Before entering her sophomore year at Cornell, Skye Hart ’18—Tonawanda Band of Seneca, Snipe Clan—had never thought of pursuing independent undergraduate research. That changed, however, with an essay she wrote for a course in the Department of City and Regional Planning, where she is currently pursuing a major in Urban and Regional Studies. “I wrote about an international lacrosse competition being organized by the Onondaga Nation on a Native American reservation in Upstate New York,” she says. “My professor appreciated that I put in more effort than the assignment required by interviewing the executive director of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse team and asking friends to take personal photos of the event for me.”
Jennifer Minner, City and Regional Planning, and Kurt Jordan, Anthropology and American Indian and Indigenous Studies, reached out to Hart, and suggested that she’d be a great fit for the Rawlings Presidential Research Scholars Program. While she was initially unsure about what her research would be, Hart eventually decided to combine her interests in planning and Native studies.
“In my urban planning classes, we’d studied a lot of underserved minority communities, but I realized that there isn’t much literature regarding Native American communities,” Hart says. While Native Americans living on reservations have long suffered from governmental wrongdoings, she says, the situation is about the same or worse for Natives living in cities: “Cramped housing, lack of indoor plumbing, and difficulty finding jobs or even job training have created major obstacles for Native Americans residing in cities. I hope not only to learn more about these issues but also to contribute more regarding the Seattle community’s strengths to the literature on this subject.”
Seattle’s Urban Communities and Reservations
Part of Hart’s research explores the flow of Native Americans between cities and reservations, a phenomenon that may result in misleading urban population figures for their communities, especially in cities like Seattle. “Officially, Seattle isn’t a top 10 city in terms of Native population size or proportion, but there are several reservations around it,” she explains, “and many Natives frequently move between the two areas. This, along with the city’s waterfront renovation, which is being carried out in collaboration with nearby reservations, made Seattle an interesting place for me to focus my research.”
Hart plans to visit Seattle this summer. She will study the operations of major nonprofits, such as the Daybreak Star Cultural Center, which are focused on Native American communities and issues. “I want to understand their role in the urban Native social network and how the community perceives their effectiveness.” While she acknowledges the inherent strength that Native-run non-profits should bring to the community, Hart feels that politics within the organizations, as well as frequent large-scale staff turnover, may be damaging their efforts.
“I’d like to see my work increase civic collaboration with Native communities.”
Hart also plans to talk to community leaders both off and on reservations to understand their perception of urban social networks as well as strengths and issues within communities. A potential roadblock, in her opinion, may be that despite her Native identity, Seattle’s Native communities may view her as an outsider, especially since she has no ties to the area. This, she feels, may limit the information people are willing to share with her. Moreover, the preliminary research she is currently undertaking occasionally seems overly thorough or too general, but she is determined to reach Seattle comprehensively prepared.
“Even the little things will prepare me for when I arrive in Seattle. I care deeply about Indigenous issues, and I’d like to transmit my respect for the Native community as clearly as I can.”
After graduating, Hart plans to work for non-profit organizations or municipal planning departments. “I started out as an architecture major at Cornell, but I quickly realized that urban planning interested me more. I’d like to see my work increase civic collaboration with Native communities.”
Hart says that, had she not chosen to attend Cornell and live in Akwe:kon—the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program residence hall—she would not be doing this research. Returning to her ancestral Haudenosaunee homelands by attending a school with rich cultural resources has allowed her to deepen her understanding of her Seneca background.
“I spent most of my life in Louisiana, where Native issues are deep and real but also distant from my home in Baton Rouge. Coming into a Native community at Cornell in my freshman year has helped me understand how I can and should look to contribute, learn, and grow.” While she acknowledges that this research is a learning process, Hart has hope that it will foster inclusive and collaborative planning in the future.