Flag Burning In Crum Henge: A Reclamation of the Indigenous Spirit

Editor’s note: These students’ names and affiliations, and some specific details were left out for privacy and safety concerns. Voices thanks them for the approval to publish this story.

Last night on Columbus Day, a group of native students gathered around in Swarthmore’s Crum Henge to burn the United States flag, their pain and frustrations on display while in solidarity with one another.

The event was invitation only; first, indigenous students were invited. Then, radical allies, mostly from the Latinx community and from some of the intercultural groups, were invited. Finally, other allies were invited as well.  The indigenous group of students had asked for “silent solidarity,” cameras or video footage absolutely prohibited. 

“I had to stop walking towards the demonstration when I saw how personal it was,” an invited student said later. “I am honored to have been allowed into this space.”

The leader of the event had on traditional regalia while others dressed in all black to show solidarity with her. Members of the Swarthmore community sat watching around the fire as indigenous students stood in the center of the demonstration.

The demonstration began with a small history lesson of the United States and what had partook at both Swarthmore and the world at large due to colonialism. The demonstrators spoke of the less than 1% demographics of indigenous students at the school, and mentioned that they felt administrators did not have exhaustive recruitment processes. The students called themselves "the invisible minority" and called themselves the “et cetera” in conversations about race and ethnicity. They also mentioned that many Indian boarding schools, places where children were often abused physically and sexually and forced to assimilate in cruel ways, had involved Quakerism, a tradition upon Swarthmore's founding is rooted.

Next, they read personal statements. They all shared similar sentiments of frustration with the administration and United States, but also had their own personal contributions to the narrative to make. Their statements were moving for many people, a collective sense of their visceral pain visible as they spoke in personal terms.

“ When I think of Columbus, I think of a statue. I think of a memorialized figure, a man whose ignorance brought him to the Americas and whose cruelty allowed for violence towards indigenous folk starting with the Arawak and Taino in the Caribbean," one student said. "Columbus is taught to America as the “discoverer” of the Americas. But my people were already here and we didn’t need anyone to affirm our existence.”

“My family fights to preserve our heritage, our culture, our traditions so that the fact of genocide will not manifest in the narrative of our people. The American flag is a symbol of the cruelest form of colonialism, having the guise of being the symbol of liberty. I see the American flag, and I see my sisters, my grandparents, and all of my uncles who have fought for our rights as citizens, they fought to keep our land safe, and fought for the system that has oppressed, and used us in the same manner as the Conquistadores,” another indigenous student said. They also detailed the lack of indigenous curriculum at Swarthmore. They urged the importance of coming together as a community to advocate for indigenous agency and academics on campus. “I am here because there is hope for the future, but we must demonstrate the power we have as a collective that stands together.”

One student disagreed with the flag burning but still chose to stand in solidarity with the other indigenous students in attendance. 

“While I may disagree with a flag burning for personal reasons I believe that both a historical perspective and present day analysis lend massive validation to the group and in that regard I stand with them, the future for indigenous peoples won’t change unless something does, and unlike most, they care enough to see it done” the student said.

A co-founder of the Swarthmore Independent blog came to the event uninvited to take video footage. Some members of the community want him held accountable for not asking permission from the demonstrators prior to attending or recording video footage.

“The brown body is constantly a spectacle for all to see, and he literally made them a spectacle once again by filming a private moment they weren’t obligated to invite anyone to” a student, who attended the event as an ally, said.  The video recorder declined to comment. 

Throughout the display, the demonstrators spoke prayers in their native languages. A group of the students then carried the United States flag to the fire pit. It quickly disintegrated into flames, nothing left besides a bit of fabric hanging on a piece of branch.

They then highlighted specific improvements that Swarthmore College could make to prevent future unsatisfactory experiences that indigenous students and those with similar backgrounds have faced at the College. 

“If you watched [the flag burning] and it made you uncomfortable, we hope you give thought to and extend understanding of why a group of people would be so unhappy that they would feel this is the form of protest necessary,” an indigenous student said in closing of the demonstration. “Thank you for coming here today, but we also need support tomorrow. In classes when people talk about the United States, show solidarity and think about the history of these lands and the indigenous people who always should have a stake in whatever piece of history being discussed. Your allyship can’t simply be social capital like Standing Rock.”