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Apolitical Erasure

Opinion | September 28, 2016

I first went to the Loj in November of my freshman year. I felt lucky to be in such a beautiful, quiet place. However, over my years at Tufts as a Tufts Mountain Club (TMC) member, I have rarely questioned my access to the Loj or the nearby White Mountains.

I have realized that although the reasons I go to the Loj—to escape from campus, breathe, reflect, and connect to outdoor spaces—are seemingly well-intentioned, by not acknowledging the history of the land the Loj occupies, I am complicit in the erasure of Indigenous history.

I am not alone. TMC, Tufts University, and all Tufts students are implicated in the ongoing colonization and struggle of Indigenous people. Furthermore, the very act of sitting on Indigenous land is political and by TMC’s refusal to shed its apolitical identity, we are perpetuating violence.

“Our history was erased, but our people didn’t go. They stayed. They are still here,” said John Moody, Ethnohistorian and Project Coordinator for the Winter Center for Indigenous Traditions. The Abenaki People, whose homeland extends through New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont, were victims of violent land encroachment by European settlers. As early as the 1500s, the Abenaki Tribe lost their homeland to colonial expansion.

According to Donna Moody, Tribal Elder in the Abenaki Nation and spokesperson for the Abenaki Nation to the State of New Hampshire and the Federal Government, colonization is achieved “…by separating the people from the land.” She continued, “progress from an Indigenous perspective has, in many cases, destroyed what we have and our own particular ways of knowing the land.” The wilderness is not “pristine,” uninhabited land ready for hikers, but a homeland, and a place of conflict, where settler militias burned, starved, and brutally killed Indigenous people. Celebrating and romanticizing the outdoors without acknowledging the history of the land has become a popular pastime for large numbers of white, upper-class Americans, many of whom have never had to work the land to make a living.

The reality is that the majority of TMC members do not question their claim to Indigenous land or the space of the Loj in particular. Matt Hooley, visiting Assistant Professor of Native American Studies, explained that the history of the land itself is often neglected. “[C]ertain forms of participatory environmental education have played a particular role in validating those kinds of claims, often at the same time that Indigenous ideas about the environment are tokenized and erased,” he said.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire today, not a single Indigenous group has state recognition. This means that Indigenous communities are barred from the land, their spiritual sites decimated by construction, and the ways that they originally used the land—to hunt, fish, and trap—are redefined as illegal so that we can enjoy the land and mountains in their “original state.”

Why do we not question the history of the land and Tufts’ claim to Woodstock, New Hampshire? Ari Schneider is the current president of TMC. To his knowledge, such a conversation had never taken place since the club was established in 1939. This means that TMC has laid claim to land in New Hampshire for 77 years and there is no known record of a formal conversation about the implications of occupying and benefiting from Indigenous land. Professor Hooley further probed these claims. “It’s important that we both question the specific land-claiming practices of Tufts as well as situate our understanding of that in a broader understanding of US colonialism,” he said.

As an occupier of Indigenous land, TMC doesn’t have the right to be apolitical. According to Schneider, being apolitical is a longstanding policy for the campus group, because “…we’re a club with a very simple mission statement, to go outside.” For example, TMC has not protested the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) being built on Indigenous land. Schneider made it clear that club members should be able to have their own political beliefs, but the outing club wouldn’t get involved in protesting the pipeline.

DAPL would extend through the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s ancestral lands and within half of a mile of its reservation. If a spill were to happen—which, historically, is a question of “when,” not “if”—the spill would pose a public health threat to the Tribe as well as threaten the Tribe’s way of life and culture.

For a group that founds itself on enjoying nature and outdoors areas, it seems contradictory not to protest the pipeline, which poses significant threats to the environment.

Last year, TMC refused to endorse Indigenous People’s Day at Tufts because of its apolitical identity, even though the club members routinely benefit from their use of Indigenous land. Going forward, there can no longer be spaces at Tufts where students can decide that combating systems of oppression do not apply to them.

And TMC members are not the only Tufts students implicated in uninterrogated claims to Indigenous lands. These claims are structural aspects of ongoing colonialism everywhere.

Tufts sophomore Parker Breza, an Indigenous student and a leader of the Indigenous People’s Day Movement on campus and in Boston, echoed this sentiment. “I think it’s really important that Tufts students be even more conscious of the continued settler colonialism that almost every student here, unless you are Indigenous to this area, is participating in, and the responsibility that this brings,” he said.

Awareness is key to moving the conversation forward. Donna Moody expressed this opinion succinctly, stating, “I don’t care what the deed says, it is still Abenaki land.”

Moody outlined several important actions for the Tufts community, starting with the opening of respectful communication with the Abenaki tribe. When I spoke to Moody, she stated that it was the first time she had been contacted by a Tufts University student. I had assumed that contacting Abenaki tribe members would be difficult, but the people I contacted were willing and excited to be connected to TMC.

After communication is established, the second action is to “… take account of what is on Tufts land.” Moody described a process called Traditional Cultural Properties, in which tribes and communities engage in an evaluation of a place. I believe this process should occur in tandem with education events for TMC members and the larger Tufts Community. As a TMC member, I have had critical and meaningful conversations with other members about the Loj, and I want to see these conversations formalized.

According to John Moody, “taking care of the earth and having the earth take care of us, is a distinctively Indigenous perspective.” For many TMC members, respecting the outdoors is a priority and students are unconsciously subscribing to an Indigenous philosophy. In order to continue using outdoor space, TMC members must be aware of who gets to participate in outdoor space at the expense of others. This means acknowledging the history of the land both at the Loj and on Tufts campus. Finally, until TMC refuses to shed its apolitical identity, it won’t be able to actually address the Indigenous land it exploits and benefits from. The next time I’m enjoying the outdoors, whether it be the Prez Lawn or the Loj, I will ask myself: at what cost am I enjoying this land?