Monday, October 3, 2022

MIT grapples with early leader’s stance on Native Americans

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – As the third president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Francis Amasa Walker helped bring the school to national prominence in the late 1800s.

But amidst the nation’s reckoning with racial justice, there is renewed attention to another part of his legacy: as the former head of the American Office of Indian Affairs and author of “The Indian Question” toward Native Americans in the country. His role in shaping the rigid policies of “A treatise that justifies the forcible removal of tribes from their lands and confined them to remote reservations.

MIT is now battling calls from Native American students and others to remove Walker’s name from a campus building that is central to student life—atonement for his role in the destruction of Native American higher education institutions across the country. Part of a wider push to do. American tribes.

“Walker may have been the face of the Indian genocide and it’s disturbing that his name is remembered at MIT,” says David Lowry, the school’s newly appointed Distinguished Fellow in Native American Studies and a member of the Lumby tribe of North Carolina.

MIT President L. Raphael Reif wrote in a recent column in the MIT Technology Review that addressing Walker’s legacy is an “essential step” in the school’s commitment to its Native American community. This year, 155 of the school’s nearly 3,700 students are native students.

“The question we are working on now is what these facts have to do with other aspects of the history of MIT and the native communities,” wrote Reif, who weighed in on the name change debate in his column. Shortening stopped and refused to be interviewed.

Built in 1816, the Walker Memorial houses student group offices, the college radio station, and a campus pub. Its focal point is a large hall decorated with soaring murals to depict scientific learning and experimentation.

Alvin Harvey, a doctoral student and president of the MIT Native American Student Association, says the classical-style building overlooking the Charles River is one of the most visible reminders of the school’s white, Western-focused past.

“As a Native American person, you bear the full brunt of what MIT has put in its foundation,” said Harvey, a New Mexico native and member of the Navajo Nation. “The ideology that Western men, white men is going to lead the United States and the world into a new utopia of technological development.”

MIT was one of the first colleges in the country to benefit from the enactment of the Morrill Act, 1862, which helped create the American public higher education system. The law allowed the transfer and sale of federal land to help colleges establish their campuses or to strengthen existing campuses. But those millions of acres were actually confiscated from Native American tribes.

High Country News reported last year that in the case of MIT, it had received at least 366 acres of land scattered across California and several Midwest states. At the time, their sales helped generate approximately $78,000, or more than $1.6 million in today’s dollars, the magazine said.

Lowry cautions that land and revenue estimates are conservative and that some students in his course on “MIT’s Indigenous History” are working on full accounting.

Simson Garfinkel, an MIT alum who wrote a recent article on Walker’s life and legacy in the MIT Technology Review, worries that renaming the Walker Memorial will only serve to erase the contribution of a singular figure to MIT history.

“There would be no MIT without Walker. He was key to making it the institution it is today,” Garfinkel said. I was needed.”

As president from 1881 until his death in 1897, the former Union Army general and Boston native helped improve student life and introduced the first female and black students to campus.

Garfinkel also argued that “The Indian Question” offered a significant and lasting contribution to a broader understanding of indigenous peoples, even though its analysis and policy recommendations were ultimately racist and “problematic”.

The book, published in 1874, contains a detailed account of American tribes, their populations, and the crimes committed against them, mainly by white people for illegally settling on their lands and inciting violence.

But Walker also described Native Americans as “an obstacle to national progress” and concluded that the country was justified in pushing Native Americans from their ancestral lands. He recommended restricting them to reservations and forcing them to adopt European farming and production methods.

Rather than removing Walker’s name from the building, Garfinkel suggests providing more historical context by installing an informational marker at the site.

“Walker was a wonderful person that we need to understand in all his complexity,” he said. “It is easy to rename buildings, but very hard to learn about the past.”

Harvey said MIT has taken promising steps, such as hiring Lowry, recognizing Indigenous People’s Day, and providing a new campus location for Native American student groups.

But it still needs to hire more Native teachers and provide other support for Native students, he said. As for the Walker Memorial, Harvey suggests not only renaming it, but turning it into a center of Indigenous science.

“MIT is missing out on this vast swath of indigenous knowledge,” he said. “Indigenous peoples are practicing their valuable understanding of science, engineering, and knowledge of the natural world, and this is being completely discontinued.”

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