By: Eden Yonas, General Sustainability Intern, Office of Sustainability Initiatives
We thrive off of common experiences; experiences that validate our identity and our being. That is why culture, particularly the diversity of culture and representation, is so important. Without that to share with people, without that unifying experience that makes a stranger a friend, we feel lost.
This is a common experience for members of particular groups in the United States: Indigenous Peoples.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. William Rice, an alumnus of Emory. He finished his Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Georgia before completing his Master’s in Development Practice from Emory University. Mr. Rice is a member of the Coquille Tribe, whose ancestral homeland is located in the Pacific Northwest. Rice grew up in Los Angeles, California, a long distance away from his cultural roots, but he has since made it a mission to return to the Coquille Indian Tribe and learn from, and contribute to, his Tribe by serving on Tribal committees and boards covering a range of Indigenous topics like public health, natural resource preservation and utilization, and economic development. He has been honored to be chosen to represent his Tribe’s interests at the National Congress of American Indians and Native Indian Health Board conferences.
I mainly wanted to talk to Mr. Rice about his perspective on how the people living in the United States, and those at Emory in particular, could and should acknowledge Indigenous Peoples in respectful and dignified ways. However, as time went on, our conversation went so much deeper than that. I have pulled bits of our conversation that resonated with me, reflected on them, and wanted to share them with Emory’s current and future students; in hopes that we can all learn more together.
Me: What were your perceptions of Emory’s culture and how it acknowledged Indigenous peoples?
Rice: “I felt like there was not a lot [of discussion at Emory]. It felt like the program I was in was quite aware, but that’s because it focused on these issues… In a general sense, I felt like the only time we really discussed it (the topic of Indigenous Peoples) was during orientation.”
My reflections: This answer did not surprise me. Until I began to take initiative and do my own research on the topic, I was lacking education on Indigenous cultures. What a lot of people do not know is that Emory’s campus sits on the ancestral land of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The Muscogee Peoples were forcibly removed from their homeland during the Trail of Tears (1830-1838), a dark period in American history during which the United States government used any force necessary to take land from native peoples in their quest to fulfill their “Manifest Destiny.”
This is not an experience unique to the Creek Nation and individuals and institutions across the nation are beginning to understand how crucial it is to acknowledge the land they now inhabit.
Me: How important do you believe it is to include land acknowledgments in general education at Emory and how might Emory do this meaningfully?
Rice: “We can always mention it (the history of Indigenous people) on the side… but to make it meaningful, Emory can use its resources as a learning institution that has a law school, medical school, public health school… you have a collective think tank that can offer a lot of assistance to Nations like the Creek that are still struggling, who live in relative isolation from mainstream society. As a mainstream institution that has students from all over, there are many partnerships that can be encouraged and formed that can lead to and assist with Tribes’ needs and with work Tribes are already doing.”
My reflections: After this summer, with a new wave of people paying attention to social justice issues, particularly to the Black Lives Matter movement, Emory spoke out on initiatives that would work to expand equity on Emory’s campus. President Fenves sent out two emails in August and October with a list of ways Emory was working towards racial justice. The links are here and here. Despite these updates, no concrete plans have been made for formal land acknowledgments, for how Emory plans to foster a relationship with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation or ways in which Native American students could feel more welcomed by the University.
It is important that we do not just view things through the lens of a black-white binary, and provide resources for other minority communities who are marginalized both on campus in the greater Atlanta area. Emory has reach and that is exactly the type of advocate nations like the Muscogee need.
Being Seen and Heard Meaningfully
The main issue Mr. Rice and I discussed was visibility. I told Mr. Rice that if I were a Native American at this University I would feel lost with the lack of acknowledgment from my administrators, faculty, and peers. Lots of Indigenous Peoples simply feel as though their culture and their connection to it has been washed away over the years, as the American government and industries take and extract from more of their ancestral land.
Rice himself said, “As a result (of no cultural visibility), many Native Americans feel isolated and unheard… that goes back to their ancestral history”.
He elaborated by telling me the story of this grandmother who lived on their ancestral land and then moved to Los Angeles. While being in this big city that did not have any visible signs of her homeland or peoples, she felt removed from her culture. Seeing her grandchildren go through the same experience of losing their identity through increased erasure broke her heart.
I told Mr. Rice of the differences of my experience as a member of the Ethiopian diaspora, feeling comforted by other Ethiopians and signs of Ethiopian culture in my surroundings in my hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland, and here in Atlanta. Indigenous Peoples, however, often are not represented visually in many U.S. communities or on campuses and so are continuously being denied cultural acceptance and inclusion. While Indigenous peoples are fighting for ever-shrinking plots of land, people around the nation are inhabiting and building lives on what used to be their homes and are now parking lots, amusement parks, and universities like our own.
Mr. Rice: “It’s like being a foreigner in your own land… a stranger in your own house.”
Excluding cultural representations and Indigenous Peoples, ignoring their contemporary issues, and acting as if people in the United States have reconciled these wrongs are harmful and disrespectful to Indigenous Peoples. Emory needs to prioritize the inclusion of all Indigenous students and meaningful recognition of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s contributions to Emory’s ability to thrive today. That is where this type of work starts. Just because the Native American demographic at Emory is small does not mean they should not be heard. As Mr. Rice put it “…the unheard voice isn’t an absent voice”.
Our University needs not only act on this issue but encourage students to take their own initiative to learn more of this history and advocate for the respect of sovereignty. Mr. Rice emphasized that most people obviously do not choose to ignore this issue, but are simply not exposed to it. Our University has a responsibility to acknowledge and educate about the land and original peoples of Georgia.
In the words of Mr. Rice, “We know that Native Americans, along with many Indigenous cultures, were so connected to the land that they did not see it or treat it as separate from themselves, as modern society does, and therefore, we could posit, they will always be present in some form. We, as a community of Emory students and alums, can therefore honor their past and their present through awareness and in doing so acknowledge all Indigenous rights.”
Keep reading on the Native American & Indigenous Peoples Engagement (NAE) at Emory site:
- Native American and Indigenous Engagement at Emory (Website): https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/nae/
- A Community for All: Indigenous Student Initiative Committee Statement (Report): https://apply.emory.edu/_includes/documents/pdf/conference_materials/NAIS_Report_2019
- Land Acknowledgment and History Statement: https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/nae/land-acknowledgement/
- Mvskoke (Creek) Language and Ecology (Library Guide) https://guides.libraries.emory.edu/c.php?g=50670&p=325648