Connecticut College celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day

New London — With its Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration Monday night, Connecticut College kicked off a concerted effort to properly recognize Native Americans and their heritage.

Truth Hunter, the director of the college's Race and Ethnicity Programs, put the issue plainly: “This institution sits on native land.”

Pequot land, to be exact.

Hunter said one of the initiatives the college has undertaken is performing land acknowledgments before major events in order to make people conscious of where they are, just as College President Katherine Bergeron did Monday night. Hunter said the school has also met with neighboring tribal nations, and they allowed their flag to be flown during events such as convocation and orientation.

“We know that these gestures are very small in comparison to the historical loss and devastation of Native American communities, but we think it’s our responsibility to start creating momentum,” Hunter said.

That momentum, Hunter and her colleague, Program Coordinator Dulmarie Irizarry said, hopefully brings the college to enact more tangible measures, such as developing a full Native Studies Department, giving Native American students scholarships and better creating partnerships with local tribal nations.

Hunter calls these “aspirations” while noting the college's work in creating a relationship with the Pequot Museum and Research Center.

“We hope these relationships will transform this community and go beyond our liberal arts bubble,” Hunter said.

Irizarry said Monday’s celebration was a collaborative venture between staff, faculty, students, people from the community and indigenous people from surrounding areas.

In 2017, the college's Student Government Association passed a resolution stipulating it focus on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Hunter said the resolution was a marker of students becoming engaged in the issue. Hunter added that Indigenous Peoples' Day "is a conscious response to Columbus Day" which has been rescinded in some places across the country.  

As for the goals of the celebration, Irizarry said she hopes it will open communication between Connecticut College and nearby tribal nations.

“We need to keep honoring and remembering that this is their land,” Irizarry said. “We need to create a culture of care for the invisible.”

 Approximately 90 people congregated for Monday's celebration which featured multiple dance, drum and vocal performances. The focus of the proceedings was a panel discussion moderated by Professor of Sociology Robert Flores. Six panel members comprised of people from the Eastern Pequot, Lakota Sioux/Taino, Mashpee Wampanoag and Pascua Yaqui nations spoke to issues of visibility, land ownership and what it means to work with institutions such as Connecticut College in the future.

Eastern Pequot tribal members Valerie and Natasha Gambrell pointed to the nation’s stripping of federal recognition in 2005 as an example of visibility, or lack thereof.

 “The State of Connecticut has left us voiceless for many years,” Valerie Gambrell said.

Natasha Gambrell added that her family had to ask permission to visit a relative’s grave on a farm in North Stonington.

Toward the end of the discussion, conversation turned away from the larger themes of recognition and land ownership and toward localized problems. Some members of the audience suggested more available coursework regarding indigenous people. Daniel Varela, a panel member and part of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, said only one Native American is admitted each year to Connecticut College.

Flores later concluded his time with an announcement: The Eastern Pequot Nation and Connecticut College are currently working on obtaining a grant to bring a repository of historical material to the school that would be accessible to students and classes for research.

Valerie Gambrell called the college one of the Eastern Pequot’s “greatest allies.” She also said the quest for federal recognition lives.

 “I never needed a white man to tell me who I am, and I never will,” she said. “But it’s just that fight, that hunger that stays inside of me.” 

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