URI expands higher education access for Indigenous students
The light bulb went on for Robert Cruz-Perry when his anthropology professor asked a question in class: Should Indigenous remains be held for study or handed over to their descendants for burial?
“I believe Native Americans should handle them because they’re a part of tradition and culture,” the 24-year-old communications major from South Kingstown said. “It was definitely a wake up call.”
The class helped expand Cruz-Perry’s perspective on his own culture. He is a member of the Narragansett tribe, one of 29 University of Rhode Island students with Narragansett ancestry who are recipients of the Narragansett Undergraduate Scholarship. All receive an in-state tuition waiver (normally $30,538 per year). Full-time students also receive a $5,000 grant.
Since its inception in 2021, the scholarship has distributed almost $500,000 in funds as part of a broader effort at the university to expand Native access to higher education and recognize the history of the land upon which the Kingston campus is located. Plans call for moving the Tomaquag Museum, a museum of Indigenous history in Exeter, onto the university’s Kingston campus in the next few years. The school is also adding more Indigenous studies classes and looking to recruit more Indigenous scholars.
University of Rhode Island Land Acknowledgement “The University of Rhode Island occupies the traditional stomping ground of the Narragansett Nation and the Niantic People. We honor and respect the enduring and continuing relationship between the Indigenous people and this land by teaching and learning more about their history and present-day communities, and by becoming stewards of the land we, too, inhabit.”
University of Rhode Island Land Acknowledgement
“The University of Rhode Island occupies the traditional stomping ground of the Narragansett Nation and the Niantic People. We honor and respect the enduring and continuing relationship between the Indigenous people and this land by teaching and learning more about their history and present-day communities, and by becoming stewards of the land we, too, inhabit.”
Last fall, URI adopted a land acknowledgement statement crafted in concert with members of the Narragansett tribe. The statement appears in university publications and is read at university events, including the State of the University speech URI President Marc Parlange gave Feb. 1 in Edwards Hall.
“Higher education provides the greatest potential for driving positive change in the world,” Parlange said in his address, minutes before introducing the scholarship project.
“We also renewed and deepened our connection with the Narragansett tribe … and we created the Narragansett tribe scholarship for students of the federally recognized Narragansett tribe.”
“An opportunity to hope”
Cruz-Perry says his anthropology courses at URI have given him a more in-depth understanding of the history of his own culture and inspired him to use his own voice.
“Now that I know what I believe is the actual history I feel like I’m more inclined to tell people what actually happened,” he said. “There’s more to it than just the pilgrims coming over and Thanksgiving.”
It’s the kind of learning outcome the scholarship program was created for, said Wanda Hopkins, tribe chair for the URI Native American Advisory Council. She said the scholarship program culminated over 30 years of work by tribal members, URI community members, and two university presidents.
“For me, it just gives our children an opportunity to hope,” Hopkins, a member of the Narragansett, said.
“We’re at the very, very beginning of maybe correcting some of the social deficits, especially in education, that we’ve experienced as a people.”
Addressing a legacy of colonialism
Since the 15th century, when Europeans first came to the Americas, Indigenous populations have been subjected to systemic genocide, displacement and a legacy of poverty that persists to the present day. The Narragansetts were not spared such experiences, according to a 2021 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services overview of Rhode Island.
“For Indigenous people writ large, the mission of settler colonialism was not really for them to be a successful part of society,” said Mack Scott, a Narragansett and visiting assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University. He is a URI alumnus and Hopkins’ son.
“To see them have these challenges in the 21st century … that’s what settler colonialism is. It’s the idea that you are replacing the Indigenous population.”
Of the 1,364 American Indian households in Rhode Island identified in the 2021 American Community Survey 5-year estimate, 52% of earned less than $45,000 annually. Though data was not available on educational attainment among the Narragansett tribe in particular, nationally, just over 36% of Indigenous undergraduate students who entered a four-year university in 2014 completed their course of studies within six years. That’s compared to about 60% for the population as a whole, according to a 2022 report on college affordability from the American Indian College Fund.
“There’s not a lot of room for Indigenous folks to maneuver within a system based on settler colonialism,” Scott said. “The system is not designed for that.”
American Indians account for only slightly more than 0.5% of Rhode Island’s population, according to the 2020 Census. But they make up only 0.18% of the URI student population. Data from the school’s website shows that only 32 of the school’s 17,628 students identified as American Indian/Alaska Native in 2022. However, Hopkins said about 200 students identified themselves as such.
We’re creating exponential benefits through the generations
“If we were looking at parity even in just the barest representation in the student body, we’d want to see an increase five to six times that in the student population at the school,” said Wanda Jean Lord, a grant writer of Cherokee/Choctaw descent based in Newport who works with Native organizations across the country.
“We’re creating exponential benefits through the generations,” Lord added. “One more person getting a scholarship means [in the future] instead of having 32 people we’ll have 100 or 200.”
Hopkins estimated that less than 300 of the Narragansett tribe’s 2,400 members live in Rhode Island.
Opportunity for deeper learning
The increased access to higher education will pay dividends for the Narragansett moving forward, Scott said, adding the more Indigenous people are able to learn, the more they can uplift their families — both present and future.
“This initiative is transformative,” Scott said. “Education is key to improving their socio-economic indicators in Rhode Island.”
“Hopefully as we grow as a community, we can see these disparities harm all of us,” added Hopkins. “Not just the Narragansett Nation but the state as a whole.”
Hopkins said she hopes the program continues to earn an endowment that would enable it to keep growing and continue to benefit the historical residents of the land upon which the University of Rhode Island now sits.
“$500,000 sounds like a lot of money,” Hopkins said. “However, when you look at the historical context of what Indigenous people have lost so that land grant institutions could be constructed …. It’s a fraction of the millions and millions and millions that have been taken from Indigenous people so that others could prosper.”
Cruz-Perry plans to apply his newly acquired skills to continue work with Charlestown’s Department of Parks and Recreation after graduating from URI in May. He considers the symbolism behind the scholarship program more important than his own individual benefit.
“This area is Narragansett tribal land,” he said. “It’s only fair that the land that was stolen is paid back somehow.”