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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, June 13, 2024

RCD hosts workshop on colonialism and indigenous studies


Approximately 50 students and faculty gathered with scholars and indigenous nation members to discuss native art, colonialism and indigeneity as part of the third annual workshop held by the Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism and Diaspora (RCD) last Friday in Sophia Gordon Hall.

The event, titled “Native American and Indigenous Studies, Colonialism and the University,” was RCD's primary project this semester, according to RCD Interim Director Kris Manjapra.

“The hope is to build at Tufts enough faculty support so that we can establish a [minor] program in Native American and indigenous studies in the future,” he said.

According to Visiting Professor of American and Colonialism Studies Matt Hooley, who coordinated the event, it was inspired by a long history of work in native studies.

"Last year was a major shift from the vote from Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day, and that was really driven by students,” he said.

Hooley and Manjapra also expressed hope that the event might encourage more Native American students to apply to Tufts. The Office of Institutional Research and Evaluationreports a total of two self-identified American Indian studentscurrently enrolled as undergraduates, as of the last academic term.

The event was divided into four different segments, each of which had a different group of speakers and was focused on a unique theme.

The first workshop featured a panel titled "Decolonization, Research, & Community," which focused on the ability of universities to further work in decolonization. Each of the four panelists began by presenting their general thoughts and ideas to the audience.

“There is tension between being a good Indian and a good researcher,” Adrienne Keene, scholar and citizen of the Cherokee nation, said. “If I love you I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”

State University of New York at Buffalo Professor of Transnational Studies Alyssa Mt. Pleasant spoke about colonialism next.

"It is the structure dedicated to the destruction of indigenous people and their natural land," she said. “[College] courses are limited to Indian 101 because there is a lack of basic understanding.”

The third panelist, Research Fellow at Southern Methodist University Farina King, then described her research on the conditions of Navajo boarding schools and relayed an emotional anecdote of how her own nieces and nephews have rotting teeth due to a lack of clean water.

University of North Carolina History Professor Malinda Maynor Lowery, finished the opening workshop by describing the devastation brought to her Lumbee tribe of North Carolina by Hurricane Mathew, and by explaining that Native Americans are not a race.

"They are members of a political nation," she said.

After the panel had opened up for questions, audience member Tall Oak of the Pequot and Wampanoag tribes stood up.

“When we talk about colonization, let us think first of the colonization of our minds, our children’s minds and our ancestors’ minds,” he said. "The Indian is being educated out of the Indian. If they get too analytical, they get too bogged down in disciplines, you know, instead of getting into to the grass roots, the communities, the grandparent, and the great-grandparents and what they went through.”

The second panel convened at the front of the room to talk about the theme of "Indigeneity & Its Others," which focused on the various definitions and societal applications of indigeneity, solidarity, sexuality, gender and race.

Northwestern History Professor and Oneida tribe member Doug Kiel opened the discussion by describing colonialism as an ongoing process. He also addressed the topic of indigeneity, saying that “it’s entirely artificial" and "deeply bound to race." The second panelist, Mount Holyoke College Professor Iyko Day, described her own research in indigenous studies, and explained how some native tribes were brought to near extinction because they were enlisted by the U.S. government to mine uranium during World War II.

Next, University of Texas Professor Circe Sturm discussed how race, gender and sexuality help mold indigeneity. She also connected the all-encompassing nature of white privilege to what she called “settler privilege,” arguing that both must be considered if we are to address the many societal problems of our time. Williams College Arabic Professor Amal Eqeiq concluded the segment by connecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the idea of indigeneity, arguing that both Palestinians and Native Americans know what it means to have artificial borders imposed on them.

The workshops were followed by a group conversation among three indigenous scholars, activists and tribal leaders in the local area.

Lorén Spears, a councilwoman of the Narragansett tribe, spoke about her work at the Tomaquag Indigenous Museum.

“The most important things to me are the stories,” she said, emphasizing that the museum raises awareness about the modern lives of native people.

Jessie Little Doe Baird, vice chairwoman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, spoke about her work with the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, which she said recently opened a language immersion school. According to Baird, it is the first time in 300 years that they have Wampanoag teachers teaching Wampanoag children in a culturally-competent setting.

Baird added that language can be a form of resistance against colonization.

“Language can tell us things that nobody today can even tell us,” she said.

The conference concluded with a dinner and roundtable at the Aidekman Arts Center to showcase the work of Diné photographer Will Wilson. Wilson explained that his project had initially begun as a response to the photography of ethnologist and photographer Edward Curtis. Wilson said he wanted his project to be a critical exchange instead of a consumption of native culture, in which his sitters have the freedom to decide how they wish to be represented. He gives the tintypes of the photographs back to the sitters when they arefinished, keeping only a digital copy.

“[Wilson] is creating vibrant and dynamic works that more genuinely and intentionally reposition and represent the vibrant and dynamic indigenous cultures today,” Tufts Art Gallery Educator and Academic Programs Coordinator Elizabeth Canter said. “He co-creates … the exchange piece is so key. It’s ethically-based.”

Junior Meg Kenneally, who attended the conference, noted the importance of the day's events. 

“Colonialism sits in ways that are very difficult for us to deconstruct now, like the fact that Tufts is on Native land, and there’s not necessarily anything we can do to change that,” Kenneally said. “But there are ways we can recognize it and move on from there. I think these are conversations that really need to be had and narratives that need to be heard.”