GUIDANCE TO THE SWARTHMORE ADMINISTRATION: How to Persuade Indigenous Students to Mourn Respectfully and Undisruptively.


Greetings! I am your Guidance columnist, and this is my first piece! Today, I will be providing some guidance to some administrators, but first I will provide context.

Today is a holiday that is nationally recognized as “Columbus Day," but one regarded by those negatively affected by colonialism as anti-Columbus Day. In an article released this morning, Aydan Prime ‘18 explained what Christopher Columbus means to her, “Columbus represents the pain of genocide and the hardship of being native to a land that was stolen from you, and continues to be stolen today." Julia Wakeford 18’, President of the Swarthmore Indigenous Student Association (SISA), says “To me, Columbus Day is an easily recognizable example of the sort of settler colonialism that persists throughout their lives. Being indigenous is the most beautiful thing in my opinion. So long as there are people out there who are fine with upholding anything that celebrates our pain, that beauty will be under attack.”

Swarthmore as an institution has dedicated itself to upholding the tradition of erasing indigenous voices  centuries after Columbus pillaged the Americas. Today, at 12:25pm the community gathered in Parrish Parlors to mourn the lives and cultures lost to colonialism. Karen Avila 20’ prepared a short 15 minute speech for the occasion to commemorate anti-Columbus Day. She mentions, “As systemic processes of ethnic cleansing became less socially acceptable, the United States created contemporary tactics to oppress and assimilate Indigenous Peoples. The enforcement of assimilation policies and mass removal are both examples of contemporary methods of attempting to abolish Indian culture.” In the middle of Karen’s speech, I was pulled aside by an employee of the Music Department. She asked me what the event was for, and when it would be over. I described the purpose of anti-Columbus Day, and the reason that the demonstration was so important. I then informed her that it would take no more than 10 minutes. To my understanding, she was coordinating a series of Monday afternoon performances that was scheduled at the same time. While performers and spectators waited patiently for the speech to take its course, the supervisor insisted that the speech be cut short. She asked if the event could possibly be condensed, and I reiterated the importance of it and said that it would not be possible. As she engaged with me further, Dean Rivera heard our voices, and came over to diffuse the situation. She informed Dean Rivera that the space was booked weeks in advance, and that she couldn’t hold her event off any longer. After dismissing me with a wave of the hand, the supervisor spoke with Dean Rivera. Dean Braun appeared briefly, but left shortly after the controversy ensued. Dean Rivera then stepped in and interrupted Karen’s speech asking that the demonstration be moved into Shane Lounge.

Considering that this was an interaction with an asymmetrical power dynamic, the people involved could’ve handled it better. The music supervisor completely disregarded the cultural and emotional significance of the event. Dean Rivera insisted that I, a black woman, lower my voice, without soliciting my opinion and immediately acted on the concerns of the supervisor. He disrupted the mourning of indigenous peoples, and asked them to relocate so that a classical music concert could proceed. In a time where indigenous students were already emotional, he also continued to provoke supporters of the indigenous students after they made it known that the space was important and necessary for members of SISA to feel wanted on campus.

When Dean Rivera interrupted, Karen and I informed him that we would not be moving, and that the speech would last no more than three minutes. Upon hearing this he stated he was being put in an “awkward position." I informed him that he was not the one who was being put in any position, but that he was putting us in an uncomfortable position. After taking his cue, he stepped back, and Karen continued. Following a brief moment of silence, the concert ensued after being delayed for fifteen minutes, and ended within its scheduled time. Dean Rivera then approached the indigenous students and their allies, and attempted to draw a parallel between colonizers and attendees of the event. He pointed out the fact that we were taking up a space that we had not reserved, and were being counterproductive by embracing tactics of the same man we gathered to condemn. This was especially hurtful to indigenous students who already fight for their right to exist in any space. It was also hypocritical, considering that the land this institution was built on was paid for by the blood of its natives. At this point, multiple attendees were moved to tears. Eventually, Dean Rivera apologized, and has since addressed the concerns of Julia, Karen, Citlali Pizarro ‘20, Tessa Chambers 19’, and myself in a private meeting after.

We hope that this can teach the community that there are so many underlying opinions residing within us, that don’t make room for indigenous students to feel accepted. SISA has made the following demands to make long term institutional change in order to welcome more indigenous students, and allow them to feel supported. Indigenous lives and existence are under attack, and it is our responsibility to ensure that their experiences are seen as just as valid as ours. Please read SISA’s demands, and send an email to your dean, letting them know that you stand behind SISA and indigenous people everywhere.