The story of Northwestern’s founding is, after a century and a half, a story well told: John Evans, Evanston’s namesake, bought most of the land from Dr. J. H. Foster with eight other men in 1853 to establish a university for the Northwest Territory. But the story fails to mention that before the land belonged to the university, Evans or any other settler, the people of the Council of Three Fires – the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi – called it home. To them, along with other Native nations in the area, the Evanston and Chicago area was a place for traveling, trading, gathering and healing.
Today, you’ll probably only hear the land you stand on called “stolen” at an event put on by the Native American and Indigenous Studies Alliance (NAISA) or at student protests. But in December the university plans to return some of the benefit of the land to Native peoples again by establishing a Native American and Indigenous Studies Center.
Many Native students and Native American and Indigenous Studies faculty see the center as a step forward for the university’s relationships with Native peoples. They have hopes for the future of the center and what comes after it, even as they wait for the university to meet more of their original demands.
The push for the center began with the formation of NAISA in 2012, and the establishment of the Northwestern University Memory Project, a NAISA effort focused on increasing awareness of Evans’ actions toward Native peoples. NAISA co-President Adam Mendel (WCAS ‘13) had heard of the Sand Creek Massacre in a class, and NAISA soon petitioned for an investigation into the matter and reparations for Evans’ involvement in the murder of more than 165 Cheyenne and Arapaho people – historical accounts vary – 1864, when Evans was governor of the Colorado Territory, where the it happened.
Although the investigation received plenty of press coverage, the NAISA petition also called for, among other things, a Native American and Indigenous Studies program, a memorial for those who died at Sand Creek and scholarships for Cheyenne and Arapaho students. Another petition from 2015 called for the university to remove John Evans’ name from all university buildings.
The university completed an investigation in 2014 that found Evans would have “opposed the attack,” but a separate university of Denver report found Evans “central to creating the conditions in which the massacre was possible and even likely.” The report was the first action Northwestern took in response to the petition. The center is the second and, students say, a huge step.
SESP senior Forrest Bruce, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe, was involved with NAISA when the initial petition was released. He says it’s now up to future Native students at Northwestern to continue this activism.
“To see them make a formal announcement on it is really gratifying,” Bruce says of the center. “There’s a lot of promise. The Native community here has a lot of momentum.”
Younger Native students see the creation of the center as the beginning of broader changes across the university. Weinberg freshman Lois Biggs, who is White Earth Ojibwe and Oklahoma Cherokee, credits past members of NAISA for their activism and hopes the center can spur on future progress.
“I know there are other things that NAISA would and Native American faculty on campus would like to see happen,” Biggs says. “But, it’s really cool to see that they’re taking all of this dialogue and all of this visibility of Native American issues on campus and translating it into something concrete.”
The initial investment in the center comes from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which supports the humanities and arts. That money will go toward bringing visiting professors, speakers and artists-in-residence to campus, along with funding undergraduate, graduate and faculty research, according to Ann Bradlow, Weinberg’s associate dean for academic initiatives. Bradlow says programming could give way to a major or minor in Native American and Indigenous Studies, but there aren’t any concrete plans yet.
Kelly Wisecup, an assistant professor of English who specializes in Native American literature, co-chairs the steering committee for the Indigenous Studies Research Initiative, which will give input as the university develops the center and searches for a director. She hopes the center will work to acknowledge the impact of Sand Creek.
“I think that’s really important for every student, to [understand] what it might mean for them to be Northwestern students and alums and to be connected to that history now,” Wisecup says.
Sand Creek aside, many Native students and Native American and Indigenous Studies faculty see the center as tying back to the university’s land. Medill senior and NAISA President Lorenzo Gudino knows he won’t be around to see the center come to fruition, but hopes it will help Native students in the future. To Gudino, a member of the Fort Sill Chiricahua Warm Springs Apache, it’s a matter of visibility for Native peoples in scholarship.
“Just [be] aware that you are on Native land and that there are Native peoples here still, because we’re so often overlooked and cast aside,” Gudino says. “We have so much to offer to academia, to just the world. So why not?”