As one of three Native students at Yale Divinity School, I’ve been thinking about the notion of choice in advocating for change. Specifically, I have been thinking of how exhausting it is to be at the divinity school trying to bring visibility to Indigenous peoples and thought, and to lay the groundwork for change so that this task won’t be as demanding for future Native students. I’m haunted by the potential dismissive response if I mention this exhaustion. “Well, you chose to do this.” I certainly could choose to put my head down, take the courses I need to graduate and leave; I am tempted to choose this, some days I do choose this, and it may turn out that I eventually have to choose this. But the notion of free choice here is critical. Neither the choice to attempt to affect change nor the decision to step back are freely made. Both depend on the environment in which I find myself.
By not integrating Indigenous peoples and our scholarship at the institutional level into the curricula and community of the divinity school, the school sends the message that it is unnecessary to engage with indigeneity. It is a choice on the part of the institution to refrain from placing value here, to leave students’ awareness of Indigenous scholarship to the handful of Native students and the few professors whose courses even touch on Indigenous critical thought.
This is a mode of erasure. It suggests that, whatever the history may be — history they won’t make you face — there is no need to contend with it to move forward. It is implied that Indigenous peoples are no longer relevant. We are not sufficient to merit attention and will simply fade away, fulfilling the logic of elimination that undergirds settler colonialism on these shores.
Not having Indigenous studies at an institutional level means that the necessary work of educating people about indigeneity falls to the few Native students on the Quad. I cannot speak for the others, but I am exhausted. While my peers and professors are kind and cognizant that asking me about indigeneity or my position on how the divinity school handles this blind spot places a demand on me, I never want to turn down these opportunities. There is clearly a hunger and curiosity from the student body for knowledge of Indigenous peoples and scholarship and I want to encourage and help satisfy that need. At the same time, I, the other Indigenous students, and the few professors who teach courses that involve Indigenous scholarship cannot satisfy that need alone. It is not only for the Native students, present and future, that change must occur, but for the community of scholars at the divinity school as a whole. The institution is failing to adequately serve the interests of its students by not fully integrating Indigenous peoples and scholarship into the curriculum.
Returning to the notion of choice, I find myself today in a place that thinks of me, my people, our history and our present (and presence) as inessential. I see that this is harmful to the Native students who are currently here, and know from conversations with Indigenous alumni that they too left wounded. I see that this failure to include Indigenous peoples and scholarship fully in curricula leaves an unwanted gap in non-Native students’ studies. Fundamentally, I see an institution that does not want to grapple with the issue of settler colonialism and Christian complicity in that project.
In this context, I cannot choose to simply focus on my studies and leave quietly, but if I end up needing to do that, it will be because the burden of pushing for change was too great to bear. But I cannot be here without making a diligent effort to rectify the relationship between the institution and Indigenous peoples. The divinity school cannot effectively serve its entire community of scholars, nor can it maintain its sterling reputation, without a fundamental shift in how it conceptualizes the role of Indigenous peoples and scholarship. The school will never be decolonized — it will always have ties to settler colonialism. But it can, and must, take steps to mitigate the damage done and limit its feeding of this ongoing project aimed at eliminating and replacing Indigenous peoples and thought with settlers and colonial epistemologies. The divinity school must recognize Indigenous people as foundational rather than tangential and make the changes necessary to reflect that shift. Otherwise, it risks perpetuating the very ethos of oppression it should oppose.
MADELEINE HUTCHINS (Mohegan) ‘19 is a first year M.A.R. student at Yale Divinity School. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .