Misconceptions regarding Indigenous peoples and their history continue to impact present-day communities, according to activist and college admissions professional Megan Red Shirt-Shaw.
During the All-School Meeting (ASM) on Monday, October 12, Red Shirt-Shaw addressed the significance of Indigenous People’s Day and her ongoing work to combat the legacies of settler colonialism.
Organized by Native Americans at Phillips Academy (NAPA) and LaShawn Springer, Associate Director of College Counseling, the ASM began with a land acknowledgment that recognized Andover’s occupation of the traditional land of the Pennacook Confederacy, Wabanaki Confederacy, and Wampanoag Peoples. According to Red Shirt-Shaw, the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day for non-Indigenous citizens serves as an opportunity to express gratitude for, and reconcile with, the occupation of Native land.
Red Shirt-Shaw said, “You might be asking yourself, ‘Why do we celebrate this day?’ Currently in America, we live in and occupy the traditional homelands of Native nations everywhere, in this country, so no matter where you go, no matter where you travel to, there likely was an alliance or a confederacy or nation or a group of different communities that occupied that space.”
Red Shirt-Shaw shared that the day’s original name, “Columbus Day,” perpetuates symbols of oppression and fails to account for the continued Indigenous population’s hardships. Red Shirt-Shaw noted the importance of working as a community to identify manifestations of settler colonialism and systemic racism.
“Christopher Columbus was a controversial character. He discovered the New World while also causing enslavement and violence, and just complete dissent around both Black and Indigenous people, and we have to acknowledge that… he was a complicated person. We have to acknowledge that about the people who founded this country. They were all very complicated,” said Red Shirt-Shaw.
Red Shirt-Shaw continued, “A lot of times, we feel like the history that we read, it happened a really long time ago and it doesn’t affect us, but those were structures that were created, that continue to impact us today… It’s really, really important that you understand it as a structure. It’s not something that happened in the past, it’s actually something that informs the entire structure of the way that the United States is today.”
Donoma Fredericson ’23, a board member of NAPA, shared Red Shirt-Shaw’s sentiments on tackling the influence of settler colonialism within the Andover community. While Fredericson expressed appreciation for using Indigenous People’s Day in lieu of alternate names, she stressed the community’s duty to acknowledge its colonial backgrounds and foster racial sensitivity.
“There’s a lot of growth and change that can be done at [Andover] for… various groups in terms of racial sensitivity and being respectful and conscious of how the institution and the student body is treating their members who are Black and Indigenous people of color… This ASM, in particular, was great for getting to the point of how we need to acknowledge the literal fact that this country and this institution exists because of colonization,” said Fredericson.
Red Shirt-Shaw additionally highlighted a connection between the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and Indigenous communities. According to Red Shirt-Shaw, recent incidents of anti-Black violence have inspired Native Americans to reflect upon the country’s systemic racism and call for racial justice.
“I think it’s really important as an Indigenous person to acknowledge that without Black liberation, Indigenous freedom is not possible. I really wanted to acknowledge George Floyd especially, and so many turns towards racial justice and conversations around racial justice that have continued to need to be had in this country… just acknowledging that his death ignited so many conversations in this country… I really want to center today in acknowledging that Black lives matter,” said Red Shirt-Shaw.
Charlotte Whitehurst ’22 described Red Shirt-Shaw’s talk as “eye-opening.” According to Whitehurst, the Andover community has a responsibility to respect those who came before.
“I was really struck by Ms. Red Shirt-Shaw’s statement that Indigenous people are still here, whether it be on the subway, walking in the street, or next to us in the grocery store. I think that a lot of time in history we learn how 95 percent of Indigenous people died from illnesses like smallpox when the colonists came, and to be reminded that they are still here and are a very large part of this country was significant,” said Whitehurst.
In addition to hosting different speakers on campus, Fredericson noted that NAPA is currently planning on creating more safe spaces for Indigenous students, as well as a finalized land acknowledgment.
“Our main focus right now is working with a group of faculty on finalizing and formalizing a land acknowledgment that’s going to be available in different places in online spaces and on campus…We’re trying to broaden [NAPA] so that more people know, because there’s more students and probably faculty at [Andover] who have Indigenous heritage that just aren’t cognizant of [NAPA]. So we want to open that up so we can expand and really make this a safe space… for Indigenous students from all around,” said Fredericson.