I feel ill-equipped to advocate for indigenous studies when I do not belong to an indigenous group, nor have exceptional expertise on indigenous issues. Yet, as much as feeling under qualified made me reluctant to write this article, it also propelled me to ask a question that ultimately led to my choice to write this article anyway: why do I know so little about indigenous people?
This question was at the core of my reaction as I attended different events during the Intercultural Center’s (ICC) Indigenous People’s Day teach-in on Monday. Throughout the day, I became all too familiar with the cycle of emotions elicited through becoming aware of the hard truths and real injustices that impact native communities to this day. Shock—that it was common practice throughout the 20th century for the government to forcibly remove native children from their families and place them in white families to “save them from being Indian.”
Heartbreak—that as these children were uprooted again and again from foster home to foster home, they often experienced unbelievable physical abuse and vehement rejection of their cultural roots. Anger—that this is not an issue of the past. According to a 2013 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, “since 2009, Native American children have had the highest rates of representation in foster care.”
This anger folds into frustration. How is it that I’m only just now learning about this? Did anyone else know about this until today? What can be done to ensure that more people know about this? What can be done to ensure that we don’t forget this, but rather keep learning, listening, and taking informed action to combat these injustices?
I think the work begins in the elementary school classroom—which, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, is an inherently political space if it perpetuates convenient fallacies and one-sided histories. The work begins with that first lesson about Christopher Columbus. It begins with dispelling the myth that he discovered America. (He landed in the islands that we now call the Bahamas, and to say he “discovered” a place is to insinuate that it wasn’t already inhabited or civilized.)
It begins with painting a far more nuanced picture of Columbus, whose legacy should not be blindly celebrated, but continuously critiqued for its precipitation of colonialism, native annihilation and weaponization of Christianity. Perhaps it shouldn’t even begin with addressing Columbus, but rather the people who had been living in thriving, intelligent and complex societies hundreds of years before his arrival on their land.
Most importantly, the work must continue beyond the elementary school classroom and into university lecture halls. I would argue that contexts of education are the most important places to include indigenous perspectives because to omit them would be to lie to students about world history. Institutions that purport to be truth-tellers (even unto its innermost parts) should then uphold their claims by making indigenous peoples and studies apparent in their faculty and curricula.
And, at the very least, these institutions should allow for the halt of all regular campus activities and classes on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, so students can fully dedicate their time to acquiring knowledge they have been especially deprived from acquiring. A student should never have to choose between learning about indigenous people and taking a midterm. A student should never have to worry about being penalized for missing class when they are attending a presentation about Native Hawaiians.
So, although it is commendable that the Indigenous People’s Day Teach-In is now in its third year of running at Brandeis, its existence is not enough. What use is a teach-in if it is not accessible? It’s important that students actually have the freedom and availability to attend these kinds of events. That freedom is best afforded by canceling all other school functions for the day and recognizing that indigenous people deserve (at least) one day to make their stories heard.
So why is it that I know so little about indigenous people? It’s because their bodies and voices have been systematically erased and excluded from physical spaces, intellectual spaces and social imaginations of current culture and society. I let that shock me, break me and even anger me. But I don’t let that anger turn me cynical. I let it lead me to learn and search for answers I am not given. My hope is that this institution will not hinder me from finding those answers, but that it will encourage and assist my pursuit.