Reflections of a Native American history lecturer at Stanford

Oct. 1, 2018, 5:00 a.m.

As a lecturer or faculty member, you ultimately want to make a difference in students’ lives through teaching in the program or discipline that you represent. As a Lecturer at Stanford University (SU) since 2010, and as a former instructor in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR), I have experimented with classes I wanted to teach in CCSRE. The titles of my classes included the words decolonization, Native American history, oral tradition or literature, all components of my doctorate in American Indian Studies. When I started teaching Introduction to Native American History in 2014, I felt that I was able to fully utilize what I learned in my doctoral work.

On March 9, 2017, all of that came to a head as I sat in the audience at a panel discussion given by Stanford’s Native American Cultural Center on campus. Members of the panel were Father Xavier Lavagetto, Valentin Lopez, Chairman since 2003 of the Amah Mutsun Tribal band of California Native Americans, and a former student in my Introduction to Native American History (2014) and in my Discourse of the Colonized: Native American and Indigenous Voices (2015), Leo Bird. This group of individuals gathered to conduct a public discussion that focused on the California Mission Indian experience.

The panel member who held my attention was Mr. Lopez of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of California Native Americans. He comes from one of the three historic tribes recognized as the “Ohlone,” a name he said they do not prefer; I understand, as I am an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST), but we do not prefer the name “Sioux.” Mr. Lopez personally described the tragic experience of members of his tribe as told in their oral traditions of the Catholic missions established by Junipero Serra. Under Serra’s leadership, 21 missions were established, and during the period between 1769 and 1833, the population of California’s Indigenous peoples fell from 300,000 to 150,000.

The objective of the missions was to convert, educate and “civilize” Indigenous peoples. What I heard from Mr. Lopez was not a problem with Christianity but a problem with the brutal methods of conversion used by Serra and others to subjugate California’s Indigenous peoples to a form of slavery.  In watching Mr. Lopez speak, I could feel his tension, as a Native American person I have experienced it with regard to any discussion around the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 on what is now the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where I grew up. It is what he aptly described as “historic trauma” centered on a historic event or events that involved his tribe. For Mr. Lopez, it is the California Mission Indian experience.

As the discussion progressed with each panel member facing the audience, the notion of reconciliation came up, and each member was asked to speak about it.  Mr. Lopez indicated that the idea of reconciliation seems impossible until both sides of the story are told and heard respectfully and thoughtfully.

At the end of the discussion, the idea of changing names on Stanford’s campus from Serra and Galvez (Spanish missionary) to different names that do not remind Indigenous peoples on Stanford’s campus of historic trauma seemed like the only plausible solution or step toward reconciliation.  In the course I taught on decolonization, reversing the naming of places by the colonizer offered hope.

During the questioning period, I spoke. Not because it was necessary but because I wanted to thank Mr. Lopez, to tell him how important it was to hear his side of the story, to hear the perspective of Indigenous peoples in Native American History.

One such Native American perspective is the student activist who had been involved in the renaming efforts on campus. Leo Bird was instrumental as a Native American voice. In a paper submitted for my decolonization course in 2015, he wrote:

“Every place that had an indigenous population had a name that meant something to that specific population illustrating connection to the land and its meaning to the tribe. Cincinnati, Miami, Seattle and Massachusetts are all examples of Indigenous names that maintain a space in our histories, yet many of these names still exist and are taken for granted as English terms with no meaning. Another truth that exists today is continued colonization efforts by renaming territories after “discoverers” of the area of people prominent in mainstream society at the time that actually symbolize oppression, death and eradication from an Indigenous perspective.”

For many of the Native American students who are aware of the on-going colonial structures still in place here in the U.S. with regard to tribal nations, it is incredibly hopeful that the renaming is occurring on campus.  For students who are intrigued by what all this means, I encourage them to explore the courses in Native American Studies in CSRE.

— Delphine Red Shirt, Ph.D.

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