Effective on March 1, LeManuel “Lee” Bitsóí, associate vice president for diversity affairs and special advisor for Indigenous affairs has left his position at Fort Lewis College.
The news first broke after an email sent from Bitsóí to Fort Lewis College President Tom Stritikus was shared with the FLC community.
The email included Bitsóí’s acceptance to the position of Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Brandeis University, a private institution located in Waltham, Massachusetts.
No stranger to Massachusetts, Bitsóí studied at Harvard University earning his Master of Education degree. Other degrees Bitsóí has obtained are his bachelor of science degree from the University of New Mexico and his doctorate degree in Higher Education Administration from the University of Pennsylvania, he said.
Bitsóí said he ties his Indigenous roots back to Naschitti, New Mexico. Born and raised on the Navajo reservation, Bistóí lived in a bilingual household with English and Navjo being spoken to him as a child.
“My first memories are in Navajo,” he said.
Bitsóí explained that he credits his identity with his language and culture to his mom’s decision in leaving the education system. Bitsóí’s mom attended four different boarding schools in her childhood. Three were government and one was parochial.
When it came time to attend high school, Bitsóí said the school system would not allow her to keep her identity if she chose to continue her education.
She would not, and this allowed for her to continue practicing her culture, he said.
“I thank her for making that decision because if she didn't I don't know if I would be fluent today,” he said. “I don't think I would be very culturally rooted.”
Bitsóí also took the importance of collaboration with him when leaving Naschitti. Playing basketball taught him to work as a team towards one common goal, and it’s a lesson he still holds today, he said.
Arriving on campus two and a half years ago, Bitsóí said he noticed the opportunity for collaboration amongst the diversity centers found on campus.
“There are similarities more than there are differences,” he said. “But it is important to honor those differences because what’s celebrated and highlighted in one center may not necessarily be celebrated in another center.”
There’s a beauty to Fort Lewis students’ ability to be in several centers and acknowledge the intersectionalities in their own identities, he said.
Working at institutions like Harvard, Dartmouth and Georgetown, Bitsóí made connections with the Native community found in each environment. For Harvard, a historically Indian-centered academic institution, Bitsóí said it was easy to find those connections, as well as Dartmouth.
Georgetown proved more of a challenge with a minimal Native presence, but Bitsóí said he was able to still find that sense of community as a visiting professor. Much like Georgetown, Durango proves to have a predominantly white setting, he said. There’s work to do in making those connections off campus as compared to the diversity and community found on campus.
“There’s no Indian Center here in Durango,” he said. “There’s not one place we can convene as a Native community.”
Except for bigger events like the Indigenous People’s Day March in Durango, there is really no formal way of connecting. Right now, it’s the simplicity of knowing who identifies as Indigenous, he said.
Bitsóí’s different work at FLC includes leading the removal of the historically inaccurate clocktower panels, securing the million dollar Mellon Grant that will go towards Native American & Indigenous Studies and the USDA grant creating rural connectivity centers in Colorado and on the Navajo Nation to increase access to distance learning.
In leaving FLC, Bitsóí also mentioned the work in creating the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan, coming to campus in March. He said he’s very proud to have been a part of the working Indigenous faculty here on campus that made these accomplishments possible.
Bistóí said every position he’s held has always prepared him for the next step in his career. Diversity in college must come from Academic Affairs rather than Student Affairs, he said.
“How are you being equitable to all students who are in your classroom?” he said. “How are you being inclusive?”
Bitsóí plans to take all he’s learned at FLC to his new Vice President position at Brandeis University. Brandeis University’s foundation on social justice is what drew Bitsóí to it’s institution as well as the similarities of Jewish philosophy and Indigenous beliefs.
“Working with President Stritikus and Provost Nixon has been a very valuable learning experience because I am working with two different modes of thought, two ways of looking at the college through critical lens, and overall what brings us together is being student centered.” Bitsóí said.