Going back to our roots

Wesleyan professor talks to students about how to relate to the indigenous people who came before them

By on October 8, 2019

The students and faculty in the Mount Carmel Auditorium listened intently as Dr J. Kehaulani Kauanui, a professor at Wesleyan University, solemnly opened her lecture with a simple, yet important message for the audience.

Connor Lawless
“Before I dive in, I want to acknowledge that we are on Quinnipiac territory and acknowledge the enduring sovereignty of the Quinnipiac people even as we don’t recognize them as a collective polity. Sovereignty cannot be extinguished from indigenous peoples,” Kehaulani Kauanui said.

 This would set the tone for a serious and informative lecture titled, “Global Ingenuity & Native Sovereignty,” about the relationship between colonial countries and the native people who came before them.

Kehaulani Kauanui was introduced by students Kiara Tanta-Quidgeon, a sophomore biology major and member of the Mohegan Tribe of Indians, a tribe from Connecticut, and Lala Forrest, a freshman medical student and member of the Pit River Tribe, a tribe from California. They spoke about an initiative run by the Arnold Schweitzer Institute (ASI), who hosted the lecture. 

“The goals (of the initiative) are to create a way to include indigenous voices in the Quinnipiac community, educate about Quinnipiac’s Native American history, celebrate indigenous identities, and establish a sense of community for indigenous peoples here at Quinnipiac University,” Tanta-Quidgeon said.

Kehaulani Kauanui gave a brief history of the tribe that the university is named after. She said the Quinnipiac tribe had inhabited the area long before English settlers had arrived. Their traditional homeland had covered over 300 square miles stretching across southern Connecticut’s rivers. However, after the diseases brought by the settlers caused a population collapse of the native people, the Quinnipiac only lived in four villages along the Long Island Sound. Once colonials established New Haven as a town, they established reserves for the natives. These native reserves were the first of their kind in what would become the United States. Eventually however, the Quinnipiac were coerced into selling their land and soon lost what stake they had in Connecticut.

After the Quinnipiac tribe’s history, she spoke about a local town, Middletown, and it’s complicated relationship with natives today. When trying to find information about the native people whose territory was once in Middletown, she said that town officials were uninformed and even ignorant, with one telling her, “I don’t know. Maybe you should call somebody at Foxwoods Casino and ask”.

In order to finally get the answer she was looking for, she had to contact a researcher, Paul Grant Costa of the Native Northeast Research Collective. Official state doctrine states that the Wangunk are extinct but this isn’t true, as descendants still live in their tribe’s historical territory today. One of these members were in attendance at the lecture.

Gary O’Neil, an elder Wangunk, worked closely with Kehaulani Kauanui in the past in designing a class focused around Middletown’s native relations. He was a large part of the progress being made in representation of native people. During a recent opening of a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization heritage site in Middletown, he was allowed to participate in its opening.

“He offered an indigenous welcome and granted permission for the ceremony to take place,” Kehaulani Kauanui said. “He pointed out from the podium that he thought this was the first time in his knowledge by his knowledge in over 200 years that the city of Middletown ever acknowledged the Wangunk in any official capacity.”

Middletown has been working toward bettering its representation of its native people and relationship with the tribes. Their process of mending their relationship with their native tribes is similar to the aims of the ASI’s initiative for the Quinnipiac community. A goal of the initiative mentioned in the lecture was language use, and the negative impact it can have. This particular goal stuck with students during the lecture and left some thinking about their part in the problem.

“I think the biggest takeaway I had was on learning language use and how to refer to certain terms and people,” William James, a sophomore international business major, said. 

An example of language misuse Kehaulani Kauanui mentioned was students calling themselves “native” New Yorkers for example, when they mean they were born there. In response to a misstatement like this, she challenged students to start a dialogue about it. 

“Next time somebody says they’re a native New Yorker, ask what tribe they’re from. It’s a real conversation starter,” Kehaulani Kauanui said. 

These conversations can be difficult to have, but they are an important one that the ASI is hoping to help start. For students who want to learn further about the ASI’s initiative is running or hope to further educate themselves on these issues are welcome to attend their campus wide teaching night on Nov. 19, to contribute their thoughts, ideas and knowledge.

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