Aerial view of Washington Height and the Hudson River.

Columbia Nursing Honors Indigenous Peoples' Day

Official statement acknowledges school’s place on Lenape land

October 12, 2020

In honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day on October 12th, Columbia Nursing has issued a land acknowledgment statement honoring the Lenape people and their ancestral lands, which includes the site where the school sits today:

We acknowledge the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Lenape People on which we learn, work, and gather today at Columbia University School of Nursing. Lenape means real person, or original person, and it is important to remember that Lenape, collectively, are a living and breathing community. Let us honor their legacy. Let us commit ourselves to the struggle against the forces that have dispossessed the Lenape and other Indigenous people of their lands. We stand strong in our commitment to support and defend all marginalized people of this land who have been stripped of their rights to self-determination.

Renowned for its historic dedication to racial justice and equity, Columbia Nursing sees its statement as a call to raise awareness of the structural racism that disenfranchises people from indigenous and all minority groups, said Vivian Taylor, EdD, Associate Dean for Diversity and Cultural Affairs. The statement underscores the school’s commitment to the rights of all disenfranchised people to control their lives, Taylor said. “This is a fitting time to acknowledge all marginalized people, and to unearth and correct inequities as best we can. It is a beginning step, a way of saying, ‘We see and recognize you as people who deserve to be honored and respected.’” Permanently placing the statement on the school’s website and reading it at Columbia Nursing’s major events will allow the school to honor the Lenape in perpetuity.

Columbia Nursing first demonstrated recognition of the Lenape by dedicating a section of its rooftop garden to grow plants that the Lenape and other Native Americans had used medicinally, said Assistant Professor of Nursing Mara Berta, DNP, who helped develop the school’s statement. “The statement is our way of recognizing not just history but also a living community,” Berta said.

The Lenape people, members of the Algonquin Nation, occupied large swaths of the Northeast, including what is now northern Delaware, all of New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, western sections of Fairfield County in Connecticut, most of the Bronx and southern Westchester, as well as northern Manhattan, including Washington Heights, Inwood, and Fort Tryon Park. In 1600, the local Lenape population was 20,000 but hit 4,000 a century later, after Dutch settlers introduced smallpox and other diseases, and destroyed their economy and environment.

Unofficial United States census data--the only data available--cannot indicate with certainty how many Lenape descendants currently live in Washington Heights, said Andrea Frantz, DNP, Assistant Professor. Prior to her career in nursing Frantz focused her qualitative research on the Lenape while earning her master’s degree in anthropology--with a concentration on sociopolitical complexities among indigenous people across North America. “There are plenty of people in the tristate area, including patients coming to our hospitals, who may not have official recognition but identify as Lenape, and we need to respect their unique needs similar to any other patient,” she notes. Because the Lenape have a tumultuous history, are scattered around the country, and comprise a very small percentage of the U.S. population, they tend to be “invisible to clinicians,” Frantz said. “All individuals who self-identify with a particular ethnic group or religion, regardless of perceived ethnicity or ‘legal’ status, need to be approached clinically with respect and understanding,” she said. “As clinicians, it is not our jobs to determine who should or should not adhere to, often inappropriately, prescribed cultural guidelines.” By adhering to arbitrary guidelines and ignoring the patient’s specific wishes, clinicians may miss their culturally specific health care needs, she said.

Only by getting to know individual patients can clinicians understand the traditions and values that inform their health care choices, Frantz said. “We can’t just look at someone and assume we know where they’re from or what their values are. We need to ask questions that extend beyond what we learned in nursing school. We have to re-evaluate how we teach cultural competency."

Clinicians should know, for example, that some American Indian traditions value herbal practices (such as smoking tobacco ritually) that aren’t congruent with Western medicine but remain integral to their identities, Frantz said. “‘Smudging’ with smoke is sometimes a key part of end-of-life rituals but may be banned by hospitals for lack of understanding,” she explained. In other cases, large family gatherings help aid in healing but are ignored due to visitor restrictions or the size of an exam room, she added. “Our job as nurses is to use our position to change how business is being done for the good of our patients.” Recognizing such traditional practices is one way that clinicians can demonstrate respect and care for not only Indigenous patients but also any patients who are underrepresented.

“It is interesting that raising awareness about the Lenape community is happening around the same time that our country is having a broader conversation about racial justice and equity,” Berta said. “It’s important that we as a school are finding a way to weave these conversations into our overall commitment to social justice.”