This Monday, Andover celebrated Indigenous People’s Day. The administration’s decision to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day in the place of Columbus Day is one that aims to emphasize and focus the attention on the narratives of Indigenous people instead of the colonizers. However, these efforts to prioritize Indigenous narratives fall short when parts of the curriculum remain heavily focused on Columbus’s motives and justifications for colonization under the pretense of “academic purpose.”
While this isn’t a problem unique to Andover, by recognizing Indigenous People’s Day and Indigenous people, Andover has an obligation to prioritize the story-telling of Indigenous people rather than that of the colonizer. Moreover, it is not enough to just center the narrative around Indigenous people: this narrative must be independent of the white influences and voices that have taken away this story in the first place. Andover needs to establish a curriculum that celebrates the wholeness of Indigenous Peoples’ contributions and recognizes joy in the richness of their history. As Dr. Love said at All School Meeting a few weeks ago, recognizing trauma doesn’t recognize humanity; in order to see a group of people as human, we must also recognize their joy.
Thankfully, during my time here, teachers have acknowledged that Columbus and the other settlers did a lot more than “discover” and “settle” the Americas: they enslaved, murdered, tortured, pillaged, and decimated the native populations wherever they went. Yet, despite this recognition, assignments are too often fixated upon the perspective of the colonists, specifically their humanization.
At Andover, I‘ve done Columbus debates where my peers and I were required to debate about Columbus’ character, or write essays from the European perspective on the humanity and treatment of natives. Assignments like these have dangerous implications. Though such assignments may intend to teach us about the settlers’ violence and the devastation of colonization, it also provides a space for students to delegitimize trauma and debate the moralities of a blatantly immoral situation. When teachers and other people of authority open opportunities and spaces for problematic rhetoric, they enable its future use and prevent the classroom from becoming an academically and emotionally safe space. And when students can’t feel safe in classrooms because of their academized emotional trauma, Andover has failed in its mission to uphold and spread Indigenous joy.
Though I can’t fully resonate with Indigenous students in the classroom, for me these assignments are akin to debating about Chinese immigration in the 19th century: feeling the humiliation, frustration, and powerlessness of having my peers debate about the history of my peoples and the validity of their experiences. Yet, this humiliation, frustration, and powerlessness is far greater when it comes to “assessing” the enslavement of Indigenous peoples; not only is it an issue of identity, but one of humanity, trauma, and suffering. Students should not have to debate and justify their humanity, their peers’ humanities, or anyone’s humanity for the superficial purpose of a grade. Asking students to justify a people’s humanity and freedom suggests that there is a reason or justification to deny them in the first place. Not only that, but we must consider whose humanities and freedoms are being questioned in the first place and are continuing to serve as the topic of debates, as well as how we can enforce an educational curriculum that interrogates systems that justify those questions in the first place.
Instead of having students speak from the colonizers’ perspective and having to even consider their “intentions,” it is more imperative to critically evaluate the ideas and values that justified and upheld colonization. It is also crucial to assess what resources are being used for such evaluation: we should read the history of Indigenous people from Indigenous people themselves, rather than white-washed versions written by white people, because only Indigenous people know and feel the depth of Indigenous trauma and joy. The importance of history is derived from critically analyzing the ideas and actions of the past to understand the society of today; any narrative that omits or excuses colonization prevents an understanding of actions that led to Indigenous trauma, as well as how these systems continue to oppress and affect them today.
It is impossible to talk about colonization without talking about trauma, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid talking about it. Rather, we must educate ourselves in a way that protects and empathizes with Indigenous students, approaching it with sensitivity and awareness. This trauma also shouldn’t be the only story told of Indigenous people. Their story does not begin with colonization. Their story was never meant to be framed in the context of the Western world. School curriculums can and must do more in order to fully portray the humanity of Indigenous peoples: discussing and celebrating their culture and history, independent from the white narrative. While recognizing Indigenous People’s Day was an important first step, Andover still has a long way to go in ensuring Indigenous joy.