recently that Vermont has recognized Native American tribes.
In 2011, the Elnu Abenaki tribe and the Nulhegan Abenaki tribe received recognition, and in 2012 the Abenaki Nation at Missisquoi and the Koasek Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation received recognition.
If the programs continue, Fetter said he would like to add a course on indigenous law. “How the federal law affects native people is critically important and still has a major impact today on people’s lives, on and off the reservation,” he said.
Asked to define the importance of studying Native American culture, Fetter had a concise answer.
“We’re still here,” he said.