May/June 2022Vol. XXXIV No. 5

Project Indigenous MIT

David Shane Lowry

In October 2021, a committee led by Professor Dan Hastings issued MIT’s “Values Statement.” Their committee, absent of Native/Indigenous participants, issued a statement that suggests that we at MIT will:

…strive to be transparent and worthy of each other’s trust…(and) challenge ourselves to face difficult facts, speak plainly about failings in our systems, and work to overcome them.

The statement went on to say that we (MIT) ought to:

…take special care not to overlook bad behavior or disrespect on the grounds of great accomplishment, talent, or power.

With that very clear permission, I would like to speak “plainly” about the place of Indigenous peoples and knowledge at MIT.

This past fall, I was hired to teach 21H.283 (“Indigenous History of MIT”). Part of the work of this course was (and remains) the task of persuading the MIT community to address its role in the long history of genocide of Native/Indigenous peoples in the United States. My goal this year has been to uncover the story of MIT (a story of science and technology) that begins with the fact that MIT was funded through the Morrill Act of 1862 (which took land/water from over 80 Native/Indigenous nations). Furthermore, we are examining the continuity of this story from 1861 to today.

Francis Walker, MIT’s third president, became famous through his role in the business of Native/Indigenous erasure. For example, he led the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The main goal of the BIA was to proactively move Native/Indigenous peoples out of sight and out of mind.

The erasure continues.

My work, which is actually the work of the entire Native/Indigenous community at MIT, has been exciting and heavy. It has been exciting because it was sanctioned by the Provost’s Office and President Reif. It has been heavy because it helped reveal our (Native/Indigenous) absence across MIT. When a national news report came out about my new role at MIT, I received a death threat. Perhaps people outside MIT didn’t want Native/Indigenous people in positions of influence, but MIT wanted us – right? As I looked around, however, there were no Native/Indigenous people in the MIT administration. There were no tenure-track/tenured faculty who come from Native/Indigenous communities. None of the new Assistant Deans of Diversity were Native/Indigenous.

A few weeks ago, in April 2022, President Reif issued a message to the MIT community that outlined MIT’s commitment to addressing its role in the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Though Reif’s letter didn’t clearly admit that MIT has a role in the genocide of Indigenous peoples, it set the stage for such an admission.

Reif promised an “ad hoc” committee led by the ICEO office and Chancellor Melissa Nobles to address the future of MIT’s commitment to Native/Indigenous peoples. This committee is already hampered by the fact that MIT has no (zero) Native/Indigenous faculty who are in positions of tenured authority to impact the work of the committee. It is also hampered by the fact that MIT’s administration is not advised by a Native/Indigenous expert or a committee of Native/Indigenous elders.

When I came to MIT as an undergraduate in 1999, I heard countless students state that Clarence Williams, former MIT faculty, was masterful in his recruitment of Black students and Black faculty to MIT. I stated back then that we needed “a Native Clarence Williams.” We needed a powerful Native/Indigenous person to be in the President’s office and on the Corporation.

Last semester, I exchanged a few emails with Professor Paula Hammond and other members of the “Hammond Committee” on faculty diversity and recruitment. I believe they were commissioned around 2008 with a final report that came out in 2010 (I apologize if the dates are wrong). Professor Hammond remembered (through email communication) that there was one Native/Indigenous faculty member who they counted in their analysis. This Native/Indigenous faculty member wasn’t tenure-track or tenured.

About a month earlier, I traveled down to Harvard to have a conversation with Professor Evelynn Hammonds who created the Center for the Study of Diversity at MIT in the early 2000s before her move to Harvard. I asked her one question: “Why did that Center never have American Indian faculty or invite Native/Indigenous scholars to MIT?”

I bring up those conversations with Hammond and Hammonds not to place these two brilliant scholars under a harsh spotlight but to reveal how even in MIT’s work to diversify – even in MIT’s work for racial justice – Native/Indigenous peoples have been left out. This is not coincidence. MIT was planned in the 1860s to perpetually extinguish American Indian people. The origins of the Institute are a nerdy forgetfulness and preoccupation with engineering work that has never required us to pause to acknowledge where we (MIT community members) sit and how we profit from the ongoing genocide of Native/Indigenous peoples.

What we have discovered this year in 21H.283 is an MIT community so compartmentalized – so non-responsible to itself and its own history – that any one MIT leader in any one moment can say things like “I didn’t know that Natives weren’t here” or “I didn’t mean for there not to be Natives on faculty.”

This plausible deniability no longer works in the early 2020s as MIT’s peer institutions – including Harvard, Berkeley, UMass and Stanford – are busy touting their Indigenous experts in disciplinary areas from science to law.

MIT is also stuck in a state of Indigenous mockery. This past fall, I was excited to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day with the MIT community. I was sure that in the aftermath of my hiring, MIT would very purposely celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day and commit bandwidth to making Native/Indigenous lives matter. However, on the morning of Indigenous Peoples’ Day the magnitude of the celebration was overridden by the celebration of the Nobel Prize in Economics as one of MIT’s faculty members, Joshua Angrist, won this award. Indigenous Peoples’ Day was a mere footnote. 

Why is this a big deal?

One of the most surprising finds in our course 21H.283 was the role of Alfred Nobel – whose name is used for the “Nobel Peace Prize” and other Nobel prizes – in the 19th century economy of Indigenous genocide. His main invention, dynamite, was used to demolish Indigenous communities and ecosystems throughout the United States – especially California. Nobel “peace” was born in a process of ethnic cleansing through science and technology that ultimately poured large amounts of cash back into MIT.

The Dupont family, who became quite wealthy while funding the Union (and the Confederacy) during the Civil War, ended up purchasing Nobel’s dynamite patent as they took almost total control over the explosion economy into the early 20th century. Much of their wealth, derived from the business of Indigenous death and dismemberment, funded endowments and faculty lines. Three members of the Dupont family sat on the Corporation (MIT’s Board of Trustees) in the early 1900s and carefully crafted the MIT that we know today. 

Did you hear about the recent news at Harvard University? Harvard promised 100 million dollars for work to understand, address, and repair damage from the enslavement of Native/Indigenous and Black peoples. In President Reif’s letter on Indigenous issues, he stated that 50 thousand dollars (which is, unfortunately, a loan on Morrill Act of 1862 money that MIT is due to receive anytime) will go to Indigenous life/scholarship at the Institute in the wake of our Institute-wide discussion of MIT’s widespread role in genocide of Indigenous peoples. But this is not enough. I urge MIT to increase that amount immediately to be in alignment with/in relationship with the commitment that Harvard has just made. MIT should dedicate at least 100 million dollars to Project Indigenous MIT (which is the result of our work this year). Guidelines for how MIT ought to spend that 100 million dollars are included in the 2021 letter from 21H.283 to Provost Schmidt.

I am concerned that we do not know when Native/Indigenous bodies were shared between Harvard’s Peabody Museum and MIT. There is a particular department in MIT that consistently profited from access to Indigenous and non-Indigenous relatives stored in Peabody’s crypt-like infrastructure. The name of this department is CMRAE – the Center for Material Research in Archaeology and Ethnology. Did CMRAE handle Native/Indigenous bodies? We do not have records that explicitly say that they did, but that does not mean that they did not. Much of the abuse of Indigenous peoples in the United States is unrecorded because Native/Indigenous peoples have been mislabeled and scattered. In that ambiguity, Native/Indigenous peoples are dehumanized.

CMRAE is housed within Course 3. Course 3 began in MIT’s early years when MIT faculty (including Ellen Swallow Richards) turned extraction of American Indian minerals from land taken in the Morrill Act of 1862 into a full-fledged discipline: the Department of Mining Engineering. Course 3 is an example of how MIT disciplinary prominence continues to be birthed within genocidal policies that MIT senior administrators have never apologized for.

In many ways, this is a story of MIT’s clumsiness. One of my first conversations on campus in the fall semester was with COUHES/IRB (Committee on the Use of Human Experimental Subjects/Institutional Review Board). The COUHES administrators couldn’t remember any Indigenous-related research that had been vetted by the IRB. I asked them if they could look for (in their databases) instances of research proposals from the past that included or affected Indigenous communities. They could not. 

Native/Indigenous people at MIT are treated like ghosts. (President Reif, in his recent letter, referred to it as the “presence of absence.”) To change this reality – to return full humanity to Native/Indigenous peoples at MIT – we must ensure that our students and faculty are required to form relationships with Native/Indigenous communities at/around MIT and where they do work.

Anthropologists, historians, chemical engineers, space scientists, managers, etc. – people from all disciplines at MIT must be responsible for their presence and the impact of their work in Native/Indigenous lands, spaces, and intellectual worlds. Since all of this is stolen Native/Indigenous land and water, that means that we must change how we do our work anywhere. That means that we must reinvent how we prepare and support all students.

Across MIT’s Schools and Colleges, we must urgently provide students with Native/Indigenous faculty mentors that can lead them/teach them beyond their disciplinary specialties with a goal of helping all students see Indigenous worlds in humanizing ways. MIT students cannot wait. How is Political Science’s work on voting rights not centered on Native/Indigenous communities? Why aren’t students in “ICE” (Course 10’s final undergraduate project) mentored by Native/Indigenous faculty? How is environmental/civil engineering taught at MIT without Native/Indigenous scholars on its faculty? A Course 2 PhD student recently reached out to me because she wants to work with me to help her understand the intersection between manufacturing processes and Indigenous community. Each MIT School and College must recruit and retain Indigenous faculty that address and make up for the absence of Indigenous knowledge in each MIT School and College. Also, ethics at MIT ought to be taught by Native/Indigenous scholars.

MIT is a standard-bearer. It has a long legacy of being just that – of being a leading figure in the inhumane American machine that decimated (and continues to decimate) Native/Indigenous life and knowledge. Now, MIT must lead the way in advancing Indigenous life and knowledge.

We use the firehose metaphor to describe MIT education. Students are told that being at MIT is like “drinking from a firehose.” Do you know what firehoses are used for in real life? They are used to break up crowds. They were used on Indigenous, Latinx and Black Americans during the Civil Rights movement to keep them quiet – to keep them from fighting for human rights. Firehoses were recently used at Standing Rock against Indigenous peoples as they protested the laying of pipelines through their communities – gas pipelines that are, in part, engineered by MIT alum.

It is not OK for Indigenous people not to be at MIT in important roles (as executives, faculty, etc.). It is not OK for MIT faculty or students to be out of relationship with Indigenous peoples and communities. It is not OK for students to be overworked and not cared for (which goes against Indigenous principles). We must bring humanity to MIT. MIT must center Native/Indigenous knowledge and scholars across MIT’s Schools and Colleges. MIT must begin to return Indigenous land and provide reparations for its role in dismantling and erasing Native/Indigenous peoples.