Today at noon, over 200 demonstrators gathered on the Main Green to stand in solidarity with indigenous people and urge the administration to officially change the name of Fall Weekend to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Native American students, faculty, and community members wore their people’s traditional regalia and others attending in solidarity wore red and black to commemorate the day.
The event began with members of Native Americans at Brown (NAB) introducing themselves, speaking in their respective indigenous languages and English, and welcoming the protestors. The organizers of the demonstration, Sierra Edd ’18, Kara Roanhorse ’18 and Phoebe Young ’17, spoke about the purpose of the event and of NAB. Young said Native Americans at Brown exists “first and foremost to provide support for Native students on campus.” The demonstration also included calls to sign a petition asking the administration to rename Fall Weekend to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
Over the course of two hours, demonstrators gave speeches celebrating the resistance and resilience of indigenous people in America and discussing their hopes for the future. The leaders of the demonstration performed the Pequot Flag Song and led the crowd in a round dance before marching and chanting through campus to President Christina Paxson P’19’s house.
While the relevance and significance of this demonstration was felt strongly on campus due to the events of last week, the movement for Indigenous Peoples’ Day is occurring nationwide. Edd stated that Native Americans at Brown have been planning this event long before last week, and that she felt the need for more awareness and support from Brown as early as the first day of school. Their intention is that the university will dedicate space and institutional support to native and indigenous people at Brown. In Floripa Olguin ’16‘s words, this in part means “institutionalized recruitment,” particularly of the Wompanoag and Naragansett tribes, as Brown’s campus itself exists within their tribal lines.
NAB’s hope is that the Brown community can use this demonstration as an opportunity for change and historical accountability. Olguin encourages us, as academics, to take on the “learning that is needed for growth, even if it is very different than folks are used to.”
Community members made impassioned speeches at the demonstration. Tall Oak, a member of the Wompanoag and Pequot tribes, addressed the crowd speaking about the legacy of the Columbian Exchange. “In 1620, the pilgrims and puritans, not to be outdone, glorified their greed and racism to such a level that it became the primary fibers in the fabric of America,” he said. Touching on the slave trade, modern mass incarceration, and the slaughter of Native Americans, Tall Oak asked demonstrators to reflect on America’s history. “America has its roots in violence — the violence of slavery, the violence of killing Indians — all justified as progress for Manifest Destiny, not to be questioned,” he explained. It is this violence that he urged demonstrators to analyze and resist.
Tall Oak also shared the story of his oldest son, who committed suicide at the age of 22. His son cited the hardship of living as a Native American in America as a cause of his decision to end his life. Organizers of the demonstration expressed the need for more funding for Brown’s Counseling and Psychological Services in order to give minorities who are in need the mental health services they deserve. Despite his loss, Tall Oak wanted to impart a message of hope to those in attendance. “I want all of you to remember that and to never lose hope because you can’t live without hope,” he said. “All of our young people are our future. You’re all so precious, and never forget that.”
Jonathan Perry, a member of the Aquinnah community of Wampanoag nation, spoke next. He challenged the crowd with the statistic that there are currently only 6000 Wampanoag people, compared with three million descendants of the European colonizers who arrived in America on the Mayflower. He discussed that as an indigenous person, “You want to see hope, you want to see opportunity, you want to see encouragement,” yet this is difficult when indigenous people lack the opportunities that would allow them to move forward.
In particular, this lack of opportunity and perpetuation of oppression is seen in the American education system. Perry noted that some teachers are still teaching the falsehoods that they learned decades ago with regards to the history of Native peoples and Christopher Columbus. “One thing that we can push for is better education for the youth and holding our teachers accountable.” Finally, Perry spoke about the indigenous women who are missing and have been murdered, calling for an end to the abuse of native people: “you should never be abused in your own home.”
After the speakers, the protesters commenced the march at Faunce Arch. Under the direction of organizers, they chanted “Exchange! Columbus! Change! The name!” The line of protestors wound down Waterman St. and around the corner to Thayer, chanting “Silence is violence” and “Idle no more,” the slogan of a national Native protest movement. After marching through Wriston Quad, the protesters arrived at President Paxson’s house amidst chants of “Brick by brick, wall by wall, this hate speech has got to fall.”
The group gathered around the symbolic house as Olguin spoke about the role of being a Native student at Brown. She discussed the difficulty of constantly being expected to be a spokesperson for Native Americans, in addition to balancing schoolwork and pursuing other interests. This has had a direct impact on Olguin’s academic experience, such as “having to justify to your professor that going home for a religious ceremony is valid.”
In closing, Young called out the fact that for many students, this weekend is an opportunity to go on vacation or enjoy a day off of school. “We’re here to interrupt that sort of leisure that other people get,” she said. “We’re here while everyone else celebrates our erasure and our genocide.”
Olguin and Native Americans at Brown will continue to fight for the name of Fall Weekend to be changed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Edd also noted that this protest was larger than the events that immediately led up to it: “Do you think we needed something like two racist columns in the BDH to show support for each other? We don’t think so.”
As to where this all leads, the organizers of this demonstration expressed their desire for President Paxson to take a stance against racism, specifically by teaching and encouraging white students to seek information preemptively. Taking Native classes within the Ethnic Studies department, attending MPC workshops, talking with Brown faculty who study Native history, and consulting resources online are all ways that students can educate themselves.
Furthermore, Young lamented that for NAB to throw events, there exists a, “fight for resources.” NAB hopes the University will signify their support by solidifying an indigenous studies department and better funding for groups such as NAB, who are dedicated to growing, preserving, and protecting their community.
Correction: Two quotes in the original post were misattributed; they were actually said by Phoebe Young and Sierra Edd, not Floripa Olguin as originally written. The post has been updated to reflect this.
Images via Danielle Perelman ’17. Video produced by Eddie Mansius ’17.