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Diane Schenandoah (in purple) hosts a traditional Haudenosaunee welcome gathering.

Syracuse University

For years, Indigenous students at Syracuse University have been urging administrators to increase campus supports for them, including in the counseling center. Now, in addition to pet therapy, meditation and roommate mediation, Syracuse students can seek treatment from Diane Schenandoah, a faith keeper of the Oneida Nation who uses traditional practices—including hands-on energy work and ceremonial rituals—to bring about healing.

“It’s hard for Indigenous students to talk to someone who isn’t Indigenous regarding our mental health or about our culture because they wouldn’t understand where we come from and the energy we give off,” said Tehosterihens Wes Deer, a Syracuse senior who is studying communications and rhetorical studies.

Syracuse’s Indigenous students, who number about 315, first presented a list of concerns and proposed solutions to the administration in 2019, focused mostly on boosting their presence and comfort on campus. Among other things, they requested that the university hire “a minimum of two Indigenous/Native mental health counselors.” But the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily put any discussions on hold. (This paragraph was updated to correct the number of Indigenous students enrolled at Sryacuse.)

Chancellor Kent Syverud agreed to address the students’ list of concerns in October 2020; Schenandoah joined the counseling staff at the Barnes Center at The Arch in the summer of 2021, along with Susanne Rios, an Indigenous therapist.

Known as Honwadiyenawa’sek, or “one who helps them,” Schenandoah brings a new approach to the institution’s wellness offerings by incorporating Indigenous teachings and techniques. The position aims to provide a safe space where Indigenous students can cope with stress and trauma, she said, as well as connect to their spirituality. It is also designed to encourage the broader campus community to learn about Indigenous culture.

“Hiring Diane is just one piece of a larger plan to the commitment that the university made years ago in having a strong connection with the Indigenous community,” said Allen Groves, senior vice president and chief student experience officer at Syracuse.

The university sits on the ancestral lands of the Onondaga Nation, which lie in the middle of Haudenosaunee territory and are also known as the Central Fire. Haudenosaunee means “the people of the longhouse”; the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is located primarily in New York and consists of six Native American nations: the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas and Tuscarora.

Schenandoah was raised in the Oneida Nation. She earned multiple associate degrees from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe in 1985, then spent several decades as a sculptor, using her art to portray her culture. She eventually returned to school at Syracuse University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in three-dimensional art in 2011. Ten years later, her daughter and son-in-law discovered the university was looking for a Native healer and encouraged her to apply.

Now she’s delighted to be back on campus.

“It’s wonderful working with the young people here at Syracuse, and it’s helped quite a few of them define their centers for balance as we’re trying to understand our roles as human beings,” she said.

Most of Schenandoah’s spiritual guidance incorporates various forms of energy work, drawing on nature and spirits to heal others. She first learned about such forces as a child; her family would gather around anyone experiencing pain and place their hands around them to provide healing energy.

She uses a similar approach with students, as well as other Indigenous practices, including acupressure with tuning forks, art therapy, dream interpretations and sage and smudging.

“I’m not saying I have all the answers,” she said. “But there are so many young people that are searching for that inner peace and where do they find it in this present day after the turmoil that’s going on in the world.”

Deer said many Indigenous students on campus prefer Schenandoah’s services over those of other counselors.

“There’s that connection where she’s Indigenous, she understands the struggles we’ve been through and she understands the stress,” he said. “She can really connect with us and help calm us down when we feel like everything is crumbling.”

Making Students Feel Welcome

The increase in mental health challenges among college students has been well documented. According to one recent study, American Indian/Alaskan Native students have experienced the largest increases in depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and meeting criteria for one or more mental health problems. Nationally, more than 19 percent of the American Indian/Alaskan Native population reported struggling with mental illness in the past year.

In addition to hiring Indigenous therapists, Syracuse University has taken other steps to make Indigenous students feel welcome. It offers a living-learning community, where 20 Indigenous students live on the same floor of a residence hall together. They liaise with faculty and staff through designated programs and events, including Indigenous ceremonies. The university has also established the Haudenosaunee Promise scholarship, which provides financial aid to qualifying students who are a part of the six nations.

Still, students say more needs to be done. For instance, the Native studies program building is meant to serve as a “home away from home” for Native students, according to the program’s website. But many Indigenous students say the building is used for other purposes, and that it’s really only the first floor that’s designated as their space.

“It’s just crazy, because if you’re advertising that this building is the Native student program, essentially where the Native students would go, how can you fit hundreds of Indigenous students in only three rooms?” Deer said.

Groves said the university plans to expand the Native studies program to the second floor in the spring semester and then the third floor soon after.

“So essentially when we’re done, the vast majority of that space will be dedicated to our Indigenous students,” he said.

Groves noted that Syracuse is actually going above and beyond the commitments it made in 2019.

“We are also being attuned to what the new developments are and what new opportunities we can create,” he said.

By hiring an Indigenous healer, Syracuse is not only moving to strengthen its relationship with the surrounding Native populations, Schenandoah said; it’s also setting an example for other institutions of higher learning.

“I think all universities would really benefit greatly from having some of the Indigenous teachings that I’m trying to share here at Syracuse,” she said.

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