Last Thursday, the Northwestern Native American and Indigenous Student Association hosted a discussion about Northwestern co-founder John Evans and his role in a massacre of Native Americans. I bet you didn’t know that piece of Northwestern history. In fact, I bet you didn’t even know Northwestern had a Native American and Indigenous Student Association. That’s partly because the organization is still pretty small and new, but also because this country’s relationship with its indigenous people is one of the least-talked about aspects of American history.
While Americans have institutionalized holidays and ceremonies to remember the Civil Rights Movement and the Holocaust, Native Americans have had to endure caricatures and Disney movies while a national holiday glorifies Christopher Columbus and history textbooks gloss over that small bit about the smallpox blankets.
Even now, even here, there’s a disparity. Hardly anyone’s talking about the NAISA, but the “Racist Olympics” have ignited all sorts of campus-wide discussions, meetings, editorials, letters disparaging said editorials and releases of two-year-old diversity reports. Not that I’m disparaging that discussion; the events described by Kellyn Lewis were unquestionably offensive and the discussion has proved once again how engaged the NU student body is with the world around them. It’s just further proof that when we think about racism and oppression we tend to focus on some groups more than others. Remember when basketball player Jeremy Lin came out of nowhere to ignite the New York Knicks a few months ago? That was really fun. But it was also pretty weird that an ESPN writer thought it was okay to publish an article with a racially offensive headline. It’s not clear why Asian racism is ignored, but Native American oppression continues to be overlooked because it is such a black mark on the “Spirit of 1776” narrative that is so ingrained in our national consciousness.
That’s all the more reason to talk about and remember it. If you truly love America, then you must accept it in its entirety, the good parts and bad parts. Celebrate the Founding Fathers’ ingenuity in crafting a body of laws as ingenious as the Constitution, but don’t forget that the document originally had a Three-Fifths Compromise written into it, or that the land they successfully fought the British over was originally taken from native tribes.
It’s the same thing, if on a smaller scale, for Northwestern. John Evans obviously did some good in the world by helping to found NU. We are all beneficiaries of that. But that doesn’t mean we should forget that as governor of the Colorado territory in 1864 he ordered cavalry to massacre over 100 unarmed Cheyenne and Arapaho in an event known as the Sand Creek Massacre, yet another bloody chapter in a terrible saga. NAISA’s attempt to create a Northwestern Memory Project to raise awareness about Evans’s crimes is exactly the kind of thing we need to be doing more of. If the Northwestern community is as dedicated to diversity as the administration claims, there’s no reason not to have a discussion about this. Sometimes it hurts to see the skeletons that remain in our collective closet, but we need to look at them anyway, and face them for what they are.