By Sophie Goodwin-Rice
It’s now been about a little over a month since Willamette hosted its annual Pow Wow in the Sparks gym. If you attended, you’ll know how incredible it was; members of tribes from all over the region dressed in traditional regalia, vendors selling both food and art pieces and dancing that stretched long into the night. Willamette hosts all kinds of events such as this, both for the benefit of the students and the general Salem community as well, but the Pow Wow has a bit of a different background to it, one that I believe all students at Willamette should understand and be familiar with.
When Willamette University was first becoming established in the 1840s, it had a different name: the Indian Mission Manual Labor School. The famed Jason Lee, whose name is well recognized throughout campus, had founded the school on the grounds of educating not just any student living in the area, but solely Native American children. Specifically, he aimed to educate them in the teachings of the Methodist church and “civilize” them to be like the white people who were increasingly swarming the Oregon territory.
The school’s mission was simple: to steal Native children from their homes, strip them of their culture and force them to become the type of person that Lee would see as unthreatening to white settlers. Needless to say, it didn’t really work. Students ran away or became deathly ill, and it wasn’t much later that a new school was opened, this time to educate the white children in the area, which would later become the University as we know it today.
The modern Willamette takes some important steps towards creating a connection with the Native community; we have Native speakers at Convocation during Opening Days, we host the Pow Wow here and we make up half of a partnership between Willamette students and students at Chemawa Indian School, one of the only all-Native boarding schools left in the nation. Yet is this enough to make up for the destruction that took place on this very campus? Even though Willamette makes sure to work with Native populations in a variety of ways, are its students taught the origins of the school in full detail, to understand that its history and the true legacy of its founder?
It may be easy for many of us to forget the past and move on. After all, we were born centuries after the founding of the institution, and it’s possible that many of our ancestors hadn’t even arrived in the United States yet. We can attend Willamette as just another liberal arts school, graduate with a degree of our choosing and go off into the world to start a new life. For the descendents of Native people, it isn’t so simple. The conditions faced by the community today are direct effects of the colonialism that took place centuries ago, by people such as Jason Lee and by institutions such as the Indian Mission Manual Labor School. As students at Willamette, it’s our duty to understand this history, and even though we can’t go back in time and change it, we should understand why events like the Pow Wow are so important to our community.
The next time Willamette, the Native & Indigenous Student Union, or any organization in the area hosts an event related to Native American community and culture, go. Take the time from your schedule to immerse yourself in a culture that may be completely different from your own but lies at the formation of America itself. Spend time educating yourself on the history of the school you attend, and remind yourself of the importance of preventing cultural genocide from happening again. It may be shocking and painful to learn about at first, but it’s our duty as students to undergo that realization.