Penny Nance is unhappy.
You can read the full depth of her unhappiness in her article on The Federalist website: “My Son’s Freshman Orientation at Virginia Tech Was Full of Leftist Propaganda.”
“Are taxpayers funding academic institutions to indoctrinate our kids?,” Nance asks in the opening line. Spoiler alert: Her answer is yes.
She — and Nance does prefer the pronouns “she” and “her” —can best explain her unhappiness over Tech’s attention to pronouns. That’s not our — we prefer “our”— focus today. Instead, let’s zero in on one particular aspect of her unhappiness that is less open to ideological debate and more amenable to actual facts.
Nance writes: “The administration made the stunning choice to open orientation by recognizing two Native American tribes on whose land the college was built (with the implication that it was stolen).”
Ah, now we’re not talking his and her, but history.
We’re not sure whether Nance considers this opening “stunning” because she preferred something else — she suggested “one might expect to remember the names of fallen cadets on the pylons or the 32 dead and 17 injured in the 2007 shooting on Virginia Tech’s campus,” both of which seem very appropriate ideas — or because she objected to the tribal recognition in and of itself.
We’re more focused on her comment that by recognizing the two tribes who once lived on Tech’s land that there is “the implication that it was stolen.”
Umm, yeah, it kind of was.
That’s exactly how the colonization of North America worked. Europeans showed up and, one way or another, pushed the indigenous peoples already here off their land. Maybe here or there was a treaty or a bill of sale — there’s the story of Manhattan being sold for some beads — but basically, yeah, we stole it.
That’s not “indoctrination” and it’s not “leftist propaganda.” That’s just history.
It’s only shocking because (a) American history often glosses over those uncomfortable details and (b) we’re not accustomed to hearing these kinds of acknowledgements before.
These tribal land acknowledgements, though, are quite common at public events in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The United States is unusual in that we don’t routinely make them. The Canadian Football League’s championship game — the Grey Cup — now always begins with such a recitation, typically featuring a ceremony with someone representing the indigenous people being cited. So do National Hockey League games in Edmonton and Winnipeg, and perhaps other cities. So does the school day in Toronto. Before the daily singing of the national anthem — something we don’t do in our schools! — a student reads this over the intercom:
“In keeping with Indigenous protocol, I would like to acknowledge this school is situated upon traditional territories. The territories include the Wendat, Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations, and the Métis Nation. The treaty was signed for the particular parcel of land that is collectively referred to as The First Purchase and applies to lands west of Brown’s Line to Burlington Bay and north to Eglinton Avenue. I also recognize the enduring presence of Aboriginal Peoples on this land.”
OK, that’s more of a mouthful than Tech’s much briefer announcement:
“We acknowledge the Tutelo/Monacan people, who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognize their continuing connection to the land, water and air that Virginia Tech consumes. We pay respect to the Tutelo/Monacan Nations, and to their elders past, present and emerging.”
In any case, what’s wrong with learning a little history? This may seem a liberal conceit and, let’s be honest, this kind of acknowledgement is more popular on the left than the right — otherwise Nance, who heads the conservative group Concerned Women of America, would have been more familiar with it. Still, some context may be helpful: In Canada, these tribal acknowledgements got started under its last Conservative Party government. Yes, yes, the Republican Party in the U.S. is a lot further right than Canada’s Conservative Party, but it’s still very much a right-of-center party. Canada’s Conservative Party, though, has done a much better job reconciling itself to that country’s diversity than American conservatives have to ours. Under then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to document the country’s treatment of its indigenous population — First Nations people in Canadian lingo. One of the many recommendations from that report was that these kind of tribal land acknowledgement become part of public ritual. And they have.
Americans could learn something from Australia, Canada and New Zealand here. We’re currently living through a period when we’re paying a lot more attention to history than we have before. Generally speaking, this is a good thing. Some worry that by taking down certain statues we’re in danger of “erasing history.” The fact is, though, we’ve already erased a lot of history, whether statues were involved or not. Could Nance have told anyone before Tech orientation what tribes occupied the New River Valley before colonization? How many of the Tech freshmen could have? Not many, we suspect. Our history, though, did not begin in 1607. There were people living here already. North America was not a blank slate.
Of course, we know about Powhatan and Pocahontas — they belonged to different tribes than the ones around here — but that’s about the extent of what many of us learned about Native Americans in Virginia history. We certainly don’t learn about Walter Plecker, Virginia’s first registrar of vital statistics, who made it his mission from 1912 to 1946 to eradicate any evidence that Virginia was still home to descendants of those original tribes. Plecker used the power of state bureaucracy to declare them African-Americans instead, although that wasn’t the term he used. He didn’t simply re-write history, he tried to re-write the future, as well. There is one danger, of course, to acknowledging what tribes were here before we were. It makes it harder to tell anyone to “go back” where they came from because, at some point, we all came from somewhere else. Even those native tribes.