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A Call for Native Studies

Opinion | December 10, 2018

Tufts University’s campus sits upon land that was inhabited by the Massachusett and Wampanoag nations for thousands of years. However, due to Native erasure at an institutional and academic level, the vast majority of students aren’t aware of this history. Despite University recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2016, there are still many ongoing legacies of colonialism on campus. Therefore, we are calling for the administration to establish a Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) minor, beginning in the Fall of the 2019 school year.

The histories of oppressed groups in the US have long been silenced, erased, and marginalized in mainstream education. Fifty years ago, Native students and other students of color at San Francisco State University began a movement advocating for a curriculum that would reflect their communities, which led to the first race and ethnic studies program at a university. At Tufts, the Group of Six and the Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora (RCD), which houses the minors of Africana Studies, Asian American Studies, Colonialism Studies, and Latino Studies, also resulted from ongoing work and organizing by students and faculty, in the face of pushback from the administration.

For Tufts University to live up to its mission statement of “providing transformative experiences for students and faculty in an inclusive and collaborative environment,” institutional support for NAIS is imperative. Junior Desmond Fonseca, who is majoring in Africana Studies, reminded us that despite the University espousing virtues of “civic engagement, diversity, and social justice,” Tufts “shows itself to be morally bankrupt in the absence of attempting to repair the harm it has been complicit in, and attention to the needs of Indigenous students and staff who are and are not on this campus.”

It is very easy for a Tufts student to spend four years here, unaware that this campus exists today because of the displacement and genocide of Native peoples. This past year, Tufts’ own student newspaper, the Tufts Daily, did not run a single article about the Indigenous programming for Indigenous Peoples’ Day weekend, which was attended by more than 500 people, even after multiple requests for coverage. The absence of Indigenous history in the minds of the student body, as highlighted in the lack of coverage in the Tufts Daily, results from institutional invisibility.

Native Studies programs can help to check this institutional invisibility. Darren Lone Fight, an American Studies professor, said that “past syllabi of, for instance, Intro to American Studies courses, have almost no Native American presence in the curriculum. If there isn’t a Native Studies program, there is a kind of past tense that people get placed into, a historical object of study.”

Furthermore, “classes in Native American and Indigenous Studies help students to learn about ongoing Native struggle and survival,” said Amahl Bishara, Associate Professor in Anthropology and Director of Minors for the RCD. “Critical Indigenous studies is an extremely intellectually vibrant space for interrogating settler colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy.” Native American and Indigenous Studies at Tufts can be a vital meeting point for race and ethnic studies, queer studies, and colonialism studies, and will further the RCD’s interdisciplinary approach.

Learning about Indigeneity is crucial to an understanding of race, colonialism, and diaspora, and for non-Native students, it is vital to make the connections between different colonial projects in the US and elsewhere. “The histories and struggles of African and Indigenous peoples in the Americas are intrinsically linked,” said senior Anjali Knight. “To not have Native Studies is to continue to only tell part of history. It perpetuates the silences and misconceptions that, as an Africana studies major, I am actively unlearning and uncovering.” She added that students need to always be thinking about how our education can also challenge these structures and bring this history to light.

Currently, all Native Studies classes are listed within the RCD. However, course options are extremely limited. Both this semester, and in the Fall semesters of 2017 and 2016, only one Native Studies class was offered. In the Spring of 2017, only three were offered. None of the faculty teaching these courses were tenured. Professors can only be hired under departments, and RCD recently transitioned from a program to a department for the upcoming school year. Because of this, RCD professors were unable to be tenured through the program, and had to go through a department in order to gain tenure.

Ana Sofía Amieva-Wang, a senior, has taken two NAIS classes at Tufts, “both of which were taught by professors whose teaching, research and care for their students shaped rigorous and creative learning environments.” She added, “Tufts has to acknowledge that the people they hire are incredible scholars who will leave for more supportive spaces and programs taking with them their knowledge and creativity, unless they give them a reason to stay.”

NAIS would be housed under RCD. Tufts took one important step when it recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2016, but this alone is far from enough. Native and non-Native students at Tufts have continued to express interest in the creation of an NAIS minor. In a petition circulated in November, more than 380 Tufts students said that they support NAIS at Tufts, with 280 of those students saying they would take an NAIS class, and 86 who said they would consider a minor.

Additionally, NAIS would offer a way to connect to tribal communities; this year, Lone Fight coordinated with the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arika Nations to sponsor Indigenous Peoples’ Day programming at Tufts. “Articulating relationships to tribal communities is a really critical part of a Native Studies program. They aren’t just about studying Native people—contemporary Native experience is ongoing, and contemporary Native communities exist in Boston.”

“It is a moral imperative for Tufts to not only provide and support a Native studies program, as it is at every US university, but to actively provide and maintain space for Indigenous students to engage in freedom work at the university, which is not dictated or restricted by the administration,” said Fonseca. This commitment should begin to take the form of the creation of the NAIS minor, and beyond that, a program and infrastructure needs to be established to support Native students and others working together towards decolonization.