How to Retell the Story of America

If you
are asking yourself, “How is Native American and Indigenous Studies relevant to
me? After all, I’m not Native American,” I challenge you to look at it
differently. Women’s studies is not relevant only to women, nor is Asian-American studies only relevant to Asian-Americans. Similarly, Native
American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) doesn’t just pertain to indigenous folk.
Colonialism and genocide are deeply embedded within the history of the United
States, yet those stories are actively erased and not openly discussed.  

The myth of the first Thanksgiving is a
perfect example—it depicts the “pilgrims” and the “Indians” sitting around a
table as best friends and is reenacted in elementary schools throughout the
country. In reality, English soldiers massacred 700 Pequot men, women, and
children near Mystic Fort; two colonies observed a day of thanksgiving to
commemorate the great “victory.” In my experience, Native Americans enter the
conversation with Columbus and at best leave quite tragically, with the Wounded
Knee Massacre; contemporary experiences are rarely discussed.

Where are the stories about the
American Indian Movement? Where are the discussions about how indigenous lands
are being used as energy colonies for the rest of the nation? About how Los Angeles
has generated its power from coal mined on Navajo Lands, where many Navajo
families do not have electricity or access to running water? What stories lie behind
the name “Indian Hill?”

It’s terribly uncomfortable, and
yet, that silence—that absence—erases not only the stories but also
the lives and current experiences of families, peoples, and nations. Indigenous
histories, indigenous herstories, are largely invisible in this country.

Historically, formal education
has been used as a tool for assimilation of Native American communities. As
an institution of assimilation underlined by the “kill the Indian, save the man” philosophy, Native American boarding schools forcibly removed children
from their families and worked to suppress their culture, language, and

Given education’s earlier role as systematic oppressor, does the absence of a Native
American and Indigenous Studies program reify those past assimilation efforts? Yes—the continual failure of post-secondary educational institutions
to provide indigenous students with an education within the framework of their
own culture reproduces those attempts at assimilation by modernizing indigenous ways of life and erasing traditional cultural knowledge.

I do not mean to suggest that the
Claremont Colleges are intentionally furthering assimilation practices rooted
in genocide. I am merely trying to point out that actions have consequences and that inaction is a form of action. I am trying to challenge you to ask different questions. “What are the ways in which I benefit from, or am perhaps unknowingly
complicit in, settler colonialism? Do I know what settler colonialism is? What about its consequences and legacy? Do I have the tools to deconstruct settler

As liberal arts institutions and
advocates of diversity, the Claremont Colleges have a responsibility to fill
this educational gap for indigenous students and non-indigenous students
alike. Although there are few indigenous students attending the Claremont
Colleges, the lack of institutional support and resources available to these
students undermines the colleges’ intended commitment to diversity.

One of the great benefits of a
liberal arts education is learning to think critically, often through
interdisciplinary methods of learning. NAIS has the potential to transform the colleges by welcoming diverse knowledge and
ways of knowing that are older than the nation of America. NAIS can expand our ways of critical
thinking by engaging with our colonial histories, and it gives us the tools to deconstruct
indigenous-settler binaries and create new forms of dialogue, research, theory,
and action.

The words “decolonizing education” opened our own Indigenous Student Alliance’s campaign for a Native American and Indigenous Studies
Department. But what would it mean to decolonize education? Decolonization
must be rooted in indigenous communities so that indigenous voices and critiques
are no longer rendered invisible. Forming lasting relationships with indigenous
communities will have a broad impact on Native education, and also on education
at the Claremont Colleges as a whole. Ultimately these relationships will lead
to transformational change, both within indigenous communities and our academic
institutions. As students, we have the power to decide what our education entails. 

students, there is a gaping hole in our education. Say something about it. Sign
the petition for a Native American and Indigenous Studies Department. Write
letters to the Scripps Dean of Faculty saying why you think Native American and Indigenous
Studies is important. Come to ISA events. Show your support. Do something. 

Mariah Tso SC ’14 is majoring in environment, economics, & politics. She is the president of the Claremont Indigenous Student Alliance. 

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