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At USF, a Thanksgiving week acknowledgment: Campus land belonged to tribes

Anthropology faculty say their statement is a first step in righting historical wrongs.

In a week when Americans are clamoring to make the most of a Thanksgiving slimmed down by the pandemic, the University of South Florida’s anthropology department is taking a stand that calls attention to the holiday and its history.

Department leaders on Tuesday issued a statement they hoped would be the first step in making amends for historical wrongs against Indigenous communities. It formally acknowledges that the land on which the university is situated was once home to the Seminole people, as well as other Indigenous groups such as the Calusa and Tocobaga.

In a release accompanying the statement, the department asserts that “many of our ideas about the origins of this holiday are historically inaccurate, reproducing damaging portrayals of Native Americans.”

The statement itself says, “As a Department, we recognize the historical and continuing impacts of colonization on Indigenous communities, their resilience in the face of colonial and state sponsored violence, and fully support Indigenous Sovereignty. We will continue work to be more accountable to the needs of American Indian and Indigenous peoples.”

The statement was drafted by the department’s diversity and inclusion committee in conversations with members of the Seminole Tribe. It was an outgrowth of the local and national protests this past summer that raised awareness over racial injustice, said Antoinette Jackson, chair of the anthropology department.

It’s also backed by the larger university.

“The University of South Florida values faculty efforts focused on diversity and inclusion,” said USF spokeswoman Althea Paul. “We appreciate the Department of Anthropology’s initiative to acknowledge this important part of our history and pay respect to the Indigenous communities who came before us.”

The Tampa Bay area, including the USF campuses, originally was inhabited by Indigenous groups who were first pushed to the margins by disease, slavery and violence when Spanish settlers first colonized the area, in a race to claim territories for European kingdoms, said Diane Wallman, a USF anthropology professor who worked with representatives of the Seminole tribe in drafting the statement.

The Seminole later settled the area after migrating from across the Southeast, only to be pushed out again during the Seminole Wars. At the time, then-president Andrew Jackson called for the Indian Removal Act in an attempt to force the Seminole people out of the area.

The USF statement “is something that’s been a long time coming,” said Sarah Taylor, a faculty member who chairs the diversity and inclusion committee. “Acknowledging the land you’re on and land you’re using is a traditional behavior of many Native American groups. It’s a sign of respect. Acknowledging this is important to being able to start a dialogue.”

Taylor said issues of land ownership extend far beyond USF, but that the statement acknowledges the university’s part in the larger problem. It also sought to recognize the role that fields like anthropology and archaeology have played in exploring the issue.

“All of Florida, all of the United States, is land that belonged to some Native American tribe or nation which was stolen at some moment or another in colonial history,” Taylor said. “This is much more than USF, but this is our corner of the world. That is where I go to work every day and where I am physically located and where I’m performing in my space in society, so it’s important I acknowledge it.”

Over the last decade, other universities, including Northwestern, the University of Illinois and the University of Connecticut have issued land acknowledgment statements. Jackson, the anthropology department chair, said USF’s St. Petersburg campus issued one earlier this month, and the timing was right for the department to speak out.

“It’s a continuation of the rise in awareness of issues of social justice, systemic racism and the silences that have surrounded our understanding and knowledge of different communities and people which are contained or often hidden within the national story,” Jackson said. “This acknowledgement is part of that trajectory, especially on the heels of the Black Lives Matter statements that people were putting out over the summer because of the rising issues that culminated with George Floyd’s murder.”

The statement is a first step in a more long-term initiative, professors in the department say.

The department recently completed an inventory called for by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which “requires institutions to work with Native American tribes and nations on the repatriation and disposition of Native American human remains and sacred objects that were stolen from them in the name of science,” the department said.

Wallman said the timing was especially relevant during Native American Heritage month.

She said she hopes that by acknowledging the history of the land — and the people who lived there and what their stories may have been — more meaningful actions, like creating scholarships to improve access to education or legislative actions to address past wrongs, can come about.

“It’s one step of many we can do to reconcile and redress the systemic issues of settler colonialism and colonialism on Indigenous communities,” she said. “And the second step, and maybe third and fourth step, would be working to right those wrongs.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of the Tocobaga.