Carving A Space For Indigenous Students At Amherst

On Dec. 6, 2012, scholars, students and tribal community members from across the country gathered in Cole Assembly Room for a day-long symposium to honor William Apess, a 19th-century Pequot preacher, activist and intellectual. Despite the silent, heavy presence of Jeffrey Amherst’s legacy, Native individuals and their non-Native colleagues and allies joined together to lighten that burden and celebrate Apess’s courage and eloquence in the face of adversity. As we contemplated his struggles with mixed-race identity, addiction, religion and the search for social equality, people in the room began to identify the loneliness and isolation that characterizes the human experience, and, furthermore, began to consider how we could continue in his tradition of activism, leadership and community-building. I, too, wondered how I could honor a man who truly gave light to the world, especially knowing that being Native at the College often results in an existence of tokenism or invisibility, if not alternating between both. When the symposium ended, I left with the feeling that we Native people had successfully claimed that space as our own.

Less than 24 hours later, that feeling faded as news of another inappropriate on-campus reference to Jeffrey Amherst and his blankets had me reaching out for explanation. When a member associated with the responsible party wanted to hear my concerns, I accepted her invitation and, after our conversation, felt the satisfaction of having honest dialogue about the marginalization of Indigenous people at the College — the main issue that led me to establish the Native American Students Organization (NASO), which is to begin operating this semester. It should be no surprise that, for decades, Indigenous people have existed at Amherst without being heard or recognized for their unique contributions to campus culture and have instead been absorbed into ambiguous categories of “minority students” and “faculty of color.” These individuals may fly under the radar for many reasons, including insecurity and isolation, lack of empathy or sympathy among peers or oppressive non-Native perceptions of what constitutes a “real” Native person. Additionally, not all Indigenous people feel the need or desire to publicly declare their heritage — a choice that should not be interpreted as assimilation or decreased authenticity on their part. Indigenous people reserve the right to navigate social spaces by bearing the labels they deem appropriate without being judged by those who may not understand the many complexities of Native identity, e.g. tribal specificity, mixed-race heritage, blood quantum, pan-Indianism, state vs. federal recognition, etc. Regardless of how they identify, Indigenous people also deserve safe, culturally-sensitive environments for work, learning and recreation. At Amherst College, where there exist low numbers of Native, Aboriginal and Indigenous individuals, the challenge in creating such environments lies in finding peers and colleagues who are willing to accept social responsibility for what happens on our campus. This is not to say that Native people are incapable of defending their right to be respected, but negotiating a shared space can be difficult. When non-Native allies acknowledge Indigenous issues and work to improve the inclusiveness of our campus, they avoid the problematic colorblindness that leaves many minority individuals without adequate academic, mental and emotional support. For these reasons, the importance of cross-cultural solidarity between Natives and non-Natives cannot be stressed enough.

With the goal of fostering such inclusiveness, the Native American Students Organization seeks to bring together all members of the Five College community to celebrate Indigenous histories, contemporary cultures and the people who are a part of them. Native people deserve to exist in contemporary contexts outside of textbooks and museums, and unraveling the internalized colonialism that pervades our society and prevents this sort of existence is a critical effort in reaching a greater understanding of what it means to be Indigenous at Amherst and beyond. The process of decolonization requires people to realize and accept many truths, one of the most important being that Indigenous individuals do not deserve to be treated as representatives of our entire clans, tribes, geographic spaces or larger ethnic groups. The knowledge of one individual should never be substituted for the complex diversity of Native thoughts and experiences, and by refusing to use a fraction to characterize the whole, the Amherst community can avoid the danger of misrepresentation on a campus where under-representation is already a serious issue. Some of this under-representation, both real and perceived, can be affected by simply challenging stereotypical perceptions of what defines a Native person, especially in a society that accepts geographic borders as criteria that disqualify other members of the global Indigenous family from being acknowledged and respected.

As Amherst students and leaders who have great influences on our communities, it is our responsibility to approach topics of Indigenous identities, rights and histories with open minds and allow Native issues to enter our dialogues as independent concepts — not simply in juxtaposition with our mascot and other contexts that rely on annihilation narratives. Still, as students who are associated with Jeffrey Amherst’s legacy, it is important to especially consider the abuse of biology and what genocide has meant and continues to mean to Native people.

In many ways, then, we must seek to replace historical inaccuracies and misinformed perspectives with truth and justice while making Native people an integral part of the rectification of such issues. The stifling culture of Amherst is not one I desire for myself, my peers, my professors or the generations of students who will attend Amherst long after I have graduated. However, the Native American Students Organization can now offer a much-needed place of solidarity and inclusion for Indigenous community members and their non-Native allies. Together, we will continue to re-claim this space as our own by resisting intolerance, finding our similarities and openly celebrating our differences. It is only after this has been achieved across all groups at Amherst that we can boast about our diversity and multiculturalism.
Note: Credits to Maile Hollinger ’15.