New York State In-depth

Syracuse hires an indigenous healer to meet student demand

For years, Indigenous students at Syracuse University have been urging administration to increase campus support for them, including at the Counseling Center. In addition to pet therapy, meditation, and roommate mediation, Syracuse students can now receive treatment from Diane Schenandoah, a Oneida Nation faith keeper who uses traditional practices—including hands-on energy work and ceremonial rituals—to effect healing.

“It’s difficult for Indigenous students to talk about our spiritual health or our culture with someone who isn’t Indigenous because they wouldn’t understand where we come from and the energy we give off,” said Tehosterihens Wes Deer, a senior Syracuse studies communication and rhetoric.

Syracuse’s approximately 350 Indigenous students first presented to the administration in 2019 a list of concerns and proposed solutions, mostly focused on improving their presence and comfort on campus. Among other things, they called on the university to hire “at least two indigenous/native mental health counselors.” But the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily put all discussions on hold.

Chancellor Kent Syverud agreed to address the list of student concerns in October 2020; Schenandoah joined the Barnes Center at The Arch counseling team in the summer of 2021 alongside Susanne Rios, an Indigenous therapist.

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

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

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

Schenandoah grew up in the Oneida Nation. She earned several 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 represent her culture. She eventually returned to school at Syracuse University and received a bachelor’s degree in three-dimensional art in 2011. Ten years later, her daughter and son-in-law discovered that the university was looking for a native healer and encouraged her to apply.

Now she is happy to be back on campus.

“It’s wonderful to work with the young people here in Syracuse, and it has helped some of them define their centers of balance as we try to understand our roles as human beings,” she said.

Most of Schenandoah’s spiritual guidance involves various forms of energy work, drawing on nature and spirits to heal others. As a child she first learned of such powers; Her family would gather around anyone in pain and wrap their hands around them to provide healing energy.

She uses a similar approach with students as well as other indigenous practices including tuning fork acupressure, art therapy, dream interpretation and sage and incense.

“I’m not saying I have all the answers,” she said. “But there are so many young people who are looking for that inner peace, and where are they finding it in this day and age with the turmoil that’s going on in the world.”

Deer said many Indigenous students on campus prefer Schenandoah’s services to other counselors.

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

Make students feel welcome

The increase in mental health problems among college students is well documented. According to a recent study, Native American/Alaskan students have experienced the greatest increases in depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and meeting the criteria for one or more mental health problems. Nationwide, more than 19 percent of Native American/Alaskan Indians 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 residential-learning community where 20 indigenous students live together on the same floor of a dormitory. They collaborate with faculty and staff through specific programs and events, including Indigenous ceremonies. The university also established the Haudenosaunee Promise Scholarship, which provides financial assistance to qualified students from the six nations.

Still, students say more needs to be done. For example, the Native Studies Program Building is designed to serve as a “home-away-from-home” for Indigenous students, according to the program’s website. But many Indigenous students say the building is used for other purposes and only the first floor is really designated as their space.

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

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

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

Groves noted that Syracuse is indeed going beyond the commitments it made in 2019.

“We’re also being tuned into 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 indigenous people, Schenandoah said; It is also an example for other universities.

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

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