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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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Opinion: An open letter on Indigenous issues at American University

'Administration must take to forge a better relationship with AU’s Indigenous students and DC's Indigenous community'

To the student body, faculty and staff of American University, 

Over the centuries, numerous tribes have laid claim to and shared the lands at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, territory once known as Patawomeck and Kahongaronton and today, as D.C. American University sits within those lands, which were stolen from its first peoples by the colonial powers of the 17th century via genocide and a string of broken treaties and promises. 

With this history in mind, we students believe the following steps must be taken to begin the long-overdue process of acknowledgment and reconciliation with this land's Indigenous peoples. 

1. LAND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: The first step in cultivating greater awareness of Indigenous people and the history of colonialism is by acknowledging whose lands non-Natives reside on. AU is currently falling behind most of the institutions in D.C. in recognizing its presence on stolen or ceded Piscataway and Nacotchtank land. A significant proportion of students on campus support a formal acknowledgment of this history, which would be used for syllabi and campus events. Recognition of this land’s history is a necessary first step in establishing a restorative relationship with the Piscataway and committing to “inclusive excellence” values concerning Indigenous people. 

2. SCHOLARSHIPS: According to AU’s Institutional Research and Assessment, the demographic make-up of AU’s student body in 2017 was 0.16 percent American Indian or Alaska Native and 0.06 percent Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders. To attract more Indigenous students to study here and provide a form of corrective justice, we strongly encourage AU to establish a scholarship for prospective Indigenous students and re-establish programs such as the Washington Internships for Native Students. A more diverse student body enriches student culture and will provide a sustainable environment for similar initiatives to continue after advocates graduate from the University.

3. CURRICULUM: Meaningful action begins with a curriculum that requires at least one semester of either Indigenous history, contemporary Indigeneity or Indigenous thought. Requiring Indigenous coursework as a pillar of AU’s curriculum would ensure that all students have an understanding of Indigeneity worldwide. In addition, AU must incorporate Indigenous history, culture and knowledge into pre-existing courses. Integrating these subjects into curricula across academic disciplines, from history to biology to economics, would ensure that Indigenous peoples are no longer seen as peripheral to the learning and research conducted by AU students and faculty. It should not be possible for students to graduate from AU without developing a nuanced and multidisciplinary understanding of Native American history, United States settler-colonialism and the many contributions made by Indigenous people to various fields of study.

4. EDUCATORS: When incorporating Indigenous history, culture, language and knowledge into University curriculum, hiring Indigenous educators should be AU’s main priority. Education on these issues has been left to the labor of committed students for far too long. Hiring more Indigenous faculty and supporting existing Indigenous faculty’s work is one of the most substantive and sustainable ways for the administration to support “inclusive excellence” in relation to Indigenous issues on campus. Additionally, professors who do not teach exclusively on these issues need to be made aware of the influence of Indigenous people on all fields of study through a required workshop on historical and cultural sensitivity. 

5. AUx2: While work has been done to improve the AUx2 curriculum by incorporating lessons about Indigenous communities in the U.S., there is still room to expand on issues they face today and the history of genocide committed against them. The curriculum is currently absent of discussions on the displacement of Indigenous communities and the overall history of broken treaties. In addition, the University can take measures to further emphasize the importance of the AUx2 curriculum by increasing the credit weight. It is important to teach first-year students about anti-racist principles. Still, it is difficult to ensure that every student receives the same information when attendance for AUx2 classes is low. 

6. PAY RENT: To fulfill university anti-racist commitments and social justice values, reparations are owed to the original stewards of the land the University occupies. Yearly payments to the Piscataway Conoy Tribe of Maryland and the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians must begin immediately. AU will be in communication with the tribe(s) to determine the appropriate annual amount. However, AU should be expected to meet a minimum of 25 percent of the total profit they collect from undergraduate housing each year. The University will be required to inform the tribe(s) of this minimum number. 

While we acknowledge that the University has undertaken work to these ends, it is sorely lacking in many areas. Meeting these demands is the next step the administration must take to forge a better relationship with AU’s Indigenous students and D.C.’s Indigenous community. 


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