Rocky foundations: MIT grapples with anti-Indigenous history

Cambridge, Mass.

As the third president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Francis Amasa Walker helped usher the school into national prominence in the late 1800s.

But another part of his legacy has received renewed attention amid the nation’s reckoning with racial justice: his role in shaping the nation’s hardline policies toward Native Americans as a former head of the U.S. office of Indian Affairs and author of “The Indian Question,” a treatise that justified forcibly removing tribes from their lands and confining them to remote reservations.

MIT has been faced with demands from Native American students to remove Mr. Walker from a building on campus that is vital to student life. This is part of a larger push to make the higher education system in America atone for their role in decimating Native American tribes.

“Walker may be the most prominent victim of Indian genocide, and it is concerning that his name has been memorialized at MIT,” said David Lowry (MIT’s new distinguished fellow in Native American Studies and a Lumbee Tribe member).

MIT President L. Rafael Reif stated in a column published in MIT Technology Review, that addressing the legacy of Mr. Walker is essential to the school’s dedication to its Native American community. 155 Native students make up nearly three of the school’s ,700 student this year.

” The question that we are currently working on is how to deal with these facts as well as other aspects about the history of MIT, and Native communities,” said Mr. Reif. He declined to comment in the column regarding the name change and did not offer to answer questions.

Built in 1816, Walker Memorial contains student group offices and the college’s radio station. The hall is decorated with stunning murals that depict science learning and experimentation as its focal point. Alvin Harvey is a doctoral student at MIT and the president of the MIT Native American Student Association. He says that the building, which has a classical style, overlooking Charles River, stands out as one of the best reminders of its white-centric, Western past.

“As a Native American individual, you feel the full brunt of what MIT built its foundations on,” said Mr. Harvey, a 25-year-old New Mexico native and member of Navajo Nation. “The ideology that Western men, white men are going to lead the United States and the world into a new utopia of technological development.”

MIT was among the nation’s first colleges to benefit from the Morrill Act, a 1862 law that helped create the U.S. public higher education system. This law permitted colleges to transfer federal land to them to establish or strengthen their campuses. Many millions of these acres, however, were confiscated by Native American tribes.

According to High Country News last year, MIT received at most 366 acres spread across California and a few Midwest states. At the time, their sales helped generate nearly $78,000, or more than $1.6 million in today’s dollars, the magazine said.

Mr. Lowry warns that these revenue and land estimates may be conservative. Some students taking Lowry’s course “Indigenous History of MIT”, are currently working to complete an accounting.

Simson Garfinkel is an MIT alumnus who recently wrote an article about Mr. Walker’s life and legacy for MIT Technology Review. He worries that renaming Walker Memorial will only erase one person’s contributions to MIT history.

” Without Walker, there wouldn’t be MIT. “He was crucial to making it what it is today,” said Mr. Garfinkel. He put it on a much better financial footing and dramatically increased enrollment. Garfinkel also argued that “The Indian Question” offered significant and lasting contributions to the wider understanding of indigenous peoples, even if its analysis and policy recommendations were ultimately racist and “problematic.”

The book, published in 1874, included detailed descriptions of American tribes, their populations, and the offenses incurred against them, mainly by white people illegally settling on their lands and instigating violence.

Mr. Walker described Native Americans, calling them “an obstacle to national progress.” He also suggested that the United States was right in removing Native Americans from their ancestral lands. He suggested that they be placed on reservations, and forced to use European production and farming methods.

Rather than removing Mr. Walker from the building’s title, Mr. Garfinkel suggested that you provide more historical context on the site by putting an informational marker.

“Walker is an incredible person that we must understand in all his complexity,” Garfinkel stated. It’s simple to rename buildings but it is much more difficult to understand the history .”

. Harvey stated that MIT had taken positive steps such as appointing Mr. Lowry and recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day. Also, MIT provided a space on campus for Native American student organizations.

It still needs more Native faculty to support Native students and hire them, Harvey said. Harvey suggested that Walker Memorial be renamed and made into an indigenous science center.

“MIT “is missing this vast swathe of indigenous knowledge,” he stated. “Indigenous people are practicing their own valuable sense of science, engineering and knowledge of the natural world, and it’s being completely shut out.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.