CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) – As the third president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Francis Amasa Walker helped bring the school to national prominence in the late 1800s.
But another part of his legacy has received renewed attention amid the nation’s consideration of racial justice: his role in shaping the nation’s radical policies toward Native Americans as a former bureau chief. American Indian Affairs and author of “The Indian Question”, a treaty that justified the forced removal of tribes from their lands and their confinement to remote reservations.
MIT is now grappling with calls from Native American students and others to remove Walker’s name from a campus building that is central to student life — part of a broader push for The country’s higher education institutions atone for the role they played in the decimation of Native American tribes.
“Walker may be the face of the Indian Genocide, and it’s troubling that his name is commemorated at MIT,” says David Lowry, the school’s new Distinguished Scholar in Native American Studies and a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.
MIT President L. Rafael Reif wrote in a recent MIT Technology Review column that addressing Walker’s legacy is an “essential step” in the school’s commitment to its Native American community. Aboriginal students represent 155 of the school’s approximately 3,700 students this year.
“The question we are working on now is what to do with these facts, as well as other aspects of the history of MIT and Indigenous communities,” wrote Reif, who stopped short of weighing in on the debate. about the name change in his column and declined to be interviewed.
Built in 1916, the Walker Memorial houses the offices of student groups, the college radio station and a campus pub. Its focal point is a large hall decorated with slender murals intended to depict scientific learning and experimentation.
Alvin Harvey, a doctoral student and president of the MIT Native American Student Association, says the classically styled building overlooking the Charles River is one of the most visible reminders of the school’s white and Western past.
“As a Native American individual, you feel the full weight of what MIT has built its foundation on,” said Harvey, a 25-year-old New Mexico native and member of the Navajo Nation. “The ideology that western men, white men will lead the United States and the world into a new utopia of technological development.”
MIT was among the first colleges in the nation to benefit from the Morrill Act, an 1862 law that helped create America’s public higher education system. The act authorized the transfer and sale of federal lands to colleges to help establish their campuses or strengthen an existing one. But several million of those acres were actually confiscated from Native American tribes.
In MIT’s case, it received at least 366 acres scattered across California and a number of Midwestern states, High Country News reported last year. At the time, their sales generated nearly $78,000, or more than $1.6 million in today’s dollars, according to the magazine.
Lowry cautions that these land and revenue estimates are likely conservative, and that some students in his “MIT Native History” course are working on a more comprehensive accounting.
Simson Garfinkel, an MIT alum who wrote a recent article on Walker’s life and legacy in MIT Technology Review, worries that renaming Walker Memorial will only serve to erase the contributions of a singular figure in the world. history of MIT.
“Without Walker, there would be no MIT. He was pivotal in making it the institution it is today,” Garfinkel said. “He put it on a much better financial footing. , dramatically increased enrollment and brought much-needed discipline to the school.”
As president from 1881 until his death in 1897, the former Union Army general and Boston native helped improve student life and oversaw the introduction of the first black female students to the campus.
Garfinkel also argued that “The Indian Question” offered significant and lasting contributions to a broader 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 crimes committed against them, primarily by white people illegally settling on their lands and inciting violence.
But Walker also described Native Americans as “an obstacle to national progress” and concluded that the country was justified in driving Native Americans from their ancestral lands. He recommends confining them to reserves and forcing them to adopt European breeding and production methods.
Rather than removing Walker’s name from the building, Garfinkel suggests providing more historical context by installing an information marker at the site.
“Walker was an incredible person who we have to understand in all his complexity,” he said. “It’s easy to rename buildings, but much harder to learn about the past.”
Harvey said MIT has taken promising steps, such as nominating Lowry, recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day and providing new space on campus for Native American student groups.
But it still needs to hire more Indigenous faculty and provide other support for Indigenous students, he said. As for the Walker Memorial, Harvey suggests not only renaming it, but also making it an indigenous science center.
“MIT is missing out on this huge swath of indigenous knowledge,” he said. “Indigenous people are practicing their own valuable sense of science, engineering, and knowledge of the natural world, and that’s completely ruled out.”
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