Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
In its most recent attempt to honor the Piscataway tribe that lived on the land that’s now College Park, the University of Maryland named its newest dining hall, “Yahentamitsi” (Yah-hen-tuh-meet-c). It means “a place to go to eat” in Algonquian, the Indigenous tribe’s spoken language. In displaying art, artifacts and other educational materials of the Piscataway people, the dining hall intends to recognize the tribe’s history.
Yet, it seems counterintuitive to name a building in the Piscataway people’s spoken language while using their originally stolen land. It is not enough to name a dining hall Yahentamitsi in honor of Piscataway Tribe “to acknowledge UMD’s past and create a more inclusive community.” As long as the university continues to exist on Piscataway land without efforts to actively give land back or actively uplift Native American voices, this university’s efforts seem performative and lacking.
The existence of this institution itself is a constant reminder of stolen land and the harmful and lasting effects of colonialism. Non-Indigenous peoples are largely unaware of tribal sovereignty, which is the distinct right of Native American people to govern themselves. The university and other land-grant institutions in the Big Ten, must recognize that without intentional action to their words or presentations, their efforts to promote inclusivity, diversity and respect to Native Americans fall short.
In his state of campus address last November, university President Darryll Pines announced Cole Field House will house five cultural centers, one being a Native American cultural center. Similar to Yahentamitsi Dining Hall, the university showed it’s trying to promote diversity and awareness on the campus.
If the university wants to promote a new dining hall “honoring” Native Americans, then what does it make of its relatively low Native American student population? As of 2019, only 30 undergraduate students self-identified as Native American or Alaskan Native and as of 2021, the university’s American Indian Student Union only had three members. How does the building of a safe space welcome a community when that community isn’t even present? Why is the Indigenous population of Maryland not reflected in the university’s student population? The university simply raises public awareness of the tribal land it resides on without enabling Native Americans to uplift their voices and power.
To intentionally build inclusivity and diversity, the university could do away with standardized testing and develop more admission initiatives for Native American students. It’s not news that standardized tests in college admissions pose an unfair barrier to educational access for marginalized groups. While the university extended its test-optional application policy to spring and fall 2022 and 2023 admissions, it’s not clear if this choice was due to the effects of COVID-19 or the more than 20 student organizations that called on the university to eliminate these standardized tests. Whether it was one or the other or both, the university should continue this test-optional policy to promote more inclusive and equitable admissions. For example, the lack of geographic accessibility of testing centers, college and test preparation resources, as well as the lack of financial accessibility of taking the tests all pose invisible barriers for Native Americans as they pursue forms of higher education with the expectation of standardized testing.
The university could also create public awareness by funding and expanding Native American studies curriculum, staff and resources, and directly asking Piscataway tribal members how it can best support their community. These steps make the university’s actions a little less performative and a little more meaningful to actually honoring the Piscataway tribe.
The university cannot promote diversity to its non-Indigenous community on campus without actively supporting the Piscataway tribe of the past, present and future. The land students walk on from class to class is stolen. The land that holds the new dining hall to feed students is stolen. The land that houses students is stolen. It’s clear the university’s use of the Piscataway tribe’s language is a pretty bow on its new dining hall, but it doesn’t actually address the robbery of tribal land. As a university community, we cannot continue this cycle of stealing. It’s time for this university to stop its performative “honoring” of the Piscataway people and work to create intentional change.
Lei Danielle Escobal is a sophomore American studies and sociology major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.