Some Notes Toward Acknowledging Indigenous Americans This Week, In the Classroom and Elsewhere

To have a history at all is to have a problematic history, and Thanksgiving is no exception. It's a holiday that exists in part to sanitize the murderous origins of white civilization on this continent. It's also one of a handful of days in the American calendar when people won't frown on you for putting family and friendship ahead of capitalist productivity. Like most social institutions, Thanksgiving has many meanings to many people.

And that's why, though we'll be doing some Thanksgiving-related posting this week, we wanted to start by acknowledging that history. I, personally, have always loved Thanksgiving and am likely to continue to do so. But as educators, we have to recognize that this week isn't the same week for everybody. It's hard to reduce that awareness to a series of "classroom tips," but here are some notes toward, at least, increasing that awareness. Got more suggestions? Sound off in the comments, please!

1. Start by noticing that pipeline spill. This time last year, thousands of Native Americans (and others) in North Dakota were getting blasted in the face with pepper spray and cold water (in sub-freezing temperatures) to protest the construction of an oil pipeline. They were angry that the pipeline would cross through sacred Native burial grounds, but they were also worried about potential spillage and threats to clean water. The company building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, claimed, as such entities always do, that the pipeline would be safe. Guess who turned out to be right?

This is just to say: the struggle for Native American rights is not a matter of settled issues and history books, and the intellectual, political, and moral contributions of Native Americans to society cannot just be reduced to sentimental bromides about respecting the land. They are ongoing, living, practical things. As Kelly Hayes puts it, "We have always been here, fighting for our lives." She means that literally: Natives are likelier to be killed by police than any ethnic group, even African Americans.

2. Don't assume everybody celebrates. I grew up in a small, ethnically more-or-less homogenous town, and it still feels weird to say "Any big plans over the break?" rather than "Any Thanksgiving break plans?" Not just weird: it feels bureaucratic and impersonal. But for some people, Thanksgiving is literally a National Day of Mourning. And for others, including many non-Natives, it's just another day in the calendar; or it's a painful reminder of absent or dead family, of the cousin or father who won't be at the table this year, or of the fact that you don't have a table to go to. In these circumstances, using welcoming, non-presumptuous language around your students and colleagues is just being kind and civilized. (Remember the root-word for "civilized" comes from the Latin for "city": in cities, everybody doesn't live the same.)

3. Remind students whose land we're borrowing. I don't mean this in a general sense. I mean that the original site of the land that first bore the name "University of Michigan" was given to the Rev. Gabriel Richard by members of the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Bodewadimi in 1817 via the Treaty of Fort Meigs. The school Richard intended to found, in the battle-scarred territory not yet incorporated as a state, was then still called the "Catholepistemiad, or University of Michigania."

If not for the generosity of Native Americans, none of us would have jobs.

The Treaty of Fort Meigs reads, in part, that the Natives involved granted the land "believing they may wish some of their children hereafter educated." As of 2016, the number of Native students at U of M numbered 80. Seems like yet another broken treaty.

4. Pay attention to the Native American history and present of the state and the University. Read up on the Native history of Dearborn, Flint (it's literally named Flint), Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Ypsi. If you're on the Ann Arbor campus, maybe check out this talking circle or similar events. If you're on the Flint campus, keep an eye out here.