By Dr. Elizabeth Bergman
Upper School History
Seniors in Multicultural America, a new course developed by Dr. Elizabeth Bergman, have spent the fall trimester studying indigenous peoples in North America, focusing on the history and ongoing practices of "settler colonialism" in the United States and Canada. As Ann John explains, the history of settler colonialism in the U.S. entails "the forceful seizure of indigenous land and the genocide of indigenous people." Students were surprised to learn that other settler colonial nations (including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) have inaugurated truth and reconciliation processes with indigenous peoples. One small part of this process is the reading of a short statement acknowledging a place and its relations with a particular people. After researching land acknowledgments in Canada, students drafted one for Stuart, honoring the Lenni Lenape, and presented their work to the entire Upper School.
Meghan Leibowitz hopes that "hearing the acknowledgement will encourage people to research, to ask more questions, and to begin to understand [the history of indigenous peoples]." She notes that "Stuart students are lucky to enjoy the beautiful woods that surround us. From Lower School recess to Upper School classes, the land is in constant use. It has given our community so much, and it is crucial we strive to understand its history. There were people here before us, and there will be people here after us and we all share one thing in common, the land. The indigenous respected the land. We need to do the same but also learn how to respect them. People who have been ignored and mistreated for centuries deserve our recognition and our promise to do better." Sophia Sumaray adds that "the land acknowledgment takes no political stance, but rather focuses on exposing the truth of settler colonialism to increase the wellbeing of indigenous society."
Students also had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Shelia Smith, RSCJ at the United Nations, about her work in support of indigenous peoples in Canada and around the globe. Dr. Smith is a cofounder of PACT-Ottowa (Persons Against the Crime of Trafficking in Humans), working with Ojibwe Grandmothers who recognize the destructive influence, especially on the lives of indigenous girls, of "ongoing attitudes and structures that continue to be rooted in the colonial matrix of power." Dr. Smith congratulated students on creating a land acknowledgment and urged them to pursue opportunities to meet indigenous peoples and keep in mind how indigenous peoples may be disproportionately affected by climate change.
To that end, students will attend an international symposium at Princeton University this December devoted to the topic of indigenous peoples and climate change. The conference has adopted, in slightly adapted form, the land acknowledgment as drafted by Stuart students—as has the Princeton Public Library. Students in Multicultural America will soon meet with administrators to propose that Stuart endorse the land acknowledgment and incorporate its reading at ceremonies throughout the year. Stuart would be the first Sacred Heart School in the United States (and likely one of the first schools of any type in the United States) to read a land acknowledgment.
We gather today on the land of the Lenni Lenape. As members of the Stuart community, we aspire to show appreciation, respect, and concern for all peoples and our environment. We honor the Lenape and other Indigenous caretakers of these lands and waters, the elders who lived here before, the Indigenous today, and the generations to come.