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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Students host 4th annual Indigenous Peoples' Day Celebration

The Nettukkusqk singers perform in front of Bendetson Hall on Oct. 14.

The Tufts community observed Indigenous Peoples’ Day yesterday for the fourth time since 2016, when Arts and Sciences and Engineering (AS&E) faculty voted to change what was previously celebrated as “Columbus Day.” 

This year’s celebration took place on the Academic Quad and around 80 people were in attendance

The event began with an acknowledgement presented by anthropology department Chair Amahl Bishara, who explained how Tufts was built on Wampanoag land and how Tufts’ Walnut Hill was a place where indigenous people would plant walnut trees to maintain and nurture. 

“Land acknowledgements 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 or other neighboring marginalized communities,” Bishara said.

In an interview with the Daily before the event, Bishara further commented that Wampanoag and Massachusset presence is not adequately addressed.

"Even this luxury of space, this sense of spaciousness, is a settler colonial luxury and legacy that we take for granted," she said. "And I think we also need to acknowledge the settle colonial present that continues to erase and marginalize indigenous communities and presence and continues to be a barrier to indigenous sovereignty."

Bishara added that she hoped the university would play a bigger role and build relationships with indigenous communities so Tufts could push people toward justice.

Following Bishara’s land acknowledgement, Hannah Norton, a member of the planning committee for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, spoke about indigenous people and how Indigenous Peoples’ Day at Tufts came to be. 

“And what this has meant for indigenous people is to celebrate and remember indigenous resistance and existence,” Norton, a first-year, said. 

Norton further explained how the new Native American and Indigenous Studies minor at Tufts is significant to the indigenous community, and a group unifying indigenous students at Tufts is set to be established this fall. 

Cyrus Kirby, who helped organize the event, stressed how important this group is for indigenous students.

"Indigenous people are so rare on campus," Kirby, a sophomore, said. "It's important for [indigenous students] and the larger Tufts community that they are acknowledged."

Kirby said that the club meets Tuesdays in Mayer Campus Center room 203.

The Nettukkusqk singers, a group of Wampanoag and Nipmuc women, performed a series of songs that consisted of traditional and original works. The members explained how many of their songs are sung in vocables — small phrases so tribes who speak different dialects can all sing along. The group began their performance by teaching the process with which they use to learn, practice and sing songs.

“We sing songs for lots of different reasons, but in our community, singing is something that we do for greetings, for welcomings, when we’re happy, in sadness, in struggle, in celebration but in all of those times, there’s always a song,” one of the group members said. 

After a few more songs, some of which included audience participation, the group concluded by singing a song of Iroquois origin to wish safe travels. Prior to the final song, one of the group members asked the audience to remember the people being held in camps at the southwest border of the United States.

“You cannot be illegal on stolen land,” she said. “These are our relatives, these are our kin, these are indigenous peoples who are being held as prisoners and as we think about indigeneity, as we think about Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I’d like to ask that all of you think about the actions that you can take to make a difference to everything that is happening with indigenous peoples throughout our hemisphere and recognize what we recognize which is that we are family.”

After Nettukkusqk’s performance, Mahtowin Munro, a Lakota speaker, spoke about her happiness with Tufts students and faculty who are working on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Munro explained her attire as a gift from the Mayan people, which she was wearing in solidarity with all of the people caught at the border. 

“It is time for everybody to get active and demand that the camps get closed,” she said. “This is one of the most important things that we can be working on right now … We want the borders open and we want our relatives to be free once more.”

Munro continued by talking about how the celebration of Columbus Day is an insult to indigenous people. She said on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, conversation should happen about the history of indigenous people and their survival and resistance.  

Following Munro, Jesse Clingan, the fourth ward city councillor in Somerville, explained how he has been working with the city of Somerville to hold a celebration of indigenous people. Clingan, who is Mohawk, had told community members to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day with Tufts and encouraged students to keep pushing administration to keep the tradition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day alive. 

After dinner was served, the Eastern Sun drummers performed for the conclusion of the event. The drummers’ dances originated in the Eastern Woodland region, and performers wear “regalia” that reflect the region. The styles of dances they performed, a few of which involved audience participation, were referred to as Eastern social dances. 

Mateo Gomez, who was at the forefront of planning the event, noted that it has evolved from 2017, when it was held in a common room in Carmichael Hall. He said that over his past few years, he has noticed that community members, including faculty and administration, have been showing more interest in Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“I’ve definitely noticed that it’s become a little more of an expectation, and that’s been really awesome to see,” Gomez, a junior, said. “People are expecting it and asking about it.”

The first Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration at Tufts was held in 2016, following the passing of a resolution written by Andrew Nuñez (LA’15) and Genesis Garcia (LA’15).

The previous planning committee all graduated this May. Since then, Gomez explained that he and other students, many of whom are Native, have taken over the reigns.

“Long term, it would be great to have a centralized club where Native students are leading,” he said.

Gomez said that funding for the event came from a variety of sources, including the Diversity and Inclusion office, the Office of Student Affairs, the Department of Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora and Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate.

Julia Asfour and Leila Skinner, who are members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), explained the importance of celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“The name is definitely just the first step in the correct direction, but it definitely needs to happen because you're acknowledging there’s a problem within the system,” Asfour, a junior, said. “It shouldn’t be named Columbus Day, not just at this institution but globally and nationally.”

She emphasized the importance of critically analyzing figures that have been held in high regard for generations. Asfour added that the Palestinian struggle parallels the Native American struggle, making it important to fight for the rights of both groups.

“They’re both victims of settler colonialism — where their lands were taken away from them — and they’re both victims of police brutality and land grabs,” Asfour said. “As a Palestinian activist, it’s very hypocritical to not also advocate for Native Americans.”

Skinner, a sophomore added that the very land that Tufts stands on was stolen from Natives. She said SJP advocates for collective justice in freedom, given that many struggles are intertwined.

“No one is free until everyone is free,” she said.

Somerville celebrated its first official Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2018 at the behest of Mayor Joe Curtatone.

This year's Indigenous Peoples’ Day comes in the context of local struggles, particularly for the Mashpee Wampanoag, who last year lost their land trust, effectively dissolving autonomy in the region and preventing the construction of a casino.

Austin Clementi contributed reporting to this article.