The flap over Summers’ September remarks surfaced last Friday when the Washington Post—in a lengthy profile of the embattled University president—quoted two attendees who said that Summers’ speech had devalued the historic suffering of Native Americans.
But in an interview at his Mass. Hall office yesterday afternoon, Summers said, “I did not mean for a moment to diminish the severity or ferocity of the widespread violence that claimed very many [Native American] lives.”
“My aim was to point to the need for conscious efforts at Harvard and in the nation more broadly to contribute to the prosperity and health of Native American communities. I regret if my remarks were understood otherwise,” Summers said.
Still, several scholars came away from the September conference, a two-day event that drew some of the most prominent figures in the field of Native American studies to the Barker Center, with the impression that Summers’ comments had been painfully insensitive.
Summers’ remarks were “quite problematic,” said Kay K. Shelemay, Watts professor of music at Harvard and a member of the Committee on Ethnic Studies, which sponsored the September symposium, titled “On Our Own Ground: Mapping Indigeneity within the Academy.”
University of Michigan historian Philip J. Deloria, who delivered the keynote address at the conference, wrote in an e-mail to The Crimson yesterday that he found the president’s remarks to be “a bit odd.”
“I was not particularly offended, but I can imagine that some people may have been,” Deloria wrote.
Even seven months after the conference, several scholars who attended the event are still incensed by the president’s remarks.
Michael Yellow Bird, director of the Center for Indigenous Nations Studies at the University of Kansas, said that Summers’ remarks were “really, really insulting.”
Tara Browner, associate professor of ethnomusicology and American Indian studies at UCLA, wrote in an e-mail to The Crimson Sunday that she and several other attendees were “appalled” by Summers’ statements.
“What Larry Summers said, and this is an *exact quote*, was that ‘The genocide of American Indians was coincidental.’ As in it was an accidental by-product of Western European and Euro-American expansion,” Browner wrote.
But the word “genocide” appears nowhere in the two-and-a-half page transcript released yesterday by the president’s office.
“I have a memory of ‘genocide,’ but that could have been someone afterwards repeating his words,” Browner said in an interview last night.
However, after The Crimson read the transcript to Browner, she said that Summers’ remarks were “essentially” just as offensive as she recalled.
C. Matthew Snipp, chair of Native American studies at Stanford University, told The Crimson in an interview last night that “the transcript sounds considerably less obnoxious and more innocuous than the actual talk.”