woman in purple gloves holds an old photograph
Sherrie Negrea
In College of Human Ecology, Human Centered Design

Lynda Xepoleas, PhD ’23, was looking at a collection of photographs on fashion design in the American Museum of Natural History when she noticed something intriguing: the images dating from 1916 showed a group of non-Indigenous women wearing traditional Native American garments from the museum's collection. 

What Xepoleas saw as one example of cultural appropriation inspired her to begin researching how Indigenous women themselves contributed to the design and production of North American fashion in the early 20th century. "That's what led me to become interested in how Indigenous cultures were being represented in the American fashion industry at that particular moment in time," she said.

Three years after encountering the photographs, Xepoleas extended her research last summer by delving into the archives in the Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections to learn how and why Indigenous women chose to receive an education in home economics at Cornell during the first half of the 20th century.

She found that Haudenosaunee women living on reservations in Central New York began arriving at Cornell during the winter session of 1920 to study everything from clothing and textiles to sanitation and hygiene in a series of courses that became the university’s Indian Extension Program.

Xepoleas was able to spend two months combing through manuscripts related to the history of the College of Human Ecology after receiving the college’s Graduate Summer Archival Research Fellowship. Because of the limitations on in-person research during the pandemic, the fellowship was offered for the first time this year since 2019.

“I thought it was a perfect opportunity to really sit down and do a deep dive into the archives,” said Xepoleas, who will present her findings next spring in a digital exhibition on the Cornell University Library website.

Rachel Dunifon, Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean, said the fellowship was relaunched this year to give graduate students an opportunity to explore the history of the college and link it to their own research. “By using the resources of the archives, graduate students can do independent research, discover new knowledge related to the college’s history and tie that to their own scholarship and the research that is happening in the college today,” she said.

eileen Keating
Simon Wheeler

Xepoleas (left) with Eileen Keating 

A three-member review committee last spring recommended that Xepoleas receive the fellowship, which includes a $7,500 stipend.

“Lynda had actually done work in the archives before,” said Eileen Keating, chair of the committee and archivist for the college. “She was very savvy and confident in knowing how to initiate her own research and she came in knowing how to use the archives.”

The Indian Extension Program

The first large group of Indigenous students who came to Cornell was part of the Indian Extension Program developed by Dr. Erl Bates, a non-Indigenous obstetric physician and Quaker activist from Syracuse. From 1920 to 1927, about two dozen young men and women nominated by the chiefs of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy arrived on campus each winter session to take courses in farming and domestic skills.

When the program ended, Bates shifted his focus to establishing scholarships for Indigenous students to earn a four-year degree at Cornell. He spent months on the road trying to convince the members of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Upstate New York to donate money to the scholarships.

But because of a lack of consensus about who should receive the scholarships, the DAR altered the amount of funding the students received each year, Xeploleas said. Only two out of six students who were promised scholarships ended up receiving a Cornell degree. 

Xepoleas found that not only did the Indigenous students lack financial support, but there were also questions among the faculty and staff at Cornell about their ability to complete a degree. “There were a lot of discussions among the faculty and administration about whether or not these students were prepared to receive this particular type of education,” she said.

This research led her to explore the broader issue of how the history of home economics education fits within the framework of settler colonialism. “How do we see Haudenosaunee women grappling with that and trying to negotiate those terms in ways that don’t just benefit the system but are beneficial to them and their communities?” she said.

Xepoleas, who plans to incorporate her findings into her dissertation, said she is grateful that the fellowship allowed her to uncover new details about the history of home economics education for Indigenous women at Cornell. She will present her research in a talk on March 29 in Mann Library.

“When you have someone supporting you and your work, it drives you to make sure that you’re looking through everything thoroughly because you have the time and means to do that,” she said. “It’s been really wonderful to have that opportunity, and I was so happy to find that there was so much there.”