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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Column: Acknowledge how GW’s history intersects with genocide, erasure

You are on Native land. Yes, you.

Simply acknowledging this fact ends your personal complacency in generations of erasure of Native stories and homelands. Take a second and think about how the land beneath your feet at this very moment was once home to vibrant communities for thousands of years. What you just did is something GW’s administration has never done.

There are no land acknowledgments at the largest gatherings of GW students, like Convocation and Commencement ceremonies. Other schools across the country have implemented land acknowledgments at similar events, but they have remained a strange oversight at GW. What may seem like a formality to University officials and the Student Government Association carries a weight to Native students and the sense of community we feel at this school.

Knowing how history coincides with genocide and erasure is powerful. The administrative silence on this issue is an intentional declaration of opinion: specifically, a comment on whether or not my ancestors deserved to be displaced and killed. That’s not ridiculous to say and not something that Native peoples should have to argue with non-Native authority figures about. Our presence is eternal, and as much as administrators may characterize a push for acknowledgment as a political agenda, I wholeheartedly reject that notion. This is a point about existence — this is me.

The history of the displacement of Native peoples in D.C. is well-documented. GW’s responsibility to its Native students extends beyond a short statement on a website. The words of land acknowledgments gain their power through being spoken. The pain of generational trauma and cultural displacement is not dissipated digitally but in the fresh air, with open hearts and ears.

The push for this acknowledgment is not new to GW. The campaign should be a collaborative effort between administration and students, not a yearslong campaign. The push is currently completely student-led, leaning on independent research and organizing efforts from Native student groups and other aligned student organizations.

Like any public proposed change, the process is lengthy and at times frustrating for those involved. This push has been going on for almost a year, and the students who initiated it have since graduated. Besides the intensive time commitment, the process is also increasingly bureaucratic the further it goes. Most meetings with administrative officials have been an attempt to convince, rather than to collaborate. We have been collecting instructions on how to “propose” this to boards, committees and top officials as if it were a business pitch.

An ideal statement would publicly acknowledge, at major University events, the Anacostan and Piscataway peoples who inhabited this land before colonization. It would also address the historic role GW played in displacing those peoples and the use of enslaved peoples’ labor to construct and operate the Columbian College. Any statement should be paired with resources like dedicated on-campus spaces and dedicated counseling and advising contacts for Native students and non-Native students.

At Students for Indigenous and Native American Rights, we have been intentional about creating this statement. We have engaged with the Native communities surrounding D.C. and seek to bring them into the picture at GW, most recently in programming for Native American Heritage Month last November. SINAR has been operating in a highly colonial space (up until last year, quite literally, by name), and this push comes from the heart and is for the benefit of everyone involved. The systems in which we have to make this change happen are inherently hostile to Native resistance, but our consistent and united efforts have shown that it’s not impossible to make tangible changes on campus. We were able to bring local Native dancers and community members into GW, and now the school needs to show us they are with us instead of just tolerating us.

The sanctity of physical space is long lost on American minds. The culture that governs this country has long seen Earth as a resource to be commodified and exploited for profit. This attitude has historically extended to Native peoples as well, as our portrayal in American history depicts us as a hurdle in the way of “manifest destiny.”

These narratives are not set in stone. As an educational institution, GW has an inherent capability and responsibility to redirect these narratives and help recontextualize Native peoples in this country’s history. A public, enthusiastic and well-researched land acknowledgment is a fantastic first step in that process. It may seem performative to some, but I believe that every step matters.

Decolonization is a long road, and the steps can be painfully slow. But our spirit will always be strong. No matter the opposition to these causes — officials have made it clear that it’s not a priority to them — we will stand together. The Native students on this campus (all 30 of them in 2023) are looking for something to hold on to, a piece of themselves in the world they left home for. GW has a chance to make its students feel more welcome and connected to the community, and it’s so easy.

Native students feel invisible on campus. To those in positions of power willing to listen: Hear us, see us and acknowledge us. We’re not going anywhere, so help us feel at home.

Noah Edelman, a sophomore majoring in journalism, is an opinions writer. He is the Co-Vice President of Students for Indigenous and Native American Rights.

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