In a time where the United States and the wider world is reckoning with its past, some at Brooklyn College are looking to provide some of the context of that history, specifically when it comes to the very land we all live on.
Long before Columbus’ westward expansion, American slavery, and American imperialism, the land that is now the United States was populated by the Indigenous peoples of North America, whose history has been widely erased from contemporary history educations, or at least has been watered down to lose most of its context and nuance.
“You can’t talk about the story of America without talking about Indigenous peoples,” said Lou Cornum, a former BC adjunct professor, who was the only Indigenous faculty at BC before they were laid-off this summer.
Cornum has participated in a group of Brooklyn College students, faculty, and administration working to try and amend this erasure by instituting more Indigenous Studies and decolonized education into our curriculums.
The group, called the Indigenous Working Group, began with a petition and a committee of 15 to 20 students and faculty calling for more representation from Indigenous voices in the BC curriculum.
“This is a part of scholarship that’s missing,” said Julia Steiner, a former BC grad and graduate student who is one of the major facilitators of the push for more Indigenous Studies at BC. Steiner, originally from Colorado, began thinking more about Indigenous history when she was younger and visited the site of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado where 70 to 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho people were killed by the U.S Cavalry.
“Wait, we are only a state because these people were massacred, what the fuck?,” she said.
Eventually, she found her way to BC and CUNY to further her studies, but didn’t find a lot of outlets for it.
“There is not a single course at BC in over 20 years that has had an Indigenous focus,” she said. On top of that, she noticed the lack of Indigenous or BIPOC professors in general in the tenured ranks of the faculty body, and this has become a large part of the Working Group’s goal. “Ideally one of the things we’ve been pressuring admin for is hiring for scholars who are Indigenous, or Black and People of Color,” she said, “It’s Brooklyn in 2020, and our tenured professor body is mostly White.”
Steiner also said that, as a White woman, she shouldn’t have to be the one to deliver the message.
“That voice is important, and we shouldn’t have to filter it through more White people,” she said.
The Working Group has set the goal of not only hiring with a more diverse lens but changing the way we learn as well by bringing in more “decolonized scholarship,” or education that comes from the perspective of those who have been colonized, rather than the more “eurocentric” angle. For example, learning about the American Revolution not just from the perspective of the Founding Fathers and colonists, but also through the eyes of the Indigenous peoples who were there at the time.
“American history faces west, what if you taught it facing east?,” said Kenneth Gould, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences who is a major force in creating the Working Group and pushing for more Indigenous education.
“Native American Studies should be prominent in history,” he said. Gould helped to originally form the group and sees it as a step in the right direction, particularly since it was mostly formed by student voices.
“I love it when students take control of their own education,” he said. “That’s ideally what college education is.”
Unfortunately, there has been some push back to the Working Group’s goals from CUNY and BC that have halted any true change.
“Where the resistance is, is with investing dollars,” said Gould. Steiner also acknowledges that money could halt the wheels of progress.
“There seems to be a value of, frankly, money over ethical scholarship at this point,” she said. “It’s not about what is right or wrong for this institution.”
Brooklyn College and the CUNY system as a whole is widely underfunded as it currently stands, and that is always an issue when trying to perpetuate any change.
“CUNY is always under threat of having cuts to the budget,” said Cornum, who also mentioned the difficulty in making change in a system “unwilling to change.”
“With CUNY and all the bureaucracy and all the levels and administration, it’s really hard to do new things, it’s hard to build momentum,” they said.
Part of any pushback to Indigenous Studies and decolonized education across the nation comes from the severity of the history it wishes to highlight. One that forces us to reckon with a violent and damaging past that for many could be hard to stomach.
“It’s hard for people to pallet something like, ‘Wow the place that I am living, the country that I am upholding, the beliefs I believe in is also committing genocide,’” said Steiner.
It is also a lack of understanding and pre-existing knowledge that makes it more difficult to get everyone interested.
“There are some people that think Indigenous People are not around, that they are just gone,” said Steiner. “There is a failure systematically across the U.S to teach what actually happened, to teach the truth.”
This lack of knowledge is something that Cornum experienced first hand when coming to New York in 2007 from Arizona. Cornum is from the Navajo tribe there, and grew up with that culture most of their life. In New York, Cornum lost their wallet and had to go to the DMV to apply for new documents, and had trouble when people at the DMV didn’t comprehend their tribal documents that are supposed to be accepted. “They had to call someone in Albany,” Cornum said. “People will just have no knowledge.”
The failure to teach the history that leads to this lack of understanding comes long before anyone steps foot on a college campus. “It’s often your first and last encounter with Indigenous education is in elementary school,” said Cornum. “Unless you seek it out you could go your whole academic life after middle school not learning about Native American history.”
For many, Indigenous history comes with the story of Thanksgiving, and making headdresses out of paper and crayons. “That’s something that I myself had to do in Arizona public schools,” said Cornum. “It’s young people who don’t know and don’t have the sort of tools to question the context of these stories that are being told to them,” they said. As someone who is Indigenous, Cornum described this sort of education as “like seeing yourself outside of yourself, and it definitely leads to a feeling of alienation.”
This watered down and at times totally fictitious way we learn about Indigenous peoples in elementary school is a mechanism of dealing with the violence of the past.
“We tell kids these little fables, but don’t want to address the actual issues because the actual issues are bloody,” said Steiner. “They are hard for us to pallet, not just for adults but for children too.”
This is a main piece of motivation for the Indigenous Working Group: trying to provide the context of the history in its true and full form so people can better understand the world we live in today. “It’s hard to make progress socially if you don’t grapple with your history,” said Dean Gould.
The Working Group is continuing to strive for more Indigenous Studies at BC, whether that be with its own department, integration into the History department education, or even required as part of the core curriculum.
“There should be ideally…not a major and minor program, but that everyone is required to read an example of decolonized scholarship,” said Steiner. “A little bit of a breakdown of how we educate, a little more interdisciplinary options.”
The group is also pushing more cultural recognition, like the recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or instituting land acknowledgments at public meetings. Land acknowledgments are beginning to become more popular and are used at the start of a meeting to acknowledge that the land you are currently on is stolen land that once belonged to the Indigenous peoples that lived there. The area around Brooklyn College specifically, was populated by the Lenni Lenape tribe.
In a quote posted by Brooklyn College’s Instagram, Dean Gould spoke about the importance of these acknowledgments.
“We must acknowledge that the land on which we gather is the traditional and unceded territory of the Lenape,” he said. “This acknowledgment demonstrates a commitment to beginning the process of working to dismantle ongoing legacies of settler colonialism…”
This year, the movement saw a win when Indigenous environmentalist and scholar Winona LaDuke was named BC’s Hess Scholar-In-Residence, and gave her nearly a week’s worth of digital lectures that happened earlier this month.
Recently, they have seen a rise in interest in Indigenous Studies, especially now as the U.S reckons with its racial history across the board.
“People want to know backgrounds,” said Steiner. Although, like any major social change, it won’t happen right away.
“It is a process,” she said. “It’s not something that is going to happen overnight.”