It is not only ivy that clings to ancient walls — it is memories, echoes, inspirations. The very stones cry out a summons…Have we entered so new a world that we have no further connection with the generation in which these colleges were born? To think so would be to show ourselves without the sense of either historic continuity or moral obligation.”
Brown President Reverend William Faunce, 1914
Stanford’s main quad is modeled off the 18th century Spanish missions, where millions of California Indians were subjected to a brutal system of forced labor and mass murder. Father Junipero Serra, a Franciscan priest, is widely regarded to be the chief architect of this mission system. He viewed indigenous peoples as savages and fully supported religious assimilation and corporal punishment. Indeed, Leland Stanford himself passed legislation and recruited volunteers for US Army battalions that hunted and killed hundreds of Native Americans.
Two weeks ago, the committee charged with developing standards for renaming campus buildings announced it would hold off on issuing a specific recommendation on whether or not to rename Serra. This delay, however, is only a small setback to a much larger university problem — a refusal to confront and reflect upon Stanford’s centuries-long involvement with and complicity in indigenous oppression. The painful histories of Stanford’s past lie fresh in the Native community on campus, where many speak of the deleterious effects of intergenerational trauma. But beyond this community, the violence of centuries past seem unimportant to those concerned with Stanford’s function in the 21st century.
Stanford should thus commit itself to a proactive process of retrospective justice, where each and every one of us in the Stanford community accept responsibility for Stanford’s onerous past and its legacy today. The wealth and privilege we gain from attending Stanford were created by the sacrifices of previous generations, including the unpaid labor and genocide of California Indians. We are all a part of this school’s collective history and are thus morally indebted to it, no matter how removed the violence of centuries past may seem.
Stanford could benefit from emulating Brown University, which established a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice in 2003 that was tasked with examining the university’s involvement with slavery and the slave trade. The Committee drew on published sources and historical archives to document a comprehensive history on Brown’s relationship with slavery, initiated more than thirty public programs that dealt with legacies of historical injustice, and sponsored more than a hundred distinguished speakers. What resulted was a set of recommendations that led to expanded opportunities at Brown for those disadvantaged by the legacy of slavery, a memorial acknowledging the university’s role in the slave trade, and the creation of a center devoted to pursuing further research on slavery and justice.
Our university’s refusal to take collective responsibility for indigenous oppression sustains Native bigotry, ranging from continued appropriation of Native culture to continued idolization of Junipero Serra. Stanford’s mascot was an Indian until 1972, and alumni continue to return to Homecoming in Indian gear, often calling for the mascot to be reinstated.
Thus, a retrospective process committed to truth-telling — in its entire form, not just in the technicalities of renaming particular campus buildings — is needed.
Stanford, by initiating its own process of retrospective justice, can facilitate a campus dialogue surrounding its historical legacy with indigenous peoples, searing the university’s contentious past into our collective consciousness and clarifying our ethical responsibility to rectify past injustice.
Stanford’s ugly history with California Indians begins directly with Leland Stanford himself, though its roots can be traced back to Spanish colonization.
While governor of California, Leland Stanford supported legislation and raised volunteers for Civil War-era army campaigns against California Indians. In February 1863, Stanford specifically recruited ten new companies of California Volunteers to prevent the “repeated incursions of hostile Indians,” essentially fielding a major US Army operation in doing so. Only two months later, he approved legislation that increased compensation for these volunteers, luring more California men to enlist and expanding the number of soldiers available to hunt American Indians. He later donated over $20 million to found Stanford University, which sits on land previously owned by the Muwekma Ohlone tribe.
Leland and Jane Stanford designed their new university to model the architecture of the California missions, which were used to not only convert indigenous tribespeople into Spanish Catholicism, but also to subject them to a ruthless system of forced labor.
Father Junipero Serra was the chief pioneer and champion of this Spanish mission system in California. He, along with other Franciscan missionaries, viewed California Indians as gente sin razon, or people without reason. Indians were thus turned into second-class colonial subjects. They were forced to construct most of the 21 missions that existed across California, and they frequently faced corporal punishment and sexual assault. In 1775, Serra himself wrote that he wanted the San Carlos Mission Indians to suffer “two or three whippings…on different days,” explaining that they “may serve…for a warning, and maybe of spiritual benefit to all.” By the time of his death in 1784, Serra had founded the first nine of Spain’s 21 missions in California.
Today, five places on Stanford’s campus bear Serra’s namesake: the Serra and Junipero freshmen dorms in Stern and Wilbur, respectively; Serra House, which houses the Clayman Institute for Gender Studies; Serra Mall, the street on campus that is Stanford’s official address; and Junipero Serra Boulevard.
Despite the controversy generated by the ASSU’s February 2016 resolution requesting the University to rename all places on campus that bear the name of Junipero Serra, awareness of the missionary’s legacy is still low on campus. This is especially true for freshmen and sophomores, who were not around during the ASSU’s advocacy efforts surrounding the issue.
“For people who don’t know who he is, they’re not going to question it or ask about it or do anything other than be like, ‘I just live in this dorm that’s named Serra for some reason, I don’t know why,’” said Loralee Sepsey, a current senior and SAIO co-chair.
“But for a Native student, you see it and you’re just reminded of this long, painful history. This was a man who created a system that killed and raped and tortured and enslaved so many people, so many Native people. And no one’s talking about it. His name is just there, and he’s a murderer. And Stanford, by naming these buildings after him, is honoring a murderer. It shouldn’t be there.”
This divergence in experience, one that contrasts historical detachment with intergenerational trauma, is perhaps the direct result of an ignorance over Stanford’s past and the enduring effects it has today.
“Serra stands for the house of Serra and its own traditions rather than the person after which it was named,” said Kaan Ertas, a freshman living in the dorm Serra, to the Stanford Daily.
This sense of historical transcendence, where a person’s legacy can be divorced from his or her name, is common amongst students. To most, as Sepsey mentioned, the name Junipero Serra means close to nothing. Yet for many Native students, the ongoing traumas of indigenous genocide are still present, and even validated, by symbolic stances the university takes on history.
“It’s not something I can really escape. I think being born as a Native person, you feel an obligation to your home community, to your tribe, to the broader indigenous community, to carry with you the traditions and the knowledge you’ve been given,” Sepsey also said, adding: “There are so many non-Native people who need to hear these stories and need to hear these facts…that these things are happening to our women, that there are ongoing traumas because of the histories of genocide that the settlers in this country…have brought upon us…It hurts to have to confront the fact that [I] as a person would have been actively murdered if I had been born a few hundred — not even, maybe like a hundred years ago.”
An understanding of our past should provoke respect and visibility for the Native community, though the reality is often the opposite. Native American costumes are still worn on Halloween, Stanford alumni continue to sport Stanford Indian gear during Homecoming, and the Stanford Review has been a vocal opponent of advocacy efforts initiated by the Stanford American Indian Organization.
Three years ago, At the Fountain Theatricals’ cancelled their production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson upon protest by SAIO. The musical portrayed stereotyped versions of Native Americans.
“When they green light something like that, the thought [of]how Native Americans would feel doesn’t even cross their minds because they haven’t been exposed to the fact that we’re still here and we’re alive,” Sepsey said.
“I feel like people on campus just aren’t aware of the indigenous students here,” said Dahkota Brown, a sophomore and founder of the nonprofit Native Education Raising Dedicated Students (NERDS).
“There have been multiple times where I’ve talked to people and mentioned Muwekma or the NACC [Native American Cultural Center], places for our indigenous students, and they’re just like, ‘Oh what’s that?’ They don’t know, and I think that’s definitely a weird feeling,” he said.
The debates over memorializing Confederate leaders and symbols serve as a dangerous reminder for those who do not believe in the relevance of Stanford’s indigenous history. American society has never been collectively forced to take responsibility for and reckon with its history of slavery and racial discrimination; Confederate leaders were never punished; and Southerners continue to glorify the Confederacy and the antebellum South. A discontinuity in national narratives has resulted, and is now rearing its ugly head with the rise of white supremacist movements and the continued protection of Confederate symbols.
There thus remains a deep reluctance amongst Americans to accept even the intimation that they may bear some responsibility for the injustices of the past. Indeed, the very idea clashes with long-held American beliefs of individual responsibility, unburdened by the weight of history. Yet it is exactly this mythos that has allowed racism to continually resurface throughout American history.
Similarly, unless Stanford engages in the memory work of uncovering its traumatic past and forces each and every one of its community members to wrestle with it, apathy and biases held towards the indigenous community will continue.
Ethics should not be evaluated in a vacuum. It is unreasonable to return university land to the indigenous Muwekma Ohlone or to rename the university in light of Leland Stanford’s complicity in Native genocide. Stanford is one of today’s leading research institutions, and both Native Americans and others benefit from the immense resources and opportunities it provides.
However, a commitment to a broader project of retrospective justice and truth-telling is long overdue. Stanford would do well to learn from its peer institutions, particularly Brown, that have already engaged in university-wide conversations and initiatives regarding traumatic pasts.
A genuine engagement with retrospective justice should not narrow itself to the debates surrounding historical contextualization and legal precision that hold up processes like the renaming of campus buildings. And such an engagement should involve more than an obscure eight-person committee and devoted Native activists.
Such a process should focus on truth-telling in the broadest sense, giving individuals and communities the space through which to share their stories and have their injuries acknowledged. Stanford should also consider increasing engagement with the surrounding Muwekma community, as well as increase funding for the Native Studies department and cultural centers. A new historical consciousness could temper the narrative we present to new students during NSO and lead to a memorialization of indigenous genocide, imbuing an added sense of ethical responsibility to our campus culture.
Recourse for past injustice is, in the words of Ta Nehisi-Coates, “more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe.” Rather, he writes, it is “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.”
Coates, of course, wrote of the national slavery reparations debate in The Case for Reparations. However, his words bear great pertinence to Stanford’s predicament today. Individualism is not only a hallmark of the American tradition, but Stanford’s as well.
Indeed, our commitment to innovation and progress often rests upon the conviction that we are immune from the limitations of the past, that looking forward means we do not need to interrogate history. Yet we inherit the sins of the past not because of the decisions we make, but by the virtue of our existence on Stanford’s campus, as beneficiaries of a university that is as much founded on indigenous oppression as it is on the spirit of freedom and entrepreneurship.
Berber Jin is a sophomore and staff writer for Stanford Politics.