In Defense of the Decolonization of Our Spaces

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This article is in response to this piece published in The Stanford Review.

I am an indigenous woman.

I am an indigenous woman from California.

I am an indigenous woman from California who spent her early years of education learning about the Spanish missionary system from a glorified perspective.

I am an indigenous woman from California who thought that American Indians were savages and Father Junipero Serra (you had to say his full name and title, yes, you couldn’t just say Serra that was disrespectful) was just trying to help them.

And when I, an indigenous woman from California, built my Santa Barbara mission replica out of cardboard and sandstone for my fourth grade class project, I wasn’t thinking about the cultural genocide, the murder, the disease, the pain, the suffering.

Because I, an indigenous woman from California, did not have the opportunity to explore these “alternative” views of history until long after I had been churned out by a system that had been molded, crafted, fine-tuned by centuries of Western colonization.

Just because these are the systems that have been and continue to be put into place, this does not mean they should stay that way for the sake of avoiding the “whitewashing” of history and teaching the importance of “contextual narratives.”

Because claiming that Serra was simply a product of his time and “progressive” for caring about those poor, poor savage Indians is like claiming that Hitler’s anti-semitism was a result of the environment surrounding him. This may be technically true, but this reasoning should never excuse the loss of human life that stems from the dangerous ideals of our past.

You may think I’m being extreme in comparing Serra to Hitler, and I agree that it’s an extreme example. But when I think about the lives of my people who were lost through the process of colonization, Spanish or otherwise, my heart pangs with grief. When I think about the loss of multiple beautiful and varied indigenous cultures as a result of colonization, my face flushes hot with anger. And whenever I pass Serra during the lunch rush at Stern, or take Junipero Serra to get to the Menlo Park Safeway, I feel defeated, invalidated, crushed that the institution that I call home would glorify even just one of the many symbols of indigenous destruction.

We should be taught that the lives lost to Spanish colonization are just as valuable as the lives lost in the Holocaust. Today, we are not doing that, because today, it would be reprehensible, without question, to have a “Hitler House” on the Row. But when people begin to question the placement of Serra’s name on our campus, they are met with backlash and criticism because, well, Serra didn’t know any better. Because indigenous lives don’t matter.

There is power in a name. There is power in commemoration, in glorification, in tribute. The people who we choose to honor through the naming of our spaces is, in itself, a statement of our values as an institution.

Yes, David Starr Jordan and Donald Tressider were problematic eugenicists. Yes, Leland Stanford’s fortune came at the expense of the lives of hundreds of Chinese railroad workers. These are problems too.

But the focus on one issue does not eradicate the existence of another. Just like our professors tell us to focus on one specific problem in our research papers, activists surround one specific topic to maximize the possibility of change in our immediate spaces. If we try to tackle all the problems we encounter on this campus in one fell swoop, nothing will ever change.

The removal of Serra’s name from Stanford won’t reverse the centuries of damage done to indigenous communities as a result of colonization. The removal of Serra’s name from Stanford won’t magically fix every other issue in the world, let alone every other issue at Stanford.

But, believe me, it’s a damn good place to start.

Drawing courtesy of Plains Indian Ledger Art.

6 Comments on In Defense of the Decolonization of Our Spaces

  1. Emma Robbins
    February 4, 2016 at 1:40 pm (1 year ago)

    Great piece! The author brings up three very important issues: 1-there truly is power in a name, there is power in glorification + in tribute; 2-lives lost are lives lost, it should be taught that the lives lost to Spanish colonization are just as valuable as the lives lost in other holocausts; 3-focusing on one issue does not eradicate the existence of another. When looking at complicated issues such as this one it is important to remember the above mentioned. Thanks to Ms. Sepsey for writing this and sharing your views! It’s hard to speak up and you did a great job.

    Reply
  2. John Galt
    February 5, 2016 at 8:54 am (1 year ago)

    Your heart breaks at the evil consequences of western culture as you sit and excercise your free speech by using a computer designed and commercialized in Silicon Valley to share your opinions with the world at the click of a button! How you must lament your Stanford education for its roots in western civilization! You must carry that shame with you day in day out! You tragic victim hero.

    Get real.

    Reply
    • Pussy Riot
      February 6, 2016 at 12:35 pm (1 year ago)

      Who is John Galt?

      Reply
  3. Guillaume Riesen
    February 5, 2016 at 4:43 pm (1 year ago)

    I found this article while trying to get perspective on this issue and hear both sides, so I was glad that it linked an opposing viewpoint. However, the link used claims that the article is considered ‘offensive’ and required me to click my consent before even reading it. I’m not sure if Ms. Sepsey is responsible for this branding, but I find it disturbing that the opposing article is being purposefully denied traffic and denigrated with a service like ‘donotlink’. It seems perfectly conversational to me, regardless of the il/legitimacy of its arguments. This kind of casual censorship and impedance of open conversation is an attitude that strikes me as very dangerous.

    I agree that characters like Father Serra shouldn’t be portrayed in such inaccurate and glorifying lights in our education system, but the issue of education seems separate from the issue of naming. The opposing article’s most salient point seemed to me to be that essentially every historical figure can be seen by some group as having been offensive or morally despicable. Should we rid our culture of all historical references, and start over using only the names of those we deem acceptable within the mores of our time? This revisionist instinct, along with the aforementioned linking method, smells to me like well-intentioned liberalism gone full-circle towards conservative censorship. By all means, we should be educated about the tragedies of the past. Yes, all lives lost are of equal value. These are things we should all recognize and discuss openly. I agree! I’m glad this conversation is happening, I for one had no idea of Serra’s crimes. I just think that keeping these names around, letting that pain be felt and discussed by the community, is much healthier than trying to hide from the past. His crimes are unalterable, now we must take the stage to battle our own demons – the most frightening of which, to me, is the looming threat of morally sanctioned censorship.

    Reply
    • NativeAlly
      February 7, 2016 at 11:05 am (1 year ago)

      Your comment is appreciated, but also off the mark.

      1: To say that the most dangerous threat to campus is morally sanctioned censorship is to hyperbolize something relatively trivial while downplaying an issue that is actually taking a serious toll on the mental and emotional health of students on campus who pay actual tuition to call this place home.

      2: Your point that we should “[keep] these names around” because discussion is “healthier” than action is rooted in privilege. Why place the burden of trauma on Native students so that everyone else gets the pleasure of learning? Also, what makes you think that leaving Serra’s name up will bear educational fruits? He has been on campus for over a century and not one student has been made to do mandatory reading on his violent history / relationship with Stanford. But for this new conversation of switching Serra dorm to Ohlone dorm, you wouldn’t be here commenting because you would, like many of us (myself included) still be ignorant.

      So let’s stop pretending like the only way to learn about a person’s history is by naming buildings after them, because in fact, it is the worst possible way to learn history for a number of reasons. Chiefly that when you name a property after someone you know to be problematic, there is huge incentive in keeping conversation away from his legacy. What we do know is that placing figures in museums or in history books with honest commentary works much better for learning about the complexity of a person while also avoiding undue celebration of their past. This allow us to both preserve (NOT erase) his history while also not leaving Serra’s name up to inspire future people who might seek to do harm to Natives or other PoC.

      Thanks.

      Reply
  4. Tahesha Knapp-Christensen
    February 5, 2016 at 8:12 pm (1 year ago)

    This is a wonderful article. Thank you for sharing your Native perspective. I get it. I feel the same way. I am Native too and was raised in Long Beach with the same course requirements and I was raised with traditional Native values and knew my history from a very young age. You are brave and beautiful. Keep fighting and creating that visibility. Warrior on.

    Reply

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