In an academic context, the process by which indigenous communities in the United States were erased is seldom discussed—though experts estimate that by the late 19th century, fewer than 238,000 indigenous people remained. This is in contrast to the five to 15 million who were living in North America when Columbus arrived in 1492. As discussion about the atrocities committed against indigenous people gained traction across the country, many institutions and cities renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Through multiple Tufts Community Union Senate resolutions, Tufts changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2016. This year, the Native American and Indigenous Studies minor was established through the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora (RCD). While Tufts has made strides in cultivating spaces for indigenous people, it falls behind a number of schools in a crucial step to reconcile injustice—acknowledgment of its presence on stolen indigenous land. Universities such as McGill and Northwestern have made public statements on their websites acknowledging the indigenous communities that they displaced at the time of their founding.
Tufts, on the other hand, has yet to publicly acknowledge that the Medford/Somerville campus is located on Wampanoag land.
Professor Julian Agyeman of the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) is one of the few professors on campus who signs every email with his name, his pronouns, and the following acknowledgment: “Tufts University’s Medford Campus is located on colonized Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) traditional territory.” Agyeman started signing his emails as such after returning from his sabbatical at McGill, where he observed that faculty members signed their emails with a similar acknowledgement. Agyeman believes that this acknowledgment holds great power. “It is a recognition of an injustice, just as #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo is a recognition. Recognition is a form of justice and is a precursor to reconciliation,” he said.
Agyeman wishes to see the practice of acknowledgment expand to the rest of the student body. He described his vision for a movement. “I want to see this being something that unites students, staff, faculty—everyone involved on this campus… [this is] a Tufts-conscious movement. This is about looking into our own consciences and thinking, ‘I can do my bit,’” he explained.
Agyeman also hopes to cultivate urgency that will pressure Tufts to take a step forward in their pursuit of reconciliation by acknowledging their presence on stolen indigenous land. To Professor Amahl Bishara, anthropology department chair and one of the professors involved from the beginning of this movement, a form of acknowledgment is a stepping stone.
She includes the land acknowledgement in her syllabi and when she speaks at events. She notes that others have called gestures like this—such as the renaming of Indigenous Peoples’ Day—to be symbolic, and thus hollow, but she believes that these symbols have the potential to create a great impact. “When we start to do land acknowledgments in a regular way, they can become a ritual that helps people to ask more questions and hopefully mobilize activism and create change,” she said.
Sidney Kabotie, a first-year Masters student in the Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Program through the College of Arts and Sciences and a part of the Crow, Hopi, and Santa Clara Pueblo tribes, is hesitant about the steps following the acknowledgment. “What Native nations right now are talking about is reconciliation [which includes] acknowledgement of our past history, trauma, and extreme oppression done to us for centuries. [But] in acknowledging it, what are you really saying? I don’t want it to be hollow words or a publicity stunt for Tufts,” he said.
Kabotie said, “As a school, we need to acknowledge the fact that this comes with the responsibility to support—to be an ally—and if we’re not willing to do that but just acknowledge it, that hurts indigenous people more.” He continued, “[Tufts] needs to create allyship and support for people living today. People think we’re talking about past history—people who don’t exist anymore—but the reality is Native people exist today and are struggling to live where they are today.”
Though the Wampanoag Nation was once comprised of 69 tribes, the only surviving federally recognized Wampanoag tribes are the Mashpee and the Aquinnah. The Mashpee Wampanoag, like all indigenous tribes, have had a tumultuous history of oppression by the United States government, and the descendents of the original Mashpee continue to face the consequences of unjust federal policy. However, partial reconciliation was attempted through federal recognition and support, particularly the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
The Act created the land trust system which gave the federal government authority to take indigenous land into trust, in order to expedite economic development. As a result of this Act, the Department of the Interior has returned approximately nine million acres of land back into the trust, which is only about 10 percent of the total amount of land lost to indigenous tribes in 1887.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs—an agency of the federal government—is in charge of this land trust and has the federal responsibility of using funds provided by Congress to assist the indigenous people living on that land, including providing health care and education. Under the trust, the tribal government can function independently, and is not subject to state law. There are still limitations for how the land can be used; for instance, tribes must have federal approval to take out mortgages for their homes, build new construction, and renovate existing structures. While the land trust system was set forth as a means of reconciliation, it still hinders indigenous communities.
The controversial Carcieri v. Salazar decision in 2009 declared that federal agencies could not take land into trust for tribes recognized after 1934. However, the Mashpee Wampanoag people fought a long battle to gain federal recognition in 2007. The Mashpee tribe was allowed to begin the Land in Trust Application for “initial reservation” in order to re-acquire tribal land in 2015.
But in 2018, under the Trump administration, the Department of the Interior revoked land held in trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag. As a result of this decision, the Mashpee community has struggled; they have laid off 41 percent of their workforce and have had to shut down or scale back crucial projects, such as addiction treatment services. These treatment services are critical as Wampanoag people are 400 times more likely than non-Wampanoag people in the Mashpee and Taunton area to die of an overdose.
Massachusetts legislators have put forth a bipartisan bill to preserve federal trust status of the Mashpee Wampanoag current tribal lands. The bill was initially pulled from the House floor following a tweet from President Trump on May 8, 2019, which stated, “Republicans shouldn’t vote for H.R. 312, a special interest casino Bill, backed by Elizabeth (Pocahontas) Warren. It is unfair and doesn’t treat Native Americans equally!” It passed the House on May 15, 2019 with 275 yeas and 146 nays, and has yet to be discussed by the Senate.
Given the ongoing injustices that Wampanoag people contend with, Tufts opposing the narrative put forth by the Trump administration would be powerful. As Kabotie stated, “Tufts officially recognizing that the campus sits upon indigenous land rightfully belonging to the diverse tribes within the Wompanoag nation—both federally recognized and not federally recognized—would contradict the efforts of the Trump administration to deny the government’s obligation to provide reparations to these tribes.”
If the Tufts administration were to publicly acknowledge its presence on indigenous land, there would need to be a cohesive plan to move towards reconciliation beyond simple recognition. Kabotie explained, “There needs to be a signed commitment from the Board of Directors that this movement is going to be an ongoing effort to correct the injustices that have continued and [that] Tufts has perpetuated and benefited from for centuries.”
This commitment could manifest in several forms: most obviously, through the creation of a physical, tangible memorial on campus, which would be unveiled publically and with descendents of the Wampanoag present. Tufts can also add onto the Group of Six by creating a space for indigenous students and allies, similar to the First Peoples’ House at McGill. The First Peoples’ house serves as a space where indigenous students can further learn about their culture in an academic context, as well as receive guidance and support by members of their own community.
Through the recent creation of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Tufts, funds could be put towards sponsoring indigenous academics, similar to University of North Carolina’s practices. Through their American Indian Center, UNC has an Elder-in-Residence program and an annual lecture by a prominent scholar of American Indian studies. Though RCD has formally created the Native American and Indigenous Studies minor at Tufts, there must be indigenous academics who teach these courses. Moreover, there must be adequate financial support through tenure and equitable pay for these professors.
Ultimately, the way in which indigenous communities are honored and respected must center the voices of these community members. For Kabotie, bringing indigenous culture to campus through the form of a traditional pow-wow, described by him as “an indigenous drum and dance competition that happens all over the country,” would be a tangible form of recognition. But Kabotie notes that pow-wows require more than just Tufts’ verbal support; they require planning to gather dance and drum groups, and funding to have the money to purchase gifts and monetary prizes for the groups, following the tradition of pow-wows.
The onus of this movement has been placed on faculty and students. The Tufts administration must use their resources to do more, starting with the official recognition of the colonized Wampanoag land. If the Tufts administration is to take on this mission of importance—of true reconciliation—the institution must approach it with due diligence, which requires the inclusion of indigenous voices. This process of reconciliation is long overdue. Agyeman said, “I want to see the indigenous footprint much more strongly on the Tufts campus than I’ve seen in the past twenty years.”
In response to the author reaching out for an official comment about the Tufts administration’s position on land acknowledgments, Executive Director of Public Relations Patrick Collins stated: “We are aware of support by faculty, students, and others for adoption of a university-level land acknowledgement statement, similar to the land acknowledgment statements that have been adopted by certain departments and centers individually to recognize indigenous people’s stewardship of the traditional territories that are now home to Tufts’ campuses. We are currently discussing ways in which the university can best assess the questions raised by land acknowledgment proposals and determine how to move forward thoughtfully and collaboratively with all parties who have an interest in this issue.”