MIT confronts early leader’s stance towards Native Americans

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Francis Amasa Walker, the third president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology helped to bring the school to national prominence in late 1800s.

A second part of his legacy is being rediscovered amid nation’s struggle with racial justice. It was his role in shaping nation’s hardline policies towards Native Americans. He was the former head of U.S. Office of Indian Affairs and the author of “The Indian Question,” which justified the forcible eviction of tribes from their lands and their confinement to remote reservations.

MIT is currently dealing with Native American students’ and other demands to remove Walker’s name form a campus building that is central for student life. This is part of a larger push for higher education institutions in the country to atone for their role in the decimation Native American tribes.

“Walker might have been the face of Indian genocide, and it is troubling to that his name is remembered at MIT,” said David Lowry (MIT’s new distinguished fellow in Native American Studies and a member the Lumbee Tribes of North Carolina).

In a column published in MIT Technology Review, L. Rafael Reif, President of MIT, stated that addressing Walker’s legacy is an essential step in the school’s commitment to its Native American Community. Native students make up 155 percent of the school’s almost 3,700 students.

Reif wrote that “the question we are working on now is what do with these facts as well as other aspects MIT’s history and Native communities” and declined to comment.

Walker Memorial was built in 1816 and houses the campus pub, college radio station, student group offices, and college radio station. The hall’s central feature is the great hall with its soaring murals that depict scientific learning and experimentation.

Alvin Harvey is a doctoral student at MIT and the president of the MIT Native American Student Association. He says that the building in classical style overlooking Charles River is one the most prominent reminders of the school’s white, Western-centric past.

Harvey, a 25 year-old New Mexico native who is a member of Navajo Nation, said, “As a Native American person, you feel all the brunt of what MIT laid its foundations on.” “The belief that Western men and white men will lead the United States into a new utopia in technological development is a false one.”

MIT was one of the first colleges in the country to receive the Morrill Act (1862 law that created the U.S. public higher educational system). This law allowed colleges to transfer federal lands and sell them to their campuses to establish or strengthen existing ones. Many millions of these acres were in fact confiscated by Native American tribes.

High Country News last year reported that MIT received at least 366 acres in California and a few Midwest states. According to the magazine, sales of their products helped generate almost $78,000 or more than $1.6million in today’s dollars.

Lowry warns that revenue and land estimates are likely to be conservative. Some students in Lowry’s course on “Indigenous History of MIT” are working on a more comprehensive accounting.

Simson Garfinkel is an MIT alumnus who recently wrote an article about Walker’s life in MIT Technology Review. He worries that renaming Walker Memorial will only erase the contributions of a single figure in MIT history.

“MIT would not exist without Walker,” Garfinkel said. Garfinkel stated that Walker was crucial to making MIT the institution it is today. “He put it on a vastly improved financial footing, significantly increased enrollment, and brought a discipline that was truly needed to the school.”

The former Union Army general, a Boston native, was president from 1881 to his death in 1897. He also oversaw the establishment of Black and female students on campus.

Garfinkel also claimed that “The Indian Question,” even though its analysis and policy recommendations were racist and “problematic”, made significant and lasting contributions in understanding indigenous peoples.

Published in 1874, the book included detailed descriptions and offenses against American tribes. These were mainly due to whites illegally settling on their lands, and instigating violence.

Walker said that Native Americans were “an obstacle to national progress” and that the country had a right to expel them from their ancestral lands. Walker recommended that they be placed on reservations and forced to adopt European production and farming methods.

Garfinkel suggests that Walker’s name be removed from the building. Instead, Garfinkel recommends adding historical context to the site by placing an informational marker.

He said that Walker was an extraordinary person, and we must understand him in all his complexity. It’s easy to rename buildings but difficult to learn about the past.

Harvey stated that MIT has made promising steps such as appointing Lowry and recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day. Also, MIT is providing a new space on campus for Native American student organizations.

He said that it needs to hire more Native teachers and provide support for Native students. Harvey proposes that Walker Memorial be renamed and transformed into a center of indigenous sciences.

He said that MIT was missing out on a vast amount of indigenous knowledge. “Indigenous people practice their valuable sense of science and engineering, as well as knowledge of the natural environment, but it’s being completely closed out.”