At Vanderbilt University, calls to acknowledge campus origins on Native lands go ignored, students say

In the 2019-20 school year, when students at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University crafted and urged official passage of a statement acknowledging that the school lay on former native lands in Nashville, they thought it would be an easy ask.

Acknowledging the Indigenous peoples to whom the land once belonged would be the first, and easiest, step toward measures serving the school’s existing Indigenous community, they thought. They were wrong.

“It always mystified me why there was not more support,” said McKalee Steen, a member of Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation who as then-co-president of Vanderbilt’s Indigenous student group helped craft the statement put before the faculty senate. “This is one of the easiest things you can do.”

Instead, that campaign and subsequent attempts by student advocates have repeatedly failed without support from Chancellor Daniel Diermeier, who “has effectively squashed those efforts,” said junior Annabelle Littlejohn-Bailey, the Indigenous Scholars Organization’s current co-president.

What is a land acknowledgment?

Despite broad student, faculty and community support, students say Diermeier has expressed vague legal concerns about issuing such a statement, “but seeing as how no legal harm has come of any other institution to do so, we don’t believe this to be a good-faith argument,” said sophomore Jayce Pollard, a Vanderbilt student government senator who has advocated for the issue.

Vanderbilt’s chancellor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Land acknowledgment statements recognize the peoples who historically populated and cared for the land now occupied by U.S. institutions like Vanderbilt. Such statements have been increasingly adopted by entities nationwide, including the Microsoft Corporation, NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the city council in San Jose, California.

Multiple institutions of higher education have also issued official statements, including Syracuse University, the University of North Dakota, Texas Christian University and Kalamazoo College.

What passed in the Vanderbilt student senate?

At Vanderbilt, the statement passed in the student senate reads:

“We collectively acknowledge that Vanderbilt University occupies the ancestral hunting and traditional Lands of the Cherokee, Shawnee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek peoples…. In particular, the University resides on Land ceded on November 8, 1795 in the Treaty of Hopewell. We recognize, support, and advocate for the Indigenous individuals and communities who live here now, and for those forcibly removed from their Homelands.”

In October, on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Vanderbilt’s student newspaper published an editorial penned by present and past co-presidents of the student organization, whose members conducted a 24-hour protest outside the university’s dining hall calling for action.

“It is unacceptable that, after nearly four years of tireless advocacy from student leaders, Vanderbilt has still failed to adopt a land acknowledgment,” the editorial read.

What is Vanderbilt’s Native history?

While they represent less than 1% of Vanderbilt’s population, Native students have a long history at the school. Among them were Chickasaw and Cherokee cohorts from Oklahoma in the 1880s and 1890s whose parents and grandparents had been forcibly removed under the Indian Removal Act of 1830 from states like Tennessee and made to walk hundreds of miles along what came to be known as the deadly Trail of Tears.

Their education there would prove significant, said Daniel Sharfstein, a professor of law and history at Vanderbilt.

“These were students who came from Indian territory and returned to Indian territory and performed vital services in leadership roles,” Sharfstein said. “That’s something that Vanderbilt should be proud of."

That makes a land acknowledgment anything but abstract, Sharfstein said.

“In a very direct way, it is part of Vanderbilt history,” he said. “A land acknowledgment if anything signals our commitment to continuing that tradition.”

What's next?

Littlejohn-Bailey said that while land acknowledgment efforts continue, student leaders have focused on measures they hoped would follow such a statement, including formation of an Indigenous studies program and indigenous community spaces at Vanderbilt.

"There are many other things folks can do to ally themselves with indigenous people that don't have to be a statement on a web site," said Wayne Ducheneaux II, executive director of the Native Governance Center.

Linda Sealy, a member of the Chickasaw Nation who retired from Vanderbilt as professor emerita of molecular physiology, said she was on a faculty Zoom call in early 2021 in which land acknowledgment was discussed and recalled the chancellor’s discomfort.

Sealy said that while she can’t speak to the legal risks of issuing such statements, “it is important to realize that there are also risks for not doing so.”

Amber Silverhorn-Wolfe is a member of Wichita and Affiliated Tribes who has worked with Texas Christian University on its land acknowledgment as a member of the school's Native American advisory circle.
Amber Silverhorn-Wolfe is a member of Wichita and Affiliated Tribes who has worked with Texas Christian University on its land acknowledgment as a member of the school's Native American advisory circle.

“The absence of a land acknowledgement raises concerns over the level of university support for Indigenous students, faculty or staff, making it less likely prospective Indigenous members will join your campus,” she said.

Knowing how Indigenous students have struggled at the school, she said, “I no longer encourage Indigenous students to pursue their higher education goals at Vanderbilt. I’m hoping that will change."

Dig Deeper

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Native land acknowledgment: Vanderbilt leaders rebuff calls for action