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Let’s Talk about Harvard’s Colonial Past and Present

By Ariel G. Silverman, Contributing Opinion Writer
Ariel G. Silverman ’23, a Social Studies concentrator, lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

This past year marked the 50th anniversary of the Harvard University Native American Program. This anniversary reminds us of the significant strides HUNAP has made to fulfill the Charter of 1650’s mission — which still governs the University — to support “the education of English and Indian Youth.” Since its founding, HUNAP has promoted an inclusive community and cultivated the academic development and achievement of over one thousand Native alumni.

That said, aspects of Harvard’s colonial past and present, including the University’s early treatment of Indigenous students and the ways in which its affiliates can address enduring colonial tendencies, are not sufficiently discussed on campus.

After participating in a decolonization training led by Alaska Native activists in 2020, I began to reflect on the ways colonialism manifests at Harvard and how white, non-Indigenous students like myself can help promote decolonization respectfully. Following further discussions with Native activists and scholars, I’ve come to believe that Harvard’s student leaders, department heads, and administrators can and must take further steps to better acknowledge Indigenous experiences and help more affiliates engage in decolonization discussions. Becoming a better ally is a lifelong journey involving ongoing learning and reflection. I hope Harvard community members — and you — will join me in it.

Let’s start with some vocabulary: Settler colonialism occurs when one nation subjugates another and politically dominates and exploits its territory for use by settlers, often enforcing its own language and values on the Native people. White supremacy, which still persists today, is the ideology that white people and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions are superior to people of color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions. White supremacist culture is reproduced by many institutions like the media, the education system, western science, and the Christian Church.

Decolonization, on the other hand, is the repatriation of Indigenous land and culture and restoration of Indigenous rights to self-determination. Indigenous educator Nikki Sanchez demonstrates that a crucial first step in this process is those in power foregoing social and economic privileges that directly disempower, appropriate, and invisiblize others.

So, what do these terms mean for Harvard?

Colonialism is inextricable from Harvard’s early history: The Cambridge campus is built on the traditional and ancestral homelands of the Massachusett people. The first European settlers landed on Massachusett shores as early as 1620. During the Great Migration between 1620 and 1640, more than 20,000 white European settlers colonized Massachusett homelands, bringing with them white supremacist views, guns, and infectious diseases, against which the Massachusett had no immunity. Warfare and disease transmission between settlers and Natives reduced the large Massachusett population by as much as 90 percent, leaving them vulnerable to attacks and raids by neighboring nations.

Puritans founded Harvard during the Great Migration with the goal of training clergy. By 1655, the Harvard Indian College was built with the support of the English Society for Propagation of the Gospel in New England, whose mission was to convert Indigenous communities to Christianity. A handful of students enrolled, but only Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck of the Wampanoag tribe graduated. The Indian College, where Matthews Hall now stands, was torn down in 1698 and its bricks were reused to construct new buildings.

Though the bricks of Indian College still remain in Harvard Yard, the University’s early role in perpetuating colonialism is not as widely recognized as it should be.

In “A Brief History of Harvard College'' on Harvard University’s home page, the early founders are proudly highlighted; however, the harmful colonial context of Harvard’s creation is not discussed. Land acknowledgments are notably absent from most Harvard student group and academic websites. While freshmen during orientation week do participate in discussions on identity and inclusivity, in my experience, they do not learn about Harvard’s colonial history.

Colonial culture is also systematically embedded into the academic and social dimensions of Harvard. Campus buildings and streets are named after colonial-era Harvard presidents and slave owners such as Edward Holyoke, Benjamin Wadsworth, and Increase Mather, even though steps have been taken to begin the process of possibly renaming campus spaces. Some of Harvard’s land investments in Brazil have violated the human rights of Indigenous communities by denying them access to natural resources like land and water.

These examples are but a few of the many manifestations of settler colonialism on Harvard’s campus.

The plea to expand awareness of this legacy is not meant to undermine the many fruitful discussions and tangible actions which have taken place. To name one example, Harvard outdoor organizations are beginning to acknowledge the complex history of the land they hike and camp on. The Peabody Museum recently apologized for initially refusing to voluntarily return certain funerary objects to Native American tribes and has committed to changing its current research protocols governing the treatment of human remains and funeral objects.

Despite these steps, a systematic evaluation of Harvard’s past and present is necessary. Requiring land acknowledgments, which show respect for the people whose unceded land Harvard has occupied for nearly 400 years, and creating a mandatory decolonization curriculum for students could be the next step. Training can raise awareness about this legacy and help build upon ongoing conversations.

While we can't change the past, it is our responsibility to strive towards a future where institutional outcomes match modern-day values of inclusivity, equality, and justice. We can work towards this future by listening to Indigenous students and faculty and engage in empathetic discussion about how we can collectively reflect and move forward.

Ariel G. Silverman ’23, a Social Studies concentrator, lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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