MIT celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Campus space options for Indigenous community have been identified

MIT celebrated its first Indigenous Peoples’ Day Oct. 12. President L. Rafael Reif announced the renaming of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day in an email to students Sept. 25, writing that the change came about as a result of conversations among students, staff, and faculty at MIT. 

Reif added that he “asked Institute Community and Equity Officer John Dozier and Vice President for Human Resources Ramona Allen to reexamine the roster of Institute holidays.” 

Reif wrote that MIT has “identified options” for a campus space “for members of our Indigenous community to gather and share traditions and experiences.” Additionally, history professor Craig Wilder will teach a class on researching MIT’s Native American history in the spring. These changes occur alongside MIT’s Strategic Action Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which will be formally launched in March 2021.

MIT’s virtual Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration included a sunrise ceremony, musical performances, a fireside chat, and a series of presentations by members of the Indigenous community on campus. Dozier wrote in an email to The Tech that the celebration also included a virtual luncheon with MLK Visiting Scholar Patricia Saulis and a conversation with Tommy Orange, author of the national bestseller, There There

Luke Bastian ’21, president of the MIT chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), said in an interview with The Tech that as many as 65 students attended the event at one time.

The recent changes were spearheaded by AISES and the Native American Student Association (NASA). Bastian and NASA President Alvin Harvey G said in an interview with The Tech that NASA and AISES have been advocating for the change of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day and the space on campus for Indigenous students for years. 

“My sophomore fall is when we started being like, why are we celebrating Columbus?” Bastian said, adding that the Cambridge City Council voted to make the name change in 2016. “Why are we celebrating someone who is known to commit genocide and commit truly atrocious things?... Columbus Day was never celebrated in Phoenix, or at least I never got the day off for school.” However, “there had been some staff pushback from Italian Americans which is the main reason change didn’t go through” at MIT before this year.

Harvey said that the location of the space for Indigenous students on campus is still uncertain. “I’m carrying a lot of experiences that were shared to me by alumni who graduated last year and who graduated 20, 30 years ago and they’ve been asking for the same thing and they’ve been made the same promises or just outright denied. When [administrators] make the promise, it’s usually just a temporary space, or you’ll have to share it, or we’ll have to put you somewhere that’s not nice like the bottom of Walker Memorial.”

Saulis said in an interview with The Tech that the Institute is sitting upon the Wampanoag nation’s land. She called the recent changes “a first step of many” to adequately honor Indigenous students on campus and reconcile not only with the Wampanoag nation but with all 82 tribes impacted by MIT’s history as a land-grant university. 

Professor Wilder wrote in an email to The Tech that his class will address how MIT has historically benefited at the expense of the Indigenous community: “The Institute sits on Native American lands and waters. Its status as a land-grant institution means that it also benefited financially from the seizure and sale of Native lands in the West.” 

Wilder wrote that NASA and AISES have worked toward the name change “for a long time,” and that he hopes “Indigenous Peoples’ Day will become a moment for campus-wide reflection and engagement that defines the fall term.” Wilder is the current faculty advisor to NASA and has previously served as faculty advisor to AISES.