Thriving, here and now

October 14, 2022
Eva RoytburgAshley Zhu

The Emory Indigenous community’s desire for presence, acknowledgment and home-coming

As a member of the Navajo Nation of New Mexico, Sierra Talavera-Brown’s (23C) Native American identity always comes first.

“Because of the way our society erases and displaces Native people, we need to be Native first,” Talavera-Brown said. “That is who we are. Our identity is deep-rooted in our bodies and in our minds. That is the kind of perspective that we [bring in this world].”

Talavera-Brown was raised in Connecticut and is half Indigenous and half Puerto Rican. Growing up in a predominantly white community, she found herself in a unique position where she was able to maintain a level of ease and privilege that her Navajo family, who experienced cultural and social barriers, didn’t have. This inspired her to advocate for the Indigenous community at Emory University.

“A lot of my interests are rooted in Indigenous healing systems and communities,” Talavera-Brown said. “This work that we’re doing is grounded in the revitalization of Muscogee land, life, culture and knowledge on their homelands; a deeply healing process.”

Underrepresentation on campus

According to data from Assistant Vice Provost of Institutional Research and Decision Support Justin Shepherd, the population of American Indian/Alaskan Native students has consistently been 0.1% of the overall Emory population for the last five years, while in the United States, American Indian/Alaskan Native people make up around 2% of the population.

Talavera-Brown attributes the construction of “deeply ingrained colonial logics” in academic institutions as a barrier to Indigenous students. Universities like Emory do not provide many resources for Indigneous students, she said, and there isn’t much that entices them to apply.

“The isolation you feel as a Native student on Emory’s campus can be terrifying,” Talavera-Brown said. “It is a culture shock to come into a place like Emory, where there is extreme privilege, there’s extreme ignorance, there’s extreme social barriers, cultural barriers, lack of understanding from the student body, lack of understanding from faculty and admin.”

There is also no mental health counseling that is specifically tailored to the disproportionate psychological distress Indigenous people have experienced from the “historical and intergenerational traumas” of existing in a settler-colonial nation state, Talavera-Brown added.

The Task Force on Untold Histories and Disenfranchised Populations, which was established in 2019, recommended in April 2021 that Emory should develop “physical reminders and remembrance rituals on campus such as a Muscogee (Creek) Language Path” to memorialize Indigenous presence.

The task force recommended actively recruiting Indigenous students and promoting their well-being on campus. Associate Dean of Admission Beth Michel, who is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation of Arizona, has increased Emory’s attendance in college workshops and fairs tailored toward Native American and Alaskan Native students.

Since joining Emory, Michel has worked with the Tokahe Institute, a program targeting Indigenous students from North Dakota and South Dakota, the Minnesota Native American College Fair and the Indian University of North America college fairs to increase Native American representation.

Racial and ethnic makeup of Emory University student

Emory previously didn’t have these programs on their radar, Michel said, but now the three entities recognize Emory as making a commitment to enroll Native American students.

More recently, there’s been an effort to engage with high schools on tribal reservations, Michel said. College Horizons, a New Mexico based nonprofit that offers college application workshops for Indigenous students, selected Emory to host their program next summer. Michel said the program anticipates between 100 to 125 Indigenous high school students to attend.

“That’s an important step for Indigenous students who are thinking about college to really place their feet on campus and get a feel for what student life can be like,” Michel said.

She added that it’s vital for Indigenous students to be able to envision themselves at Emory, because the admissions and application process can often seem intimidating and confusing.

The land acknowledgement

Two years after the terrors inflicted on the Muscogee people by their forced removal during the Trail of Tears, the Methodist Episcopal Church laid the first brick of the new Emory College in Oxford, Georgia — a fact that the task force pushed the University to acknowledge.

After the task force published its recommendations, the President’s office convened a committee to begin working on the land acknowledgement, according to Assistant Professor of Art History Megan O’Neil , who is also a program leader for Emory’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative.

“That was a really important step, just acknowledging Muscogee people, acknowledging as a community, as an administration,” O’Neil said.

Associate Professor of Anthropology and Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative committee leader Debra Vidali had already published an unofficial land acknowledgement in January 2021, detailing the colonization of Muscogee land through the Native American and Indigenous Engagement at Emory blog. She wrote that “The 1821 treaty and others during this period led to massive land dispossession from Indigenous nations, and allowed for continued expansion of the Southeastern plantation economy and enslavement of Africans and their descendants.”

Emory officially approved a land acknowledgement, which was shorter than Vidali’s, in September 2021.

Emory’s land acknowledgement plaque (Courtney Wiethorn/Contributing Photographer).

The land acknowledgement is currently placed in at least two areas on the Atlanta campus — the Michael C. Carlos Museum and the Emory College Office of Undergraduate Admission building.

Cahoon Family Professor of American History Malinda Maynor Lowery, who is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, explained that the land acknowledgement is an “important communication tool.”

“When you see it, or you hear it spoken, it says to you that this unit is aware, it’s aware of Muscogee people, it’s aware of what type of dispossession went on to bring this place about and it’s using it as a kind of thinking tool,” Lowery said.

Creating reflective spaces and the Language Path Working Group

The goal of Emory’s Indigenous Language Path Working Group — a committee established in 2021 consisting faculty, students, staff, alumni, administration and community leaders — is to provide recommendations to the University to better highlight and uplift Muscogee language, culture and presence on campus. Charged by University President Gregory Fenves, the group aims to facilitate community input on design proposals and conduct research about Emory’s relations with Indigenous people.

“One of the things that we are practicing at Emory is a principle that how we talk about history is just as important as what we talk about,” Lowery said. “We always prefer to have Muscogee people present when their history is discussed.”

According to Talavera-Brown, the group has begun shifting away from erecting a permanent memorial. When she officially joined the Language Path initiative, Talavera-Brown said that the framing of the charge seemed to say, “We want to recognize the Muscogee people, so please come up with how we can do this in a physical reminder in a couple of months.”

Right off the bat, the committee corrected the idea — rather than a physical reminder, they would create a way for people to tell their own stories and for people to engage with culture in a way that isn’t “sterile” or just reading off a plaque.

“The thing with land acknowledgements is that they should always be changing, they should always be updated,” Talavera-Brown said. “It’s not something that was static in history … these are ongoing issues.”

Talavera-Brown also added that she hopes to create interactive space that doesn’t solely reduce Muscogee people to their connection to the land. Though the Language Path aims to recognize and acknowledge that Emory resides on Muscogee homelands, “shoving” Indigenous people into nature would completely ignore all other aspects of their culture, lives and contributions, Talavera-Brown said.

Preserving the language of the Muscogee people, Mvskoke, is critical for the Language Path, Lowery noted. She also added that the group is interested in how they can act as a vehicle to support the preservation of Muscogee language, indicating that language being the primary way people understand the creation of knowledge.

“The Language Path began with an acknowledgement … that Muscogee knowledge was created thousands of years before Emory existed, and that you can’t separate the people from the knowledge, from the land,” Lowery said.

Rev. Chebon Kernell, who is of Muscogee Creek heritage and an ordained Elder in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, also works closely with the Language Path. He spoke of his desire to see how the University, the student body and the Indigenous community can be in a healthy relationship with one another.

“There’s a hunger, and that’s what I really appreciate. Whether it’s interacting with students, whether it has been interacting with professors, there’s a hunger,” Kernell said. “What kind of direction can we take to be in a healthy relationship with each other, the University, the student body, Indigenous peoples? How do we enhance the presence on campus of Indigenous peoples in terms of the student body, faculty, but really, even in the curriculum?”

Though the working group has only been meeting for about a year, Kernell emphasized that there was “so much energy” building around the Language Path. He added that he doesn’t want to see a course taught or an exhibit displayed in the past tense, but that the Indigenous community be understood and to “have the self-determination to live as a thriving community in the contemporary moment.”

Kernell said that he was excited to return to Emory for the Muscogee Nation Teach-ins, which are part of the broader Indigenous Language Path Listening Sessions and will be held on the Oxford campus on Oct. 27 and on the Atlanta campus on Oct. 28.

Advocacy for Indigenous issues over the last five years

The hunger for more inclusion and support for Indigenous students hasn’t always existed, O’Neil noted.

O’Neil’s work to foster more inclusion for Indigenous people at Emory began in the fall of 2018, when she had conversations with former Associate Professor of English Craig Womack and Klamath Henry (19C) regarding where Emory was lacking in its focus on Native issues.

According to O’Neil, Henry strongly advocated for support for students, and Womack advocated for more Native American faculty and curriculum. And in November 2018, the Office of Undergraduate Admission hosted the Native American Student Symposium, during which participants built a sweeping report on how Emory could enhance its Indigenous engagement.

“We really started to lay out what does Emory need to do, what do we need to do as individuals?” O’Neil said. “That was the real gelling of the [​​Native American and Indigenous Studies] initiative.”

Michel was selected to become the lead of Native American outreach following the symposium, O’Neil said. Notably, Michel began to institute regular meetings and work closely with the students.

Despite the symposium and Michel’s hiring, a group of faculty members, including Vidali, O’Neil and Womack, published a Letter to the Editor in the Wheel on Dec. 4, 2019 claiming that “beyond Dean of Admission John Latting’s office, direct and visible changes have yet to occur.”

They cited that Emory had little to no acknowledgment of the stolen land, representation of Native American faculty and students, mention of Indigenous People’s Day, or programming for Native American Heritage Month in November.

“At that point in 2019, there were a few loud voices shouting, but not a lot of widespread recognition at all,” Talavera-Brown said. “It was my freshman year, and it was only me and Iliyah [Bruffet (23C)] who were very much engaged in the Native American student initiative.”

Calling for former University President Claire E. Sterk to take on this issue as a “moral mandate,” Vidali, O’Neil, Womack and the other writers recommended a cluster hire of Indigenous faculty to begin increasing Native representation at Emory.

Finally, in October 2020, Fenves and Candler School of Theology Dean Jan Love, who was serving as interim provost at the time, announced that Emory would honor Indigenous People’s Day — formerly known as Columbus day — and acknowledged that University land was originally inhabited by Muscogee people.

The event was huge — according to Talavera-Brown, it was the first sign of institution-wide recognition.

The birth of the Language Path was a culmination of all the work that had been previously done by Henry, Womack, Michel and Vidali.

“Through this reckoning, the University was finally like … ‘We have to confront this, because these people are not going to back down,’” Talavera-Brown said.

Indigenous education

Another component of the task force’s recommendations was increasing opportunities for the Emory community to learn more about Indigenous history, Nations, peoples and other topics. This pushed the University to host the In the Wake of Slavery and Dispossession Symposium from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, which highlighted the ongoing efforts in the areas of slavery and dispossession, with a focus on the legacy of racism and its effects at Emory. The sessions included creative interpretations and dialogue, with a primary focus on the perspectives of Black, Native American and Indigenous peoples.

The symposium was a “launchpad” for the University’s other initiatives, like the Twin Memorials Working Group and the Language Path Working Group.

Tre’ Harp III (25C), who is part of the Muscogee and Choctaw Nations, presented a poem called “Acknowledging the Ancestors with Readings, Music and Prayer” at the symposium.

The poem Harp presented spoke of the “systemic and genocidal campaigns of violence through fraud, dislocation and death” and the “destruction of lives and cultures in the service of economic interest.” Reflecting the overarching message as both Black and Indigenous, Harp said that he saw the two parts of his identity that could not be separated.

“Being African American and Indigenous, they’re very close to my heart … both were completely intertwined with each other,” Harp said. “While people were being enslaved, there was removal, and vice-versa. We had also taken … slaves into our nation and were moved with them.”

Harp also added that the forced dislocation of both groups of people adds another layer of complexity to the experiences of the enslaved Black individuals who were moved away from the colonies and into reservations. 

 Tre’ Harp III (Rainey Wise/Contributing Photographer)

Kernell, who gave blessings at the symposium, said he felt inspired that the dialogues at the event did not focus on surface level solutions, but rather disrupting the status quo.

“The concept that kept coming out of [the symposium] was equity — not just justice, not equality, but equity,” Kernell said. “How do we re-establish that disruption, in taking stability away from a community?”

Healing and rebuilding relationship with Muscogee community

In alignment with the Language Path’s shift to creating interactive spaces rather than a permanent monument, Lowery said she felt that student life could be improved by creating a “separate space” for Indigenous students.

“If you’re in that kind of 18 to 20-something window of life when everything is about expectation, when COVID has completely blown up your sense of expectation … then that sense of tangible physical space is crucial, because we need a place where we can be ourselves with one another,” Lowery said.

Talavera-Brown noted the complicated balance between sharing the violent history of Muscogee erasure and also highlighting their language and culture.

“Not focusing on the erasure would be a form of erasure in itself,” Talavera-Brown said. “Not shedding light on the historical violence that was enacted on the Muscogee people and on all Native people in the Southeast would be a form of erasure.”

The removal and the violence endured by Natives during the colonial period has ultimately constructed the individual and tribal identities of the Indigenous community today. Though the Indigenous community is strong, resilient and knows how to adapt, there is a need for “immense healing” due to intergenerational traumas, Talavera-Brown said.

Healing, Talavera-Brown added, would entail letting Indigenous people tell their own stories and reclaim their land in a way that supports their culture. Through the Language Path and the recommendations that they provide, she hopes that the University will recognize their part in the violence and provide the Indigenous peoples a “channel back to their homelands.”

The task force also recommended that the University foster and strengthen its relationships with the Muscogee Nation. Through the Language Path Working Group, the University has hosted several meetings with Muscogee members, one of which occurred last spring break.

Harp, along with several other members of the Indigenous Language Path Working Group, traveled to Okmulgee, Oklahoma to meet with Muscogee Nation members.

The group came on invitation from Kernell, who said he wanted the group to be immersed in Muscogee culture and “cosmology.” They visited a traditional Muscogee ceremonial ground, a place which Kernell called “home,” and that he said existed before any European contact.

“I wanted to go [on the trip], because I got to go back home,” Harp said. “I’m from Oklahoma originally … it felt like bringing the College back home with me.”

There, Elders from the Muscogee tribe provided a privately catered traditional meal for the group, which Kernell described as a “surreal” and touching moment. The group was able to hear about the Mvsgoge language and meet with several departments from the Muscogee Nation itself — including the healthcare department and the language department — to talk about some of the challenges they face, Kernell noted.

Talavera-Brown, who also went on the trip to Okmulgee, said that it was a “key moment” for her. While Harp is originally from Oklahoma, Talavera-Brown’s first experience hearing the Mvskoke language and eating their meals was a moment of realization — that she should uplift and advocate for them to tell their own stories.

“I can serve as an uplifting Native relative who is going to support them here, on the ground … doing the work with the Language Path,” Talavera-Brown said. “But they are the ones I’m doing this for. I am also doing this to make Emory a more inclusive and welcoming place for all future Native students and faculty.”