Scattered around Pomona College’s Smith Campus Center are plaques with quotes about Pomona from the mid-19th to early 20th century, which give a picturesque, charming, and nostalgic quality to Pomona's origin story and sense of self. Placed at the heart of our campus, these plaques attempt to create a narrative about who we are and who we always have been. Claremont is an oasis, Pomona College is full of bright ideas and potential, and we are here to ask questions in order to make the world a better place. But these plaques and this narrative are incomplete, and in many ways, a complete lie. Nowhere on these plaques is any mention of the Tongva people or other natives who were here long before us and are still here today. The quoted settlers and colonists seem more concerned with Manifest Destiny and their right to land and resources than with humanity or history. And we, everyday, continue to swallow their antiquated and backwards story.
The narrative that Claremont (or Torojoatnga) was an empty paradise free for the taking represents a dangerous sort of ignorance. Apparently, the settlers quoted on our plaques either purposefully chose not to mention the existence of natives or were not aware of the natives’ existence at all (which seems a bit far-fetched). Today, we know that the Tongva still exist, along with neighboring Ohlune, Serrano, and Rumsen. But, for Pomona to truly acknowledge their existence would mean acknowledging that now, just as much as in 1887, we are inhabiting stolen land. And by living on stolen land, we have been complicit in and benefited from Native American removal and genocide.
It follows, then, that some kind of apology is also in order.
Pomona should take down or augment the SCC plaques. The plaques seem to remind us not to feel any guilt or ask any questions. But the whole point of a Pomona liberal arts education is to question critically what our place in the world is and what it means to live an impactful and ethical life. How could Pomona be a place to foster awareness if its own history is repressed? Indigenous scholar Vine Deloria said, “to be an Indian in modern American society is in a very real sense to be unreal and ahistorical.” We are privileged to have a place in academia and it is our responsibility to tell the truth; we should work to make America realize that indigenous people are real and have a history, and we need to start that work at Pomona.
Pomona does all it can to create a disconnect from our history. We have green grass that tells us we are in New England, not in Tongva territory. And neither our school website’s “About” page nor its “History of Pomona College” page mentions natives at all while our timeline only mentions the Tongva in the context as existing “before” our time (and who knows what kind of information is distributed in campus tours). But we do not live in an isolated utopia; we live in a world connected to people, space, time, and history.
Edgar Heap of Birds’ “Your Host Is” installation at Pitzer College, which reminds us of all the different people who have been misplaced or killed for our education, is the kind of work towards awareness that we should aspire to. There is also a new garden at Pomona College’s farm, called “Ne-sook’s Garden,” or, “Our Grandmother’s Garden,” a name given by Tongva elder Barbara Drake. Giving back space to the native peoples of this area (the Tongva, Serrano, Rumsen, Ohlone) is meant to be: a reconciliatory act for the land that has been stolen; a reminder, to all of us, that their cultures still live on strong; and an educational tool, to highlight the intersection between land use and socio-cultural history. We want an awareness shift and concrete changes to take place at administrative and institutional level. During alumni weekend, I and the other members of my Native American Environmental History class will be distributing zines which attempt to dismantle the myth that the SCC plaques try to preserve. We are all part of a complex and disturbing history, and with that truth comes power and responsibility.
Jack Denvir PO '18 is an English major and Assistant Music Director at KSPC.