STATEMENT BY GROUP OF NATIVE STUDENTS ON FLAG BURNING
Editor's note: This statement was originally made on October 9th, 2017 during a flag burning demonstration at Swarthmore College by indigenous students. It has been published exactly as it was read, without any editing, and these opinions are solely the opinions of those who presented it. We thank the group of students who wrote it for allowing us to publish it.
Swarthmore is often referred to as a bubble, separate from the outside world, but for many marginalized groups this campus is simply an incubator. Swarthmore is not immune to issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, colonialism and the preference of funds over people’s wellbeing. This institution mirrors America in this regard. Indigenous students at this college wish to demonstrate that we do in fact have a presence on this campus, and that our voices, indigenous voices, need to be recognized. Our existence is meaningful and our pain did not stop in 1776 with the ousting of the british, colonization did not end in 1825 when the Western hemisphere was freed from ‘colonial’ rule, our suffering did not end with the trail of tears, our oppression did not end when we were made citizens. Settler-colonialism itself has no end. After 525 years we still feel the pain of Columbus and we still feel the weight of America on our backs. So we burn the flag.
Let us quickly outline the fact that this was not the first chosen route to have our needs met. Swarthmore College has unfortunately time and again invalidated our existence and without apology, upheld settler-colonialism. The student group associated with indigeneity on campus was granted a student space after long negotiations with members of administration. We met opposition in that administrators said they did not want to give a space to a group that is not consistently active. In fact they’re right, Indigenous students on this campus have never been consistently active as an identity group and seem to have not existed on this campus until the 1990s. The irony of this, of course, is that we have been historically barred from opportunities that give one access to Swarthmore and Swarthmore has historically chosen not to recruit and admit Native American and more broadly indigenous students. In fact, we have almost always made up less one percent of each incoming class. Is this because Native students simply do not apply? Maybe, but blatant racism, stereotyping and prejudice in the admissions office has also been demonstrated.We have not forgotten that in November of 2014 - less than three years ago - Swarthmore’s Director of Admissions JT Duck said that Native high school students are “not academically qualified for Swarthmore”.
Indigenous students at Swarthmore also considered the fact that many Native students may not want to apply to the college because the institution makes no effort to ensure that we have a place here, as Admissions so freely admitted a few years ago. Within the past few weeks the space that we fought to have was vandalized, and the bias incident report never resolved. Then on Columbus Day, an administrator accused us, the indigenous students, of stealing space in the same way land and life was taken from us. Anyone would be enraged by one of these events, in combination we remain resolved in our protest of this country, this system, and this institution. There is a clear trend of this institution neglecting Indigenous students, and it is up to Swarthmore College to change it.
One aspect of this is having an advocate of our own. In Spring of 2016 Native students met with President Valerie Smith asking, once again, to prioritize hiring a Native American staff or faculty member. We also asked that admissions pay more attention to recruiting and admitting Native students. The freshman class of 2021 has only one Indigenous identifying student and there have been no efforts made to hire a single culturally indigenous faculty or staff member that we have been made aware of. Our voices, yet again, have been left for the wind.
In the greater world, indigenous folks regularly work exponentially harder than those in power for our voices to be heard. We often represent a small portion of national populations, but it is important to remember that these numbers that many use to deem us as insignificant are the result of a genocide, that the systems that count us for their census were built on top of our lands, and in opposition to our existence. Burning a nation’s flag is a demonstration born out of frustration. When respectability politics do not allow your voice to be heard, you must take action to ensure that your voice is heard. Historically when people of color make our voices heard, we are seen as aggressive. So be it. We hope that our actions will be met largely with understanding, but when they are met with discomfort, our hope is then that you will think critically about what established values told you to be uncomfortable with this type of protest, and why we would oppose them. Ruminate on the gap between our lived experiences.
For many indigenous people the first step is recognition in any regard. We need to be recognized as human beings, as cultures that still exist, that we are a vast array of people and histories and we are also in solidarity with each other. We want our history to be recognized, our history that is separate from any US history. Our history is many histories, they are indigenous stories of trial and turmoil and beauty and success. We face genocide and yet we survive. The US history is a colonial history, a history of slavery and racism, it’s a history of genocide and a history of propaganda. The legitimacy of the United States is not a given, Manifest Destiny is not real, and the American Flag can be burned.
We burn the American flag not just for ourselves, but for our ancestors who died because of that flag. We burn it for our indigenous siblings across the globe and for all of the people across the globe exploited by the United States and other Western imperialist states, caught in between their wars. We burn the flag for our kinfolk here on these lands we love, the other marginalized groups we are offering our solidarity to, hoping they offer it in return. We burn this flag because we want you to know it’s not just you who is angry and fighting against this broader oppressive apparatus: we are too.
We hope if nothing else, that this act will help you question your country, your school, your identity, and the hegemony we all live under. We hope you will examine how your life may contribute to the colonization of these lands. And we remind you that any group that wishes to take a position of neutrality on indigenous people, anyone who is not recognizing our existence, or not including us in your conversations or on your syllabi - those groups are complicit in an on-going genocide. A genocide we stand against, a genocide that is led by the state represented by the United States flag.