Q & A with Cedric Woods: Director of Institute for New England Native American Studies



J. Cedric Woods directs the Institute for New England Native American studies at UMass Boston. He works with Indigenous groups in New England on education, substance abuse prevention and several other initiatives.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

J. Cedric Woods, Ph.D., is the director of the Institute for New England Native American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is of Lumbee origin from North Carolina. Through the institute, Woods works with various Native groups on education and community initiatives.

Can you tell me about what your work constitutes? What are some of the specific projects the institute is working on?

The mission of the institute is to connect regional tribes and Native organizations with university innovation, education and research. What that boils down to at the end of the day is I get to do whatever tribes or Native organizations are interested in if we have some capacity for it, and I can get somebody else to pay for it.

Some of the projects that we have running at present are working with our College of Education. We’re finishing up our second cohort of a Native teacher training program in early childhood education. We got funding from the Office of Indian Education to pay for a completer program, because very few [Native communities] actually had Native teachers working in those facilities as lead teachers, i.e. with bachelor’s degrees. So they’re able to stay in their job in their home community while finish[ing] their degree 90% remotely with us, all expenses paid by the Office of Indian Education. We are providing robust support to make that possible.

The other one we’re working on now is with the Massachusetts Bureau of Substance Abuse Services (BSAS). It is to provide support for multiple things: prevention programs for middle school Native youth in two particular tribal communities as a pilot, awareness building in Native communities of services offered and resources designed for Native communities by BSAS, training for BSAS staff and on how to best work with Native communities and then broad support in terms of promoting health and wellness in Native communities, particularly in issues of prevention, recovery [and] treatment support.

Last but not least, [we are working on] a curriculum project with Boston Public Schools (BPS) around their ethnic studies program. I’m working on an ethnic studies case study related to Native Americans for BPS. Other people are working on other aspects. We’ve also gotten funding in the past from Mass. Humanities to do a series of listening sessions called Discussions for and with Massachusetts Native Peoples.

We’ve worked on a project to support Native grandparents raising grandchildren. So [there are] lots of different things that involve different tribal partners at different times based on their interest and needs and our capacity and ability to support it and to get external resources to fund it.

How does being Lumbee and from North Carolina affect your work with different Native groups, specifically from New England?

I think it is an advantage in the sense that I am from a tribal community that has had a similar history in some regards to many of the communities here. It’s a community that many of them are familiar [with] and aware of. There are many of them that go down to my tribe’s powwow every spring and lots of my relatives that come north to powwows up here. So I’d say that there’s a degree of familiarity in terms of where I come from. Who we are very much shapes our perspectives. Even before I was hired into this job, I knew a lot of these members from these communities from the powwow circuit and [from] stuff that I grew up doing. In terms of being an active cultural practitioner, that’s always been an important part of my life.

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges you face in your work? Specifically in terms of advocating for access to education?

There are a variety of challenges depending on which level we’re talking about. At the state level, when we’re talking about system-wide in the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth made a series of decisions in the 70s that have caused ongoing negative impacts to tribal communities in the Commonwealth.

One was not fully embracing the establishment of Indian education programs within school districts. When I use that term, I’m not talking about curriculum to teach about Native people, although there’s also a desperate need for that. I’m talking about accessing formula funding from the federal government to support and address disparate educational outcomes of American Indian Alaskan Native children in public schools. The Commonwealth made no real effort to do that on any kind of consistent, coherent basis. So that meant that the money didn’t come in [and] the programs weren’t established. Part of the criteria for getting that money means you have to establish an Indian parent committee, which meant you have to have a relationship with Native parents and Native communities in your district. None of those things occurred.

Concurrently with that, there was an opportunity for Massachusetts to create an Indian Housing Authority to help Native communities access federal Indian Housing dollars: The Commonwealth refused to do that. Other states did it. Rhode Island and Connecticut did it and got access to Indian housing funds for affordable housing, safe housing and economic development for these communities in the 1970s. And so even before those tribes got federal recognition, they were able to access those funds and use them to create a tribal infrastructure, social services and delivery infrastructure, in ways that the tribes in Massachusetts were not able to do until two of them got federal recognition.

Is there a possibility to reverse those decisions? Or is it too late to access those funds?

It is not too late for the Indian Ed programs. We’re at the position now; because there was no coherent, cohesive push for it, you have to go district by district to advocate for it. It’s the proverbial pushing the rock up the hill to get to the point where they understand that “yes, you have Indian children in your district. You can get money to support these Indian children in the district, but you have to fill out the forms, you have to get the kids to fill out the forms [and] you have to create an Indian Ed[ucation] parent committee.” Given the dispersed nature of most Native communities in the state, it can be a challenging conversation to have because there’s no high level support for it.

In terms of the housing dollars, there’s no getting access to those funds, minus a change of federal legislation that will allow them in. The door was open, and then it shut, and the tribes in Massachusetts that don’t have federal recognition were shut out on the other side of that door because of the Commonwealth’s decision not to create an Indian Housing Authority.

You just mentioned something about the dispersed nature of Native communities in Massachusetts. How does that affect your work?

I work with tribal communities. That’s not an accident, that’s driven by a policy of the Commonwealth. It’s called the Enfranchisement Act, passed in the 19th century following the Civil War. It broke apart collectively held lands by Natives. You study about the Dawes Allotment Act, [but] very few people know about the Indian allotment act in Massachusetts. It had the same goal to break up tribal cohesion. It led to many Native communities making it much more difficult for them to live in close proximity with one another because they were now losing their land via things like tax liens or fraudulent deals. Or in the case of the Nipmuc, and it’s documented in the Earle Report, large scale theft of their money from the Nipmuc funds by their overseers, which the state refused to do anything about. So again, inactions taken by the state that have long term consequences for Natives in the Commonwealth.

When working with different Native communities, how do your approaches or strategies change based on different structures and practices?

It is flexible based again on their needs or interests. Even two tribes that you look at on paper, both are federally recognized, both are not federally recognized, only gives you the view of the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s going on. That’s just the most visible, easily identifiable things. But after you start talking with people, then you find out what’s below the waterline, in terms of what the real drivers are, the real interests are, the real potential or possibility for engagement or support.