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So Long, Christopher Columbus. And Welcome, The Cruel Optimism of Academia

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With Columbus Day just a few days past, the choice between its many nomenclatures has become one of common sense. In the minds of a growing number of Americans, and for some U.S. cities, even states, as well as universities, the official designation of this federal holiday has already been supplanted by a new name: Indigenous People’s Day.

Atop the bucolic hills overlooking Providence, Rhode Island, sits the august Brown University, one of many institutions of higher learning that celebrates not Columbus Day, but  Indigenous People’s Day. And like the rest of New England, the academic giant boasts a long history, older than even that of our country. But it’s precisely Brown’s 253-year history that is now a source of heated contention, with school officials caught in many crossfires.

In late August, a land dispute between Brown and one of Rhode Island’s indigenous communities threatened to boil over. The dispute cast fresh doubts on Brown’s positive stewardship of some 375 acres of land in Bristol, upon which the Haffenreffer Anthropology Museum and other research facilities were erected in the early to mid-20th century. And all seemed just fine until recently when, inspired by the American Indian-led uprising against the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, the Pokanoket, a tribe of the Wampanoag Nation, began a push for the rightful restitution of the land now under Brown’s ownership.

Talks continue between the Pokanet and Brown. The school has granted some concessions, but they were met with a fevered speculation. And now, it appears, things have fizzled out, taking a turn for the worse.

The assertions made by the Pokanoket were initially contradicted by Brown

The Bristol-based Pokanoket claimed descent from the Wampanoag chief Metacom (a.k.a. King Philip, after whom King Philip’s War of 1675-76 was named). The Pokanoket asserted that this lineage confers their rightful collective ownership of the land in Bristol, land which had been given to Brown in the 1950s by the Haffenreffer family.

The land is also historically the site of Metacom’s murder, in 1676, near the end of King Philip’s War, whereupon the Pokanoket were subsequently taken in by the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation. This history, according to the testimonials of Pokanoket leaders, is what partially constitutes the coherent identity and “bloodline” of the Pokanoket — that is, how they conceive of themselves as a “people,” as a “tribe.”

In a video uploaded to Facebook, the Sagamore Po Wauipi Neimpaug, one of the Pokanoket leaders, averred that King Philip was indeed his “ninth-generation great grandfather.” But such a history could not escape being challenged in the legal crucible of today since the tribal continuity of the Pokanoket could not be historically confirmed due to the paucity of written records.

The assertions made by the Pokanoket were initially contradicted by Brown, but have since been revised. It is now not in question, as the Steering Committee of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Brown pointed out, that “many tribal communities have been written out of history.” Further research has also validated the Pokanoket claim, as corroborated by records of the Mashpee that were recovered during a language revitalization a few years ago. The Rhode Island General Assembly’s January 2007 session had even convened on this issue but passed no resolution on the status of the Pokanoket claim.

To this day, the criteria of legal categorizations of what constitutes a tribe, and even a nation, continues to mystify; the Pokanoket, just like the Mashpee before them in James Clifford’s powerful account in The Predicament of Culture, remain a people without de facto legal recognition and, seemingly, without a history.

Poverty rates for American Indians are the highest of any racial groups, twice the national average

Akin to the Pokanoket now, but back in 1977, in the Federal court of Boston, the Mashpee had likewise fought for their collective recognition in light of their tribal continuity. Their legal filings had also taken issue with the meanings of collectivity, nationhood, sovereignty, and community as codified by federal laws. It seemed like a long shot, at best. But to the relief of many observers, the Mashpee won the legal battle and promptly joined the now-566 federally-recognized American Indian tribes.

In the years that followed, the requirements for American Indian tribes to be conferred legal status, have changed substantially. Today, it requires an act of Congress, or a U.S. court ruling, or approval by way of the procedures governing the Federal Acknowledgment Process, known as 25 C.F.R. Part 83. Nationhood recognition vis-a-vis property rights, or land preservation, exposes the destructive nature of U.S. federal policies that further compound indigenous economic woes. Landownership of the currently existing 326 reservations is not given to the tribal nations presiding over them. The land, according to The Atlantic, is held “in trust (…) by the federal government” so that wealth cannot be accrued through the equity of land. Today, poverty rates for American Indians are the highest of any racial groups at 28.3%, nearly twice the national average of 15.5%.

And so, the Brown University Steering Committee wrote, at the heart of this issue is “a delicate yet important technical difference between holding Native ancestry and holding nation status.”

“To that end,” Brown University Professor Naoko Shibusawa explains, “There have been extensive efforts to try to come to a situation acceptable to all. [On August 30], Brown proposed that the land be given [for] stewardship to all the Wampanoag. (…) The administration is still at work trying to come to an agreeable situation.”

This sentiment harkens back to when, Ruth Simmons,  then-president of Brown University, founded the Committee on Slavery and Justice in 2003. The committee would  “investigate and prepare a report about the University’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.”

Columbus Day proponents better take notice of the growing popular discontent on indigenous rights.

The findings were published in October 2006 and had a significant impact on Brown’s position in its present-day confrontations with past injustices. On the heels of this finding came Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.

Since its publication, many American universities, amongst other institutions, have found themselves confronting their direct past connection to the transatlantic slave trade and American slavery. Georgetown University, too, has since tried to atone for its past profiteering from the 1838 sale of 272 slaves, a time when the university had suffered financial woes. Georgetown has been put to task on addressing the question of what it now owes to the descendants of those 272 enslaved women, men and children. Like Brown and Georgetown, a swath of universities, such as Harvard, Columbia and the University of Virginia, have also publicly come forward.

Today on Brown’s campus, stands a monument dedicated to the school’s once-hidden part in the transatlantic slave trade. The monument defiantly bears witness to that dark chapter of Brown’s history, as it includes a brief synopsis of the findings of the Committee of Justice and Slavery.

Brown has professed willingness to “work earnestly to engage the Pokanokets and local Native tribes with great respect for the history of erasure of Native peoples.”

Despite the initial Pokanoket rejection of Brown’s proposed plan, Brown will move forward with a 12-to-18-month-long “plan for the Bristol property that respects the historical interests of the Native peoples related to this land, and ensures stewardship and management of this unique historical and natural resource for generations to come.” Even so, the university and the Pokanoket reached an agreement on September 25th to transfer the Bristol land over to a trust. In the newly drafted plan, Brown will continue to ensure “sustainable access by Native tribes with ties to its historic sites.”

But the struggle for the rightful restoration of stolen to American Indian communities continues unabated. Perhaps a microcosm, hopefully including universities across the country, backed by dedicated works of scholarship and social justice activism, will work to assume the lead in the push for redress of the shameful historical wrongs inflicted upon Native Americans. Columbus Day proponents, including the federal government, had better take notice of the growing popular discontent with the status quo on the rights of our country’s indigenous population.

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Bee Vang

Bee Vang graduated from Brown University with a degree in geopolitical epistemologies and has done extensive social justice work in China, written frequently about postwar Laos, and is an advocate for the removal of explosive remnants of war. He’s also a former contributor to The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, The Economist, First Look Media and other news outlets. He lives in New York City.
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