“It’s a minefield for racism. It’s going to happen, it’s just a question of when:” Lack of Indigenous representation sparks student concerns.
This article was written on the ancestral, traditional and contemporary unceded lands of the Massachusett tribe. The author recognizes that this is stolen land and offers this land acknowledgement to affirm Indigenous sovereignty and commit to holding Wellesley College accountable to the needs of Indigenous peoples and its Indigenous students.
Kisha James ’21, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, is very tired. Spending the past three years at Wellesley College explaining Native American issues to students, faculty and administration, she said, has left her exhausted. Yet, when in August an issue arose regarding the teaching of Indigenous studies courses by white anthropology professors, it was once again James who sprung into action.
Given that 71 percent of total faculty members during the 2019-2020 school year were white, a number that has remained relatively constant over the past three years, it is not entirely surprising that the anthropology department’s faculty is entirely white. There are currently no Indigenous professors teaching at Wellesley and the most recent Native professor, Dr. Erich Fox Tree, left in 2009.
“Not having Native faculty should embarrass a college like Wellesley,” Fox Tree wrote in an email to The Wellesley News.
When Fox Tree was teaching at Wellesley, he said he saw the need for courses in Native studies on campus. According to Fox Tree, there was not an existing and permanent space for them, as he was the only Native professor. Without more Indigenous faculty, Fox Tree explained, a Native studies program is difficult to sustain.
Indigenous studies courses offered and student response
When the 2020-2021 course browsers were released, the anthropology department offered “Indigenous Resurgence” and “The (In)Visible Native America: Past and Present” taught by Professor Susan Ellison and Professor Adam Van Arsdale, respectively. While Van Arsdale’s course is scheduled to be offered in the spring semester, Ellison’s course is currently being taught in Term One and, according to Workday, has eight students enrolled. Both professors are white.
When Emily Magness ’21, a member of the Cherokee and Shawnee tribes, first read about the two courses in late July, she considered enrolling in one of them. However, after looking over the syllabus for Professor Ellison’s course, she had some reservations about the class regarding content and who was determining what was taught.
In an email to The News, Ellison wrote that her course applies a comparative lens to “to settler colonialism, systemic racism, and how anthropology is implicated in both.” She drew her curriculum from Indigenous scholars, colleagues, and mentors that she has, “been in conversation over the past twenty years in both academic and activist spaces.”
According to Van Arsdale, his course was inspired by a panel he attended at the American Anthropological Association’s 2015 Annual Meeting that featured research from Indigenous scholars about the links between the history of biological anthropology and contemporary topics in human genetics
Not having Native faculty should embarrass a college like Wellesley.
“I wanted to be able to offer a course that provided more space for Indigenous critiques of the discipline that connected contemporary practices in fields like human genetics, bioarchaeology, and forensics, to the colonial and racist roots of Anthropology as a discipline,” Van Arsdale wrote in an email to The News.
After James, the president of NASA, reached out to the rest of the e-board to call for an official boycott of the two courses, Magness, who is NASA’s publicity chair, felt her initial concerns regarding the selection of authors and theories being taught in Ellison’s course were validated. She later decided against enrolling.
Upon discovering the courses on Wellesley’s course browser before the semester started, James reached out to both professors to explain her issues with white professors teaching Indigenous studies courses. According to James, Magness and Jenn Horkovich ’22, NASA’s events chair, the professors’ responses were “invalidating” and they felt that their complaints were not being heard.
All three NASA members were particularly infuriated when, in emails forwarded to the Wellesley News, Ellison misnamed the Native land that Wellesley College is on and called the mistake a “brain fart.”
“It’s just so infuriating and disheartening. You’ve got these professors who are so adamant about wanting to teach and help Indigenous people, but when Indigenous people are telling them ‘you can’t do this, you need to stop,’ they don’t listen,” Horkovich said. “It’s like they don’t realize that by [teaching these courses] they’re harming the community more than they’ve ever helped. They don’t get to determine that they’re an ally to the Native community, especially when Indigenous people are telling them the opposite.”
After repeated requests from James, neither professor agreed to cancel their courses. However, Van Arsdale stated in an email to the News that he is “sympathetic” to the demands NASA put forth and views their critique as a “vital component” of the training students receive at Wellesley. Similarly Ellison wrote that she “strongly supports” NASA’s demands to create an inclusive space for Indigenous students at Wellesley and increase Indigenous representation throughout the college.
While NASA initially only called for a boycott of the courses, the organization has now completely cut ties with the department following tense email exchanges with both professors.
“A lot of discourse in anthropology surrounds race and the problem is that there are only white people in the department,” Robin Chen ’21 an anthropology major said. “It’s a minefield for racism. It’s going to happen, it’s just a question of when.”
Students express their concern
Horkovich, a descendant of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, was initially excited to see Native voices being highlighted in the classroom. Soon, however, the reality of the lack of Indigenous professors on campus set in. Her enthusiasm quickly turned to vexation upon realizing that instead of Native professors teaching on Native issues it was white professors just “taking up that space.”
James shared a similar frustration with white professors teaching courses that they are “unqualified” to teach because they “can never truly understand the lived experiences of Indigenous people.” Both James and Horkovich agree that white professors should never be teaching Indigenous studies courses, because in doing so they are taking teaching opportunities away from Native scholars.
“These courses are meant very much for the white gaze … It’s sort of like ‘look at these strange people, look at their cultures, look at what we did to them,’” James said. “White guilt ends up being centered in these courses, not Indigenous people. It feels icky to me to have predominantly white classes looking at these issues with a white professor.”
Fox Tree, however, disagreed that Native professors should be the only faculty to teach Native studies courses. While he emphasized that Indigenous professors bring “significant advantages” to teaching the courses, he added that though far less likely, Native professors can make the same mistakes as non-Native professors when teaching. According to Fox Tree, the majority of time in Native studies classes tends to be spent erasing past myths, rather than teaching exclusively new facts and theories.
“I think that both Native professors and non-Native professors can [erase past myths], but also both Native professors and non-Native professors can perpetuate the very myths they’re supposed to be tearing down,” Fox Tree said.
While Magness agrees that Native professors are the most qualified people to teach these courses, she cautions advocating for Indigenous scholars to exclusively teach Indigenous studies courses, and notes that Native academics are “making strides in every field.”
I was disappointed but not surprised, because there’s a very long history of anthropologists coming into our community [and] taking what they need.
Fox Tree shared similar concerns to Magness regarding placing the burden of teaching Native studies courses exclusively on Indigenous professors.
“One cannot make it the responsibility of underrepresented groups to be teaching about underrepresented groups. Doing so would make it difficult for underrepresented groups to have time to research or teach about anything else,” Fox Tree wrote. “Those with power and positions have the responsibility to unteach past myths and teach more truthful or rooted content, in the light of what underrepresented minorities have said.”
Like James’s critique of the use of the white gaze, Magness drew attention to the way these courses are taught, specifically within the anthropology department.
“I was disappointed but not surprised, because there’s a very long history of anthropologists coming into our community [and] taking what they need,” Magness said. “Even though I had heard that these professors are excellent, a discipline like anthropology you can’t just reform because it’s based on violence. When all this started coming out, they’re just showing their true colors.”
Chen expressed a similar sentiment, highlighting the violent colonial history that anthropology has historically exerted on Native peoples. Chen is among several anthropology students who are pushing back against the department to support NASA.
“The lack of diversity in the anthropology department led to this debacle,” Chen said. “If there were any scholar of color in the anthropology department, they would have been able to see NASA’s side [and] I think this maybe wouldn’t have happened in the first place.”
Anti-Indigeneity prevalent at Wellesley
All the students interviewed said that anti-Indigenous sentiment within academia is not unique to the anthropology department at Wellesley College. While the lack of Indigenous representation among faculty is an issue, James, Horkovich and Magness all agree that much of the student body remains ignorant of Native issues, thereby perpetuating a culture of anti-Indigeneity on campus.
“I’ve met so many people on this campus that believe that we’re all dead because they had never met a Native person. By offering these classes and engaging in them the way that these professors did, it really sets the precedent that this is acceptable behavior,” Magness said. “A lot of students at Wellesley don’t know better, which isn’t an excuse, because they should know better, but it makes that behavior and that harm more accessible. If your professors are doing it, it makes it okay for you to do that, too.”
White guilt ends up being centered in these courses, not Indigenous people.
Fox Tree recalls experiencing racism from students on a day-to-day basis during his time teaching at Wellesley. He was routinely stopped by students who demanded he prove that he had permission to be on campus, something Fox Tree said his white counterparts never experienced. On the day of the Virginia Tech Massacre in 2007, Fox Tree recalls being stopped on three separate occasions.
“Looking back, I think that Wellesley students harassed me even more than the campus cops did,” Fox Tree said.
NASA demands and further action
The perceived lack of support and engagement from the department prompted NASA to create a list of demands inspired by those created earlier this year by Wellesley for Black Students. The list of demands was split into four sections — institutional accountability, curriculum and hiring, student life and admissions — and as of Oct. 6 has garnered 703 signatures. Among the list were the creation of an official Wellesley College land acknowledgement, a demand for Wellesley to divest from the fossil fuel industry and a call to hire more Indigenous faculty.
The demands were addressed to specific members of upper administration and the greater Wellesley community. In the opening statement, NASA specifically referenced the instance with the anthropology department, stating that Wellesley had allowed this issue to arise by failing to hire Indigenous faculty members.
“Settler professors believe they are entitled to teach classes on Indigenous experiences as though they can understand our lived experiences simply by observing, and as though they could accurately portray Indigenous cultures through the select few Indigenous voices they have chosen to highlight,” the statement read. “Students and professors believe that they have the right to speak over Indigenous students about these issues and ignore Indigenous voices, idealizing “pre-extinction” tribes and Indigenous relationships with the land.”
Three weeks after the petition was published, NASA received an email from Wellesley College President Paula Johnson inviting them to discuss the demands in a private meeting. In addition to NASA e-board members and President Johnson, Dean of Students Sheila Horton and NASA’s advisors, Dean Shih and Dean Alicea-Westort, were in attendance, too. According to James, President Johnson and Dean Horton seemed “receptive” to the students’ concerns, and pledged to discuss individual demands with relevant administrators. The group is set to meet again in mid-October. James, Horkovich and Magness all expressed cautious optimism at the results.
It’s a minefield for racism. It’s going to happen, it’s just a question of when.
“I think this administration has really not paid its dues to student activists on campus. I think there’s no justice for Native students unless we address the demands of other activist groups, especially Wellesley for Black Students,” Magness said. “I hesitate to fully say that the meeting was a success, because I’m very keenly aware that our struggles are all linked, but I was very grateful that they met with us.”
Both James and Horkovich echoed this sentiment, arguing that the NASA demands will not be completely met until Wellesley for Black Students’ demands are. According to Horkovich, “they’re not fully giving Native students what they want without giving Black students what they want.”
“We’re so grateful that the Black Lives Matter movement and Wellesley for Black Students has really opened the door for other historically oppressed minorities to be able to demand some basic human decency and basic respect that the institution,” James said.
NASA is currently working with several academic departments and professors to further educate them about Native issues and assist in developing curriculum that adequately and accurately incorporates Indigenous history. The group is also collaborating with Renew Wellesley and Black Students for Wellesley.
“My ultimate goal is total decolonization of the curriculum and supporting Native students,” Magness said. “Not just talking about ‘the plight of the Indian’ but Native creativity and joy and all the things we’ve been good at, and not what people have done to us.”