The Rez Cafe is a staple of Tufts campus culture: a hubspot for student activity, from musicians and poets, to environmental activists, to uncaffeinated students in need of a steaming hot cup of coffee. But chances are most patrons of the Rez—a seemingly benign name for a quaint coffee shop—have spent little time contemplating the meaning of such a peculiar name. Frankly, when I first started working at the Rez, I didn’t think much of the name either. I thought it was short for “residential,” like Tufts ResLife or the Res Quad.
Names are an acknowledgement of honor, history, and remembrance. At Tufts, buildings and programs are named after important donors or alumni to recognize their contributions to the university. Changing a name, however, can prove difficult, even in the wake of new information. Last year, it took months of student activism and community involvement before Tufts finally removed the Sackler name from its medical school to condemn the family’s role in the opioid crisis. In 2016, South Hall was officially renamed Harleston Hall, after Bernard Harleston, Tufts’ first African-American tenure-track faculty member. And yet—three years later—students still struggle to use the new name.
Tufts University was named after Charles Tufts in 1856, the businessman who donated the land to establish “the first college on the hill.” But before the existence of Tufts and European settlers, there was the once-thriving Native town of Mistic, the namesake of the Mystic River and the surrounding areas. Mystic is derived from the Alquonian word muhs-uhtuq meaning “a great river whose waters are driven by the waves,” alluding to the original tidal nature of the Mystic River.
In 1986, the Rez Cafe was relocated from Eaton Hall to its current residence in the Elizabeth Mayer Campus Center. Previously titled the Eaton Newsstand, Tufts Student Resources (TSR) rebranded the coffee shop as the Rez, as an homage to the Mystic Reservoir, built in 1864 as a water source for the Greater Boston Area. The reservoir was a popular site for the community—serving as a picnic spot, swimming hole, ice rink, and center for numerous campus traditions. Hence, it was affectionately nicknamed the “Rez.” TSR hoped the cafe’s new name would harken back to “simpler times” of romance and fraternity.
But the name of the “Rez” invokes another meaning—a slang term used for US Indian reservations. Indian reservations are areas of land designated to federally-recognized Native American tribes by the US government. In 1851, Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act which created the Indian reservation system. The main goals of Indian reservations were to bring Native Americans under US government control, minimize conflict between Indians and settlers, and encourage Native Americans to assimilate into white culture. White settlers forcibly removed Native American people from their ancestral homes and relocated them onto lands to which they had no historical connection. Native Americans were forced to wear non-Indian clothes, to read and write in English, to convert to Christianity, and were not allowed to leave the reservations without permission.
There are approximately 565 federally recognized tribes in the US today, but only about 326 reservations. Four reservations exist in Massachusetts alone, albeit smaller than their counterparts further west, including the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Cape Cod and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head in Aquinnah. Many reservations are stricken with economic poverty and related issues of failing education, healthcare, and violence. Native Americans have the lowest employment rate of any racial or ethnic group. The percentage of homes that are overcrowded on reservations is three to six times higher than the percentage of overcrowded homes in the US as a whole. Indian youth have the highest rate of suicide among all ethnic groups in the US and is the second-leading cause of death for Native youth aged 15–-24. These are all symptoms of a premeditated and ongoing colonial project by the US government.
While the name of the “Rez” is not necessarily racist, it is undeniably racialized. The name of the Rez evokes the violent colonization and lived experiences of Native American people. The land the cafe occupies holds centuries of Native American history. To ignore these realities would be a reinscription of colonial violence against Native American people and their cultures. As my friend said, “How can Tufts claim to support Native American and Indigenous students, when they still have a coffee shop named the Rez?”
Author’s Note: I am pleased to announce that the Rez is officially changing their name. Many thanks to the efforts and voices of Native students and activists at Tufts. The Rez has been collecting name submissions since last semester, have chosen a new name, and hopefully will be announcing it soon. Moving forward, I hope to see students accept the new name and keep acknowledging the deep histories of this land. Native American presence is everywhere if you choose to see it, and it is important to respect these histories—even if it is as simple as changing the name of a tiny coffee shop named the Rez.