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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Op-Ed: Acknowledging our settler-colonial present

Tufts University’s Medford campus is located on Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) and Massachusett traditional territory. Tufts’ Walnut Hill was once one of the hills in a slave-holding estate called Ten Hills Plantation.Both Africans and Native Americans were enslaved in the colony of Massachusetts, and trade in Native American and African laborers made Massachusetts a driving force in the Atlantic slave trade.A student-led movement culminated in the establishment of Indigenous People’s Day at Tufts in February 2016, and last year, students and faculty worked together to establish a minor in Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS).This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Africana Center at Tufts — also the fruit of student protest. Meanwhile, faculty have been thinking about how to incorporate an acknowledgement of the settler-colonial present at Tufts. Here, a group of interdisciplinary scholars reflect on why such acknowledgements are important.

Land acknowledgements, Indigenous Peoples’ Day and the NAIS minor are each results of an ongoing process recognizing Indigenous land, history and knowledge — the form, content and grammar of a people. But recognition of peoplehood is incidental to its becoming; by definition, recognition does not contribute meaningfully to the expression of Indigenous sovereignty, it only bears witness to it. Rather, recognition is the attunement of self to other, and Indigenous Peoples’ Day marks an important moment for us to reflect on how that process continues to condition our relationship to the future horizon. In that spirit, I celebrate and honor the ongoing courage of those students, staff and faculty that continue holding fast and firm to the hope for a better world. Our work to fully realize that vision continues apace, of course. Nevertheless, I am comforted by the steady illumination of those brighter tomorrows that give shape and direction to our journey today.

— Darren E. Lone Fight, Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora

In order to address our current environmental challenges, Environmental Studies needs to be deeply grounded in an understanding of places, scaling up to understandings of bioregions and to the globe. Being grounded in places means beginning with the histories of those places and understanding how past and present injustices in those places relate in order to seek just solutions to current ‘wicked problems.’ Walnut trees occur only very rarely in New England forests (as is also true on Long Island). On the Tufts Medford campus, the very name, Walnut Hill, should thus call to mind for us the Massachusett Mystick community who deliberately planted the walnut trees that later settler-colonists observed and remembered in this place name. Land acknowledgement statements are doorways hopefully leading to more just solutions, solutions grounded in places and stories.

Ninian R. Stein, Environmental Studies & Department of Anthropology

Land acknowledgements mark the material dimensions of our university experience: that collective dispossession from the land we are on generations ago continues to shape Indigenous people’s lives. They should direct us to learn about contemporary efforts for Wôpanâak languageresurrection and Mashpee Wampanoag struggles to hold land collectively. Land acknowledgments can act as the beginning of a promise to transform the university into a place where resources are mobilized for justice for Indigenous, black, immigrant, poor and other neighboring marginalized communities. Such acknowledgements are especially resonant for me because of my research and teaching on Palestine. Seeing places in relation helps me teach about world systems of capitalism and empire and about global solidarity campaigns. Land acknowledgements remind students that this colonial present must inform our approach to learning, expression and action at Tufts and beyond.

Amahl Bishara, Department of Anthropology, Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora

The U.S. is a settler-colonial space whose cities are profoundly shaped by the arrival of non-Indigenous settlers claiming land and citizenship that is entirely dependent on an ongoing structure of Indigenous dispossession and displacement. From a U.S. urban planning perspective, compared to other settler-colonial nations such as Canada and Australia, we are collectively silent on issues of land acknowledgement. And our silence is as deafening as it is unacceptable. This lack of recognition, this denial of belonging, especially when 72% of Native Americans live in urban or suburban environments, precludes any form of productive reconciliation. Instead, urban planning theory and practice is dominated by elite imaginings of what our cities can become (sustainable, smart, resilient). As my urban planning students know, social justice never simply ‘happens,’ we must proactively fight for recognition because ultimately who can belong in our cities will determine what they can become.

Julian Agyeman, Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning

As a family historian, I have written about my black and Creek (Mvskoke) ancestors, and the importance of familial and communal knowledge. At their best, land acknowledgments create space for engagement with Indigenous communities and knowledge, and with the complexities of the past and present. In “Black and Native New England,” our students travel to sites and explore the lesser-known enslavement of Native Americans alongside African Americans. Such erasures of the past obscure collective understanding of the present. “In modern landscapes everywhere,” Keith Basso writes, “people persist in asking, ‘What happened here?’ The answers they supply … should not be taken lightly, for what people make of their places is closely connected to what they make of themselves…” I hope the memorialization of land, peoplehood and places at the heart of university acknowledgments will make more complex, diverse and complete the answer to the simple question, “What happened here?” and the closely related question, “What might happen next?” for generations to come.

Kendra Taira Field, Department of History, Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora

Space, land and place within settler-colonial histories, of which Tufts participates, is often discussed as a static, colonized body from which resources can be taken, when instead, Indigenous studies teaches that bodies are responsible to an intimate relationship — an embodied relationship — to the land as a living being. In following Anishinaabescholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, she writes that the “land is pedagogy.” What kind of humility is required to learn from the land? In answering this question, we must see our bodies (and their attendant politics) in relation, one that has been shaped by violent histories of forced and voluntary migration, dispossession and survival. The new NAIS minor and the departmentalization of the study of Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora is a first step in reconsidering that lived relationship that we are all responsible to, one that is a living history without end. What would it mean for us to live with Indigenous People’s day, everyday, without exception?

Lily Mengesha, Department of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies, Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora

Wôpanâak people organized complex polities, cultivated the arts and humanities and practiced international relations long before the arrival of settlers from Europe. On this very land, settlers fought wars of colonization against the Indigenous, including the 1677 war that claimed more lives as a portion of population than any other direct conflict on American soil, as Native author Paul Chaat Smith writes. But Native people of the Northeast endured, creating new kinds of family and political community, inventing new means to hold on to beloved kin and land. We recognize the enduring and future-oriented sovereignty of the Wôpanâak people by land acknowledgement, and Native "survivance,” to use Gerald Vizenor’s word, braided with the ongoing endurance and social creativity of black folk, Latinx folk and Asian folk across the Americas. The university is a place to recognize that other futures are unfolding right now amongst us.

Kris Manjapra, Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora, and Department of History

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