Student coalition awaits faculty vote on Indigenous People’s Day

Petrina Chan / The Tufts Daily

Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate has twice passed a resolution to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day on all Arts and Sciences and Engineering (AS&E) academic calendars, but the institution of this change remains up to vote by the entire faculty voting body in March.

The first resolution was passed on Sept. 28, 2014 but was voted down by the faculty body about four months later. The second was unanimously passed on Dec. 5, 2015 and awaits a vote, the exact date of which has not yet been decided, according to TCU Senator and Student Outreach Committee Chair Benya Kraus.

“What we’re trying to do is disrupt that narrative that says that we as a society, as an institution, want to celebrate a history of genocide, pillaging, rape and thievery, and instead disrupt that and replace it with the narrative of the resistance and dignity and culture of indigenous peoples,” Kraus, a sophomore, said.

The faculty is the last barrier in instituting this change, she said. In fact, the administration has little to no decision making power in this matter, Kraus said. The challenge now for Senate and the coalition behind Indigenous People’s Day at Tufts is to ensure faculty support and participation in the upcoming vote.

According to Executive Director of Public Relations Kim Thurler, the administration is open to dialogue concerning this issue.

“Tufts welcomes continued examination of this subject, which affects our individual schools’ academic calendars as well as the university-wide holiday calendar,” she told the Daily in an email. “We hope students, faculty and other community members will share their views so that there is a broad and thoughtful discussion.”

Committee strives to bring movement beyond the student community

While it does not have an official vote in the committee, nor any veto power, Kraus said the administration remains an influential player. She hopes that the university will make an official, public announcement of the change, should the resolution pass. 

President Monaco will be present [at the time of the faculty vote] and, while we understand that the administration doesn’t vote, they do have a voice,” she said. “We really want to build a coalition and see administrators really supporting this.”

The resolution, if passed, would affect Tufts AS&E calendars but not the ones of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, the School of Dental Medicine, the School of Medicine or the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Kraus said. If approved by the undergraduate faculty, the resolution may be brought before another voting body to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day at all Tufts schools. 

“We have spoken with the deans from these schools…and we are interested in pursuing those venues as well,” she said. “There is a separate committee [for the other schools]. Once we get those faculty votes, we can keep on moving with this movement and try to get all the schools to do the same.”

The resolution, originally written by Andrew Nuñez (LA ’15) and Genesis Garcia (LA ’15), has changed slightly since it was first passed by TCU Senate in 2014. One faculty objection to the original resolution was that it did not make enough concrete suggestions to acknowledge the history of indigenous people in the United States, according to Kraus. The newest resolution calls for programming on Indigenous People’s Day, which may potentially include education, fundraising and rallies, all focusing on indigenous people in the community, Kraus said. It is outside the faculty’s jurisdiction, however, to allocate funding for such events, she said.

The root of the cause

Kraus and first-year Parker Breza, TCU Senate’s LGBT Community Representative, emphasized that Indigenous People’s Day at Tufts should prioritize indigenous voices, support indigenous peoples in the surrounding communities and encourage alliances between the university community and indigenous people, especially because of the location of Tufts Medford/Somerville campus on land that once belonged to the Wampanoag Tribe.

“It should be stated that Tufts University sits on indigenous lands,” Kraus said. “We are implicit in this; we are part of the historic and [systemic] oppression of indigenous peoples, and I think its important that we realize that. While we cannot change the painful histories of Columbus’ conquest, we can do things to relearn all the things we learned about in elementary school to question: ‘Is this a person and an idea worth celebrating? Why did we learn the things we did in elementary [school]? What purpose? Whose purpose?’ and really shift our focus and our narrative to indigenous peoples.”

Visiting Assistant Professor of Native American and Critical Indigenous Studies Matt Hooley said student activism to address the history of violence that Columbus represents and raise awareness around the issue is crucial to supplement the resolution. Simply changing the name of the holiday is not enough, he said.

“Replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day requires a faculty vote, but it won’t succeed without the committed organizing that students are doing on campus – students who want to address the ways we as a university reproduce long histories of political violence and domination,” he said. “I absolutely support this work and I’m grateful for it.”

The coalition for Indigenous People’s Day at Tufts is currently partnered with the United American Indians of New England (UAINE), who have signed on to support the petition, Kraus said. She hopes to bring members of UAINE to campus for a rally when TCU Senate delivers the petition signatures to the faculty voting body in March.

According to a Feb. 4 Facebook post by Indigenous People’s Day at Tufts, more than 600 students, faculty members, alumni and community members have expressed their support by signing an online petition asking Tufts faculty to make the proposed change. In addition, 35 Tufts student organizations – political groups, performance groups, pre-professional groups, activist groups, language groups and spoken word groups – have signed on to express their support for the coalition, Kraus said. 

While there is a large amount of student support for the resolution, there is a very small percentage of the Tufts population that actually identifies as native or indigenous. According to the 2013 Council on Diversity Final Report, which includes the most recent data available, only .06 percent of Tufts students identified as American Indian or Alaska Native in 2012 and less than one percent of the faculty identified as American Indian or Alaska Native. 

Resolution Co-author Breza, who identifies as multi-racial, including native heritage, said Tufts must increase outreach and financial support for indigenous peoples in order to increase the number of native students on campus. 

“One of the big problems right now is that there just aren’t enough native students on campus,” Breza said. “We have multi-racial students who identify as native, such as myself, but no students who are solely native in my class year.”

Hooley sees changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day as only a first step towards making Tufts more accepting and open to supporting indigenous populations. The next step, he said, is increasing outreach to indigenous communities.

“Going forward, to be able to recruit more indigenous students, we need to organize ourselves to provide opportunities for those students to be successful,” he said. “Already faculty research and teaching is doing this work. But we also need more financial support for indigenous students and more opportunities to gather all students around indigenous intellectual and cultural production. That’s a central part of what I am trying to do here, in my own work and with my amazing students.”

A growing movement

Hooley said the movement to observe Indigenous People’s Day is spreading. 

“There’s a growing student movement to confront the academy’s complicity in the projects of slavery and colonialism,” Hooley said. “This year we’ve seen this in student-driven protests from Missouri to Yale. Just a few weeks ago, Brown University faculty voted to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. The important thing is to understand that addressing ongoing U.S. colonialism is linked to other issues of race, gender, citizenship, etc.”

Several other universities now observe Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day, including UC Berkeley, Cornell University and Brown University, according to Kraus and Hooley. Nine cities also celebrate Indigenous People’s Day on the second Monday of October, including Albuquerque, N.M; Anadarko, Okla; Portland, Ore; St. Paul, Minn.; and Olympia, Wash., according to an Oct. 12, 2015 story from the Washington Post. As of 2015, about 16 states did not acknowledge Columbus Day as a federal holiday, including Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon. In addition, South Dakota has celebrated Native American Day since 1990, according to an Oct. 13, 2014 CNN story.

Instituting Indigenous People’s Day and refusing to celebrate Columbus’ legacy of colonialism is a way of recognizing more than just the nation’s oppression of indigenous peoples, Breza said. Colonization of South American, African, Asian, Caribbean and other peoples by many Western and European countries has led to a skewed narrative in the United States that focuses on industry and development rather than the destructive, violent nature of colonialism, he said.

“When we celebrate Columbus Day, we are celebrating a history of white supremacy and colonialism, so people of color, colonized people, can really relate to that experience of being silenced, erased and having histories, violent histories, completely wiped out,” Breza said. “[T]he history of white supremacy in our nation and colonialism in our nation is a shared history too. [It’s] not only something that indigenous peoples have experienced but also something that black people in the United States have too. It’s the same sort of racism that many people still experience here in the United States.”

Student effort to promote Indigenous People’s Day faces challenges

According to Kraus, some faculty members have voiced concerns about the Columbus Celebrate Discovery Award, which is given to members of the Tufts faculty who have made significant discoveries in their fields.

The award was established at Tufts in 1992 after the Massachusetts Christopher Columbus Quincentennial Commission and its affiliated nonprofit Celebrate Discovery! Inc. made a donation to the university. The award is intended to “honor the spirit of discovery,” according to the Office of the President’s websiteIn the past few years, the award has gone to faculty in the biomedical engineering, chemistry, microbiology and philosophy departments.

Kraus said she was unsure about the specifics of the complaint but speculated that it may be seen as a disrespect to the award to change Columbus Day‘s name at Tufts. She and Breza pointed out the problems with celebrating Columbus‘ legacy as a discoverer. 

“People say Columbus embodies the spirit of discovery, ignoring the fact that Columbus didn’t discover anything,” Breza said. “Indigenous peoples had been living on this land for thousand upon thousands of years prior to him coming to these shores, as well as the fact that Leif Erikson actually was the first European to discover American 500 years prior to Columbus, so it’s just a complete misnomer, and everyone acknowledges that.”

Another complaint that has been brought up by some faculty and students is the potential that cutting Columbus Day might offend those of Italian American heritage, said Kraus. Speaking to Italian American students, however, Kraus said she found that found that many supported the change. 

“There has been some pushback that this might be a slight to the Italian American community in Tufts and in Medford/Somerville,” she said. “We’ve really listened to that, and we’ve joined in with students at Tufts who identify as Italian American but what we’ve been finding with a lot of Italian American students is that there are other aspects of the Italian American identity they’d rather focus on, other than the genocide of Christopher Columbus. Also if you look at [Columbus] historically, is he really Italian? There are a lot of mixed up feelings and sentiments.”

Members of the TCU Senate and authors of the resolution to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day discuss the proposed resolution and how to get more faculty approval during a Tea and Talk on Feb. 3, 2016. (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily)

A final challenge to changing the holiday is a general feeling of ambivalence, Kraus said. Many faculty and students agree that Columbus Day should not be celebrated but do not feel strongly that it should be replaced with Indigenous People’s Day, she said.

Breza explained that simply changing the name of the day does not do enough to acknowledge those who were harmed by Columbus; instead, it continues to ignore the violence and genocide committed by Europeans colonizing the Americas.

“A lot of people say, ‘Why don’t we just celebrate nothing on that day?’ or ‘Why don’t we just call it discovery day?’ But those are arguments that are completely whitewashing in nature,” he said. “It’s just putting a new name on something that is already inherently racist and colonial instead of working against that. In order to really work against the colonial acts of Columbus, we need to completely decolonize the holiday, and that starts with renaming, but there is so much more that we have to do.”

Hooley added that Tufts should be especially conscious of these implications because of its position as a school heavily involved in international relations.

“I also hope faculty and students see that changing the name is a way of harnessing one of Tufts’ strengths – its commitment to the interventional force of critical thought,” he said. “The students and faculty organizing around this now gather in and beyond Tufts’ classrooms. This ability to link study and activism is something that distinguishes this university.”

Kraus said that replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day at Tufts is a necessary first step towards changing the national narrative about colonialism and indigenous peoples on Tufts’ campuses.

“I think the name change shows that we are making a conscious effort to…bring up a narrative that has so often gone historically silenced and also to really take note that those voices aren’t silent, they aren’t erased, they’re still there, they’re still living and they’re still resistant,” Kraus said. “We’d like there to be a holiday that celebrates that and not an additional holiday but one that replaces a holiday that shouldn’t be celebrated.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article quoted first-year Parker Breza as saying, “We have multi-racial students who identify as native, such as myself, but no students who are solely native.” However, the quote should have read, “We have multi-racial students who identify as native, such as myself, but no students who are solely native in my class year.” The correction has been made accordingly. 


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