Ours is a campus rich in history rendered all the richer by the artistry and intentionality with which we celebrate our past. Indeed, the plaque commemorating the Battle of Harlem Heights speaks to an event that occurred over a century before these grounds became the Morningside Heights campus in 1898.
In April, students from the Native American Council petitioned Columbia to install a plaque acknowledging the Lenni Lenape people, whom we have a responsibility to remember because we live, learn, and prosper on lands that were originally theirs. Today, on Indigenous People’s Day, we call on Columbia to recognize this petition that is aligned with the University’s stated mission—to advance knowledge—as well as the values of recognition, responsibility, and action instilled in us through the Core Curriculum.
Through the name “Columbia,” our university invokes a colonial heritage that resulted in the death of pre-existing indigenous societies. Christopher Columbus’ first boot-prints in this hemisphere initiated a long and tragic history of land theft, conquest, and genocide for First Nations in the Americas, as well as slavery and other forms of oppression. Nonetheless, pride in this heritage resounds from texts in the Core Curriculum and is iterated in campus architecture, beginning with the words “King’s College” that parade across the frieze of Low Library like so many triumphant Greek charioteers, and echoed everywhere in the King’s Crown logo.
At Columbia, colonization and its linguistic and philosophical underpinnings are integral parts of an education grounded in the great books of Western civilization. Columbia is in no way unique in suffering from colonial amnesia. However, at its heart, the Core Curriculum is designed to have us contemplate and respond to “the most difficult questions about human experience,” according to its mission statement. “What does it mean and what has it meant to be an individual? What does it mean and what has it meant to be part of a community?” Failure to celebrate Lenape history goes against the values of compassion and recognition inculcated in us through our study of the Core. And, since the word “community” connotes inclusion rather than exclusion, it seems not just fitting but also essential to mention and acknowledge the people who lived and died on this land, as we have already done for the Patriots and British who fought here in 1776.
The absence of acknowledgement that we are on Lenape traditional territory feels like we have—intentionally, or by careless omission—drawn a line in the land and in history between indigenous inhabitants and subsequent settlers. We are collectively guilty of negating the commonality of human experience on this ground. Surely the indigenous experience deserves celebration or at least acknowledgement at an institution of higher learning that has declared its responsibility to represent and promulgate truth. The popular narrative of Dutch colonists purchasing Manhattan for a handful of beads has depicted Indians as half-wits to generations of American school children while raising obvious questions about the morality of such a swindle and the apparatus of propaganda that has undermined for centuries the opportunity for constructive dialogue around the “Indian question.”
Remembering past human experiences creates meaning and responsibility for the actions people take and the places they inhabit in the present. Perhaps Columbia would not have a responsibility to acknowledge the Lenape if its history were already a well-understood part of this place. However, the history embedded in the Morningside Heights campus—which, ironically, sits on the island of Manhattan, itself a Lenape word—neglects to acknowledge the suffering of the first inhabitants of this land. Because we are equipped with the knowledge that this was once Lenape territory, and we are similarly equipped with an understanding of and compassion for the fate of these people, we have an obligation to recognize their humanity and celebrate the gift we receive from them as we live, work, and learn on their land.
Such acknowledgment from a university that is a global leader in civically responsible scholarship and education would represent significant progress in terms of signifying support for the imperative that all people be allowed equal access to the tools and privileges of higher education. Indeed, if we neglect to acknowledge the people who came before us on the land our university currently inhabits, how can we expect to fully and successfully recognize others from elsewhere? How can we claim a “public international heritage” if we are blind to the indigenous history of this place? Without acknowledgement and recognition of the Lenape people, we live in opposition to prior humanity, rather than with it—in effect, we remain at war with their spirit.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and the co-president of the Native American Council.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.