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A Professor On Why It Is Important To Highlight Roles Of Native Americans In History


A growing number of states and communities have changed the name of today's holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day. It's part of a larger effort to highlight Native Americans in U.S. history. And for one professor in Massachusetts, that effort has been personal.

KIARA VIGIL: I'm Kiara Vigil. I'm an associate professor of American studies at Amherst College. And I'm also Dakota and Apache heritage, as well as Irish and Mexican.


VIGIL: So it's interesting to grow up in the Greater Boston area and learn about Native people or history. I think most folks learn about it through, first, Thanksgiving - right? - the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims. You learn about them again in terms of the 19th century and the Cherokee and the Trail of Tears. And then the Native people seem to drop out of the narrative.

My dad was very proud of being Native, but I think he didn't have as much access to it. He always hated Westerns. I think that kind of distrust of Hollywood's representation of Indigenous people totally was conveyed by my dad through his own experiences of racism. So we all knew those stories, but, you know, that doesn't tell you everything.

It was, like, third grade or fifth grade, and my dad gave me this book. I think it was, like, a history of the Sioux people or something like that. I also remember sitting up, like, in my bed at night before bed, and I would read it. It was very clear that that was a kind of missing piece in a bigger puzzle - you know, stories, histories that I wasn't getting immediate access to in school. So I had to kind of do supplementary reading on my own. And that just continued throughout life - you know, in elementary, high school and then college. And so it's not surprising to me that I found my way into being a teacher of history, a teacher of literature and culture.

This last spring, for the first time, I taught a class called Native Futures, and I thought that it would make sense to teach a class where Native people themselves not only are part of the past and the present, but they're going to be part of the future. And, like, two-thirds of the class were Native. They were all from different places, so different backgrounds - you know, Hawaii and Chumash country, Ojibwe and Lenape, Pottawatomie - you know, all over the place. And in almost every single text we've read, there was something that spoke to their community or their people. But then there was so much that didn't that they got to learn about what was similar or different.

I think we all know about the gold rush, but we don't think about how some of these communities - these mining communities - not only were they ravaging the land, but they literally were destroying people and families. And so that was hard for my California Natives to read those stories and have access to that information in a way they never had before, but it was also empowering.

I had a white student who grew up in upstate New York, really close to Akwesasne. We read this (unintelligible) book "The River Is In Us." We learned about toxic pollution that has impacted Mohawk people but also their white neighbors. And she never knew that part of - that history of her own hometown. And really, it was eye-opening for her, for sure - and to just realize how connected we all are. And by kind of emphasizing connection, then, I mean, that emphasis in and of itself shows you why we - anyone should care about this history - right? - because, you know, it's not just one person's history or story to inherit. It's all of ours.

CHANG: Kiara Vigil is an associate professor of American studies at Amherst College. WBUR's Carrie Jung brought us this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "VENTURA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie began reporting from New Mexico in 2011, following environmental news, education and Native American issues. She’s worked with NPR’s Morning Edition, PRI’s The World, National Native News, and The Takeaway.