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.”
“But if that’s the transcript, that’s the transcript...I’m as puzzled as anybody now,” said Snipp, who was a visiting professor in Harvard’s sociology department last academic year.
Shelemay, who reviewed a DVD of Summers’ speech recorded by the Committee on Ethnic Studies, confirmed that the transcript was an authentic rendering of Summers’ remarks.
“I am very glad that he released the transcript,” Shelemay said. “It corresponds to my notes,” she added.
At press time, Summers’ remarks had not been posted alongside other speeches on his official website.
‘A SENSE OF DEPENDENCY’
Several scholars who attended the September conference said they found Summers’ behavior at the event to be “condescending.”
“Summers was 15 minutes late and totally unprepared,” Browner wrote in her Sunday e-mail. “He didn’t even have little note cards in hand, and he just started speaking off the cuff.”
Early in his remarks, according to the transcript, Summers cited a Harvard School of Public Health study revealing that in one Native American community in South Dakota, life expectancy is lower than in Bangladesh. Persistent poverty among indigenous communities in the United States, he said, is “a major area of concern.” Summers noted that he and his colleagues in the Clinton administration’s Treasury Department “worked hard and, I think, with some success,” to make loans more readily available to Native American communities.
Just sentences later, however, Summers irked several listeners when he asked: “[H]ow does one avoid what I don’t think is good for anybody, which is a sense of dependency on the larger society, a reliance on financial transfers from the outside, a view in terms of special programs that have an aspect of charity and response to charity?”
That remark was “misinformed and unenlightened,” said Yellow Bird, the University of Kansas faculty member.
According to Yellow Bird, the word “dependency” is an incorrect description of Native American communities’ relationship to the federal government. Rather, Yellow Bird said, the U.S. owes tribes hundreds of billions of dollars under treaties that have largely been abrogated by federal officials.
“[Summers] made it sound like we’re just being beggars out there,” Yellow Bird said.
Speaking to The Crimson yesterday, Summers further clarified his comments.
“The overarching point of my remarks was to express a concern about the well-being of Native Americans today: how to increase life expectancy, reduce poverty, and to do so in the best way given the distinctive historical relationship between Native American communities and the larger society,” he said.
The next section of Summers’ speech—in which he commented on the demographic history of North America—sparked the most uproar among attendees.
“[W]hat actually comes out if you study it, and I think this is a relatively established fact, is that for everyone who was killed or maimed in some attack by European-descended Americans on the Native American population, for every conscious death that came in war, 10 were a consequence of the diseases that came to North America with European immigrants,” Summers said.
He noted that in some instances, colonists intentionally infected Native Americans with smallpox. “But the vast majority of the suffering that was visited on the Native American population as the Europeans came was not a plan or an attack,” Summers said in the speech. “It was in many ways a coincidence...Nobody’s plan.”
Summers said yesterday that he based the remark on several works of demographic history, including UCLA geographer Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel.”
“Far more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian germs than on the battlefield from European guns and swords,” Diamond writes.
When The Crimson told Shelemay last night that Summers had cited Diamond’s work, she exclaimed, “Oh my goodness.”
“This is not a nuanced source on Native American history,” Shelemay said.
Snipp, the Stanford sociologist, said yesterday that Summers’ claim—that many more indigenous people died from disease than from direct combat—is “factually correct.”
But Yellow Bird said that Summers’ comment downplayed the culpability of settlers and U.S. officials who engaged in coordinated campaigns of genocide against indigenous groups.
“The point is that you don’t minimize people’s lives and their deaths by creating some kind of apologist stance for colonialism,” Yellow Bird said.
In an interview yesterday, Summers said that “the horror of war is in no way diminished by the concurrent incidence of deaths from disease.”
“I was attempting to make the point from a policy perspective that tragedies happen both as a consequence of malice and because of accidents and inattention,” Summers said.
But several attendees had a different interpretation of the president’s statements.
“I may be missing some kind of semantic shading on all of this, but it does seem to me that this helps perpetuate a myth of American innocence,” said Robert Warrior, an associate professor of English at the University of Oklahoma who attended the conference.
THE SEVEN-MONTH DELAY
The Crimson did not attend the conference last fall but sought a transcript of Summers’ remarks amidst swirling rumors that the president’s speech had irked his audience. Lucie McNeil, who was Summers’ spokeswoman at the time but no longer works at Harvard, did not furnish The Crimson with a transcript despite repeated requests in September and October.
Several scholars who attended the conference said they did not contact members of the press after the speech because they did not want their complaints to reflect poorly on the professors and graduate students who organized the event.
“It was the first event of its kind at Harvard....I think people just didn’t want to start out on the wrong foot,” Warrior said.
“You get a really thick skin as a Native American in the academy,” Browner, the UCLA ethnomusicologist, added.
DAWN OF A NEW ERA
The flap over Summers’ speech comes just over a week Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences announced the hire of two tenure-track professors who specialize in Native American studies.
“I am very glad that Harvard has taken an important step this year with the hire of two Native American studies professors, and I hope very much that the faculties of this University will push forward in that effort,” Summers said yesterday.
Earlier this month, the University hosted a two-day conference celebrating the 350th anniversary of Harvard Indian College, which sought to convert members of the local Wampanoag tribe to Christianity.
The event brought several scholars who had attended the September conference back to Harvard’s campus—and rekindled discussion of Summers’ controversial remarks.
Provost Steven E. Hyman—not Summers—delivered the opening remarks at that event.
—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.