It has been two years since Amherst first officially recognized the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. This inarguably important step — which came three years after the Town of Amherst itself recognized the holiday — rang hollow last Monday, however, when Indigenous Peoples’ Day passed without any acknowledgment by the college.
Similarly, the Bicentennial — complete with an 1821 “New England Boiled Dinner” and a reenactment of the arrival of Zephaniah Swift Moore — neglected any deeper recognition of the historical impact of the college beyond a cookie-cutter land acknowledgment. In particular, it neglected any reckoning with the historical actions of its implicit namesake and mascot until 2016, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, on the surrounding Indigenous communities — as well as reckoning with its own support for anti-Indigenous racism as a source of school pride over its own history. A celebration of the college’s 200 years without reckoning with the past risks papering over the very real consequences of that history as they exist today.
This was made all the more clear when a land acknowledgment poster hung by the Native and Indigenous Students Association (NISA) outside of Frost Library was torn down at the end of the Bicentennial celebrations, making Indigenous students and other students of color question their own safety and position on campus today. It should be noted that, at the time of writing, this seeming act of hate has still gone unacknowledged by the college — not even by the bare minimum response of a campus-wide email. To our knowledge and that of students we talked to at NISA, the tearing down of the sign also remains uninvestigated.
While the time for a particularly poignant remembrance of Amherst’s past has now gone by, there are still actions the college can and should take to address disparities between the wellbeing of Indigenous students and faculty and other community members today.
Steps like changing the mascot away from Lord Jeffrey Amherst in 2016 and recognizing Indigenous People’s Day were real actions that demonstrated, at the very least, a desire to make Indigenous community members feel more comfortable and safe on campus. Even so, there are more concrete actions that would go a long way to improving the college’s professed goal of inclusivity.
First and foremost, the college should work to allocate resources to NISA in its efforts to rebuild following the pandemic, and aim to make sustaining the organization a simpler task. Funds and logistical support should be extended to NISA in their efforts to reconnect with the Indigenous community at UMass Amherst and promote the club to current members of the student body. A stronger NISA means that the administration would have an easier time consulting directly with Indigenous students on how to improve the community — a method certainly more likely to succeed than any changes led by a predominantly white administration alone.
The college should continue working to hire more Indigenous faculty and faculty with training in Native studies. Having Indigenous people in positions of authority on campus provides a bedrock for the community to rely on that lasts beyond the four-year career of a student activist — and Indigenous students who spoke to The Student reported that American Studies professors Lisa Brooks and Kiara M. Vigil, both of whom are Indigenous, played a crucial role in supporting them on campus.
Furthermore, faculty should in general be more proficient in Native studies. They should educate themselves on the implicit frameworks of colonialism that may already exist within their course structure and work instead to integrate awareness of Indigenous content and experiences into their academic material. This should not just be an obligation for the American Studies and Environmental Studies departments where Native studies content is currently concentrated. This broader knowledge base would both inform the student body more broadly of the Indigenous community today as well as make those courses more accessible to Indigenous students.
But there should also be a consideration of broader changes the college can make to address disparities in a systematic manner. The internal changes we’ve discussed above can only make a difference for those on campus in the present, they don’t work to bring justice to nearby Indigenous communities who have claims to much of the land the college now holds. With its vast financial resources and lands, the college would be well within reason to consider more substantial efforts at making amends such as reparations for nearby Indigenous communities or even engaging with the local LandBack movement. While such decisions would certainly take time and consideration, there’s no reason to delay investigating these options any longer.
Indigenous people are not just a part of this country’s past. The Indigenous community of Amherst is vibrant, active and here to stay. The college owes more than land acknowledgements — though they are a start. The exploitation of this college’s history has impacts that have trickled into the present, impacts that the college can contribute resources to repair.
The college has been here for 200 years; it’s time to recognize why. It’s far past time for a more serious reckoning with the past, and there’s no time to wait for today’s Native and Indigenous communities.
Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 13; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 6).