Emory University stands on stolen land.
For decades, exploitative treaties allowed the U.S. government to deprive the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of their land. According to former Emory historian Gary Hauk, in 1821, the U.S. forced them to sell their land for about five cents per acre and relocate to Oklahoma, Arkansas and Alabama. Emory’s first trustees bought the land from white owners years later. As the 200th anniversary of this displacement approaches, it’s long past time for Emory to support its Indigenous community, and administrators should start with the cluster hiring of Indigenous faculty, releasing a legitimate land acknowledgment and financially supporting Native students.
About 2% of the U.S. population identifies as Native American and belongs to one or more of 562 federally recognized tribes, and since the 1600s, white people have systematically stripped land and rights from these communities. Emory’s silence on Indigenous needs and failure to adequately recognize the violent acquisition of its land from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation is deafening.
Efforts to empower Native Americans have historically fallen on students and faculty alone. With Associate Professor of Anthropology Debra Vidali, several students launched the website “Native American and Indigenous Engagement at Emory,” in October featuring events for Native American Heritage Month and providing resources of Native history.
In 2018, the Office of Undergraduate Admission hosted the Native American Student Symposium, where members of the Emory community produced the report “A Community for All: Indigenous Student Initiative Committee Statement.” Sweeping in scope, it outlined ways for the University to better support its Indigenous community, including increased financial aid and fly-in programs for Indigenous students, more Indigenous studies-related course offerings, and a statement acknowledging the Muscogee (Creek) origins of its land. A year later, several faculty, Associate Professor of English Craig Womack and Vidali among them, published a letter to the editor in the Wheel calling on the University to commit to greater inclusion efforts. Their pleas have largely gone unanswered.
Womack, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, is “disappointed that Native issues seemed to barely even receive any mention from President [Gregory L.] Fenves after two years of trying to make ‘A Community for All’ available to administrators.”
The University’s measures against systemic racism toward Indigenous communities have been nominal. The administration’s Task Force on Untold Stories and Disenfranchised Populations sounds promising but has ultimately failed to adequately address Indigenous issues. Womack stated he “would like to see the University commit to something far more visionary than what we have seen thus far.” In one mere sentence, Emory acknowledged its land was originally inhabited by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation on this year’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day. One sentence.
Iliyah Bruffett (23C) of the White Earth Nation agreed that Emory’s one-sentence acknowledgment was inadequate.
“The small singular sentence that very plainly noted the forced removal of [an] Indigenous population was not nearly enough to cover the 184 years that Emory has thrived on stolen land,” she said.
Bruffett recommended that Emory collaborate with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Womack and Native students to write a land acknowledgment. If Kennedy Pete (24C), a Native student of the Navajo Nation at Emory, has produced such a statement, there is no reason why Emory cannot do the same. At the very least, Emory must create and sustain relationships with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and make them a central part of their teachings.
Although Emory is currently operating under a pandemic-induced hiring freeze that will end in August 2021, they must commit to a cluster hire once the freeze ends to increase Native American representation in our faculty. Emory will have no Native American faculty after Womack retires this spring. This lack of representation “is a disgrace and puts us behind all our peer institutions,” he said.
With the advent of a race and ethnicity general education requirement beginning fall 2021, Emory must recruit Indigenous faculty members to help craft more courses on Indigenous history, literature and culture. Emory cannot claim to support Indigenous communities and simultaneously lack Indigenous professors.
Earlier this year, the University established the annual Descendents Endowment, a scholarship fund that will, beginning next fall, financially support two undergraduate students descended from enslaved people. There are also ongoing discussions to establish a similar fund for students from the Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) Nations. We commend the University for their initial efforts and urge them to follow through. For Muscogee (Creek) Nation and Cherokee students, Assistant Professor of Art History Megan O’Neil argued that “scholarships would be a definitive step to welcome descendants of the Native Americans who were forcibly removed from the Southeast back home, to give them a space to thrive in the land where their ancestors have lived for generations.”
Emory’s steps toward inclusion have thus far been lackluster and performative. For 200 years, Indigenous communities have been overlooked and pushed aside by the University without any recognition or inclusion. To make them wait even one more day is indefensible.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board is composed of Sahar Al-Gazzali, Brammhi Balarajan, Viviana Barreto, Rachel Broun, Kemal Budak, Jake Busch, Sara Khan, Demetrios Mammas, Meredith McKelvey, Sara Perez, Ben Thomas, Leah Woldai and Lynnea Zhang.