At Tufts’ newest identity center, director Vernon Miller looks toward the future
As an Indigenous student at two predominately white institutions, Vernon Miller earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and a master’s degree in counseling and student development. He also got a hands-on education in how to “navigate, maneuver, and survive” in spaces where Indigenous people have historically been excluded and exploited. “Indigenous people weren’t represented in the faculty, in the administration, in the overall student body, or in the curriculum,” says Miller, a member of the Thunder Clan of the Omaha Nation of Nebraska and Iowa.
Today, as the director of Tufts’ new Indigenous Center he’s bringing his expertise and life experience to Tufts students facing similar issues. Miller is drawing on all he’s learned in multiple roles, among them business teacher in the Omaha Nation Public School, chair of the Omaha tribe Tribal Council, advisor to multiple federal agencies in the Obama administration, and director of Cornell University’s American and Indigenous Studies Program residence hall, the first such housing unit in the United States.
The Indigenous Center, which opened this past spring on the Medford/Somerville campus as the Division of Student Diversity and Inclusion’s eighth identity center, is one of only a handful of similar centers across the country. Miller finds the prospect of creating something from scratch, in an environment far removed from his Midwestern roots and the intricacies of tribal governance and politics, tantalizing. It was the interest and engagement of Tufts students that “really hooked me,” he says. Omicron was spreading when he was interviewing for the post, so he had to base his impressions on Zoom conversations. “The students’ questions told me they were eager and ready for me to be part of their Tufts experience.”
The need for the center is growing as Tufts enrolls greater numbers of Indigenous students. The undergraduate Class of 2025 had 35 students who identified as Indigenous or Native heritage, and the Class of 2026 has 41.
Tufts Now spoke with Miller as the Indigenous Center prepared to begin its first academic year.
Vernon Miller: I chose higher education because I really want to work with Indigenous students to help them thrive, not just survive. Of the handful of students I taught at Omaha Nation Public School who went to college, most didn’t make it past the first semester. The disparity between what they needed to succeed and what they had was enormous. I wanted to play a role in addressing that gap.
I’m relying on conversations with students to make sure the physical space reflects them. When I met with students on my first day, there was an open house because many members of the Tufts community wanted to see the new center, but it was mostly empty rooms. Now it’s totally different. I was very mindful that if you Google Native Americans or Indigenous people, the images you find online are illustrations from the past. You don’t see us through a contemporary lens. We really took that into consideration as we developed the center, so the pieces you see here represent who Indigenous people are today and reflect today’s issues. Many of those issues carry over from the past but we present them through today’s perspective. The art is from Indigenous artists around the world. The Indigenous Students Organization of Tufts contributed photos. The artifacts are gifts from Indigenous alumni. Our most recent gift was from a member of the Class of 2022 who is from Hawaii and at graduation presented a Lei Hulu, a feather lei, made by his mother. Students tell me they like the fact that the entire space centers where they are now and their experiences today.
The center is a vital resource in students’ identity development. A lot of students come from spaces that weren’t predominantly Indigenous but they know they’re Indigenous. It’s a huge part of their identity although they couldn’t previously nurture it. The center helps students explore this so they can become the person they want to become. They may also want to examine other identities, such as multi-racial or multi-ethnic. This can be complicated.
The center also supports students socially and culturally. I’m privileged that different campus entities have reached out to me wanting to partner. We’re already thinking about Indigenous Peoples’ Day. People think of that day as an opportunity to see Indigenous dancing and singing. I want the community to also see us as the physicians, educators, cabinet secretaries, and members of Congress that we are.
We are not an academic center, but we absolutely want to support students academically. In collaboration with other Tufts partners, we would like to offer a mentoring program for Indigenous students to be sure they have the foundation and competence they need for their college studies. Many of our Indigenous students are pursuing engineering, so we want to be sure they’re aware of resources like the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. We also want to prepare our students to redistribute the knowledge and experience gained at Tufts to help their home communities and their tribal nations.
There are 574 federally recognized tribes, which have treaties with the U.S. government, and with governments outside of the United States. Our religions are different, our languages are different, but we share core values such as relationships, responsibility, reciprocity, and redistribution. Those shared values unite us.
The center supports the Indigenous community across campuses. This spring, an Indigenous student graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, and we want the Indigenous Center to be a home away from home for everyone.