GUEST ROOM | We Must Preserve Cultural Identity for Indigenous Students on Campus

The Akwe:kon Program House opened in 1991 on Cornell University’s North Campus as the first university residence hall established to celebrate North American Indigenous culture and heritage. Akwe:kon, the Mohawk word for “all of us,” was chosen to inspire the notion that all Native and non-Native people were welcome to live in peace and understanding to learn Indigenous values together. The building itself evokes the imagery of a traditional Haudenosaunee longhouse with elongated wings and weathered clapboard siding. The windows facing the street are placed to represent the Hiawatha Belt, symbolizing the joining of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy which is an alliance of sovereign tribal nations composed of the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk and Tuscarora. Akwe:kon reflects a valuable community space and it’s extremely disheartening that more universities don’t provide a space like it.

Inside the building, the great room, with vaulted ceilings that face west for the setting sun, is a place for community members to come together, hold meetings, and discuss important issues much like the role of the modern longhouse as a meeting place. The overall motif of the building, with curtains made from fabric with desert southwest patterns, paintings and murals by Native artists and the portal windows that overlook the great room, are all designed to bring feelings of home for Indigenous students. Students who live in Akwe:kon have access to a community kitchen where they can cook traditional meals, a library with a vast collection of books by Indigenous authors and a TV room to have movie nights with friends. The general sense is that students who live in Akwe:kon and students who visit are all part of the community.

The establishment of Akwe:kon was viewed as a groundbreaking testament to what universities can and should do to support and improve retention for Indigenous students. Today, Akwe:kon is well known among Indigenous academics and high school students searching for a supportive community in higher education, but, among the larger population, it has less of a reputation. Most students fail to understand and appreciate its significance. When I moved on campus my Freshman year, orientation staff did not know where Akwe:kon was and directed me to Ganędagǫ Hall simply because it sounded similar.