Native American Harvard affiliates spoke about feelings of “indigenous invisibility” on campus and potential solutions to the issue at a panel last Monday.
The event, co-hosted by Native Americans at Harvard College and the College Events Board, drew students and faculty across the University. Dubbed “We’re Still Here; A Discussion of Indigenous Invisibility at Harvard,” the panel centered on the personal experiences of some Native American Harvard affiliates who feel left out and overlooked in Cambridge.
Panel moderator and Executive Director of the Harvard University Native American Program Shelly C. Lowe said issues of invisibility needed to be addressed and overcome because of their potential effect on public representations of Native Americans.
“Invisibility leads to inaccurate and disrespectful representations of us in social media, in movies, in history books, and in curricular education,” she said.
Several of the panelists spoke about what they called the burden of having to prove their heritage. NAHC Secretary Kenard G. Dillon ’20 said this challenge often leads him to avoid identifying himself as Native American.
“I actively make myself invisible because a lot of times I don’t want to deal with it,” Dillon said.
Panelist and NAHC Vice President Anna Kate E. Cannon ’21 said indigenous students often get asked “what percentage” Native American they are.
“That tends to feel like an attack on my identity,” Cannon said. “It feels like I have to prove what I am; I have to prove that what I'm saying is worth listening to.”
Speakers at the event also discussed ways Harvard could be a better place for Native American students. Several panelists suggested the Univesity take action to more clearly acknowledge indigenous people’s presence both in the classroom and around campus.
Panelist and Ph.D. student Sarah A. Sadlier said she hoped Harvard would continue to hire Native American faculty members. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences hired its first-ever tenured professor in Native American studies, Philip J. Deloria, earlier this year.
Sadlier also pointed to the plaque on Matthews Hall in Harvard Yard, which marks where the Indian College stood, as a tribute to Native Americans that Harvard could expand.
“I do think it would be nice to have a more prominent memorialization than something that people can usually just walk by without grappling with or dealing with," she said.
Dillon agreed with Sadlier and said Harvard could do more to support Native American students by “making the funds, the resources, the space, and the staff available to cater to Native students.” He said he felt the support he received from Harvard as a Native American student quickly disappeared after he was admitted to the College.
“I feel like Harvard's commitment to Natives stops with recruitment,” he said. “It's all about having the numbers here, and then once we walk in the door, it's kind of like sink or swim."
Alex Miller, Associate Dean of Student Engagement and Interim Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, wrote in an emailed statement that the College strives to create an “inclusive community.”
“Harvard College is committed to creating an environment where students can come together to intersect with one another and support and learn from each other,” Miller wrote. “Harvard College’s goal is to provide a welcoming and supportive home to all our students – and we do this work through our Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) offices.”
“Students play a critical role in helping us achieve the type of inclusive community that we strive to be, and we encourage any students who may be interested in helping us achieve this goal to contact us,” Miller added.
NAHC President Noah Cominsky ’20 said he appreciated that the CEB partnered with NAHC to host last week's panel during Native American Heritage Month.
“I think it's just establishing a precedent, particularly in the month of November,” he said. “It's nice to have that institutional support that the panelists were calling for.”
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