How Do I Participate in Oppression

By Julia Withers 

A large part of social justice, for me, is investigating how I perpetuate systems of oppression in my life in order to change and to improve in my allyship. This curiosity and desire to increase my awareness led me to research the campus and the college that I attend. The Lewis & Clark campus ranks among the nation’s most beautiful campuses, a campus that includes a preponderance of Northwest Coast Indian style art. However, only 0.5%-1.3% of students attending Lewis & Clark over the last 10 years were of American Indian or Alaskan Native descent. In this instance, perhaps we should consider how we participate in oppressive structures by being a part of the Lewis & Clark community. Walk into Watzek and see an Indian mask next to a Native-style rug on the wall. Go up the stairs to be confronted by a six-foot pelican totem. Glance upwards to see Native-style stained glass windows, and American Indian motifs covering the roof and exterior walls. Still, students originating from indigenous communities are utterly lacking. This contributes to the perceived invisibility of American Indians by showcasing Indian art on campus as non-living artifacts of the past, while failing to intentionally encourage living individuals of similar heritage to inhabit the space.

Take Agnes Flanagan Chapel, for instance. Don Smith, the artist hired in 1967 to create the four Northwest-style carvings mounted on columns in front of the chapel, states about the project: “At that time, they were fine for what they were–tourist poles.” His comment suggests that he did not see the audience as an appreciative community, but rather as onlookers seeking a culturally exotic form.

Furthermore Smith, also known as “Chief Lelooska,” meaning “Whittling Boy” in Nez Percé, originally carved the four columns––intended to be Kwakiutl representations of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John––out of cedar. Yet the architect behind the chapel decided to cast them in cement. His use of concrete rather than cedar could resemble a melding of two cultures, as Lewis & Clark’s website claims. But it could also represent another kind of “possession” of art and reinterpretation by colonial society. By removing the ties binding the art to land and instead making it one with industrially built architecture, the pieces lose an essential element of American Indian meaning.

Lelooska claims Cherokee ancestry but lacks formal affiliation. He nonetheless speaks of this connection: “Indianness is an attitude; a deep abiding respect for all things natural.” Moreover, a “melding of cultures” implies that an even ground exists for both cultures to equally influence each other. However, this ignores how the history of colonialism has continued to shape our country and our campus.

Lewis & Clark should seek to occupy a middle ground by recruiting living Native people instead of simply showcasing their cultural artifacts. Moreover, the college should shape its education to best empower Native students to transform society from a place of their own terms. I still hesitate to use the term “empowerment” because then, I am defining what power means for others. What would Lewis & Clark look like if it allowed people to define power for themselves and also granted them that power? Lewis & Clark should foster kinds of knowledge that allow Native students to challenge received notions that are known in hegemonic terms as “common sense” rather than perpetuate education as a colonial legacy like Indian boarding schools did.

The present Lewis & Clark College community has a social responsibility to recruit Native students and reshape its education because genealogical ties link the current community to the past one. The historicized Lewis & Clark College is bound up in the structure of settler colonialism. For example, the renaming of the college in 1942 to “Lewis & Clark” and the adoption of the “Pioneers” mascot exemplify this perpetuation of colonial violence and silencing. The name “Lewis & Clark College” erases the historical significance of Sacagawea and York in the Corps of Discovery, while the Pioneer mascot champions frontier violence, land seizure, and colonization of Native peoples. The land of the campus itself was also seized from Chinookan Multomah, Clackamas, and Cowlitz peoples.

Lewis & Clark should seek to occupy a middle ground by recruiting living Native people instead of simply showcasing their cultural artifacts. In this way, we may be able to stand behind how our campus looks and redeem these acts of indigenous erasure by making our college a more welcoming and empowering place for Native people. When walking through campus, I suggest that we consider how the legacy of colonialism affects Lewis & Clark and how we as individuals have the power and the duty to transform it.

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