An open letter to WSU president, Dr. Scott Olson
As our WSU website proclaims, we are a community of learners with the mission to improve our world. Our mission is a lofty one that challenges us as both an individual and a community to strive toward that end. We can be hopeful that one day our mission will be fulfilled. However, as of today, in this moment in time, we have fallen short.
As indigenous students since 2014, we have witnessed an obvious inequity regarding whom our university chooses to publically support and whom they do not. As WSU Warriors, we have received emails from our leadership encouraging our community to continually strive toward our mission, to participate and take action to uphold social justice within our communities.
Here are a few points to note from those insightful messages. Chancellor Rosenstone asserted in October of 2014 that, “Recent events on campuses across the country remind us of the ugliness of racism and intolerance and its painful impact on the lives of our students, faculty, and staff… we cannot stand indifferent… We must use the events of the past few weeks to rededicate ourselves…”
Shortly after we received words from you stating that, “We want to create an interculturally competent environment in which we can communicate with people in a way that earns their respect and trust… I worry that it is not as inclusive and hospitable as it could be… We cannot ignore this, and we must do all we can to recognize it, call it out, and help eradicate it…” As indigenous students at WSU, we wholeheartedly agree.
Since you shared that sentiment, WSU has supported communities in solidarity against racism, violence, and oppression. President Olson you have used your voice to stand with the University of California Santa Barbara in May of 2014 against gender based violence. Again, you publicly supported those affected by the Ebola virus outbreak in Africa, August of 2014. We read your support of Umpqua Community College of Roseburg, Oregon in October of 2015 after a tragic shooting on their campus. Later your support was made clear after terror attacks occurred within Paris, France in November of 2015. President Olson you proclaimed we stood with Orlando Florida after terror attacks against the LGBTQIA+ community in June of 2016. Your words addressed to Minnesotans in July of 2016 were full of empathy and compassion. Then in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in January of 2017 you offered words regarding our motto, on living our mission. We commend you for that. You used your platform, privilege to support communities near and far.
A community at WSU as you stated, “means welcoming everyone, listening to every voice, and standing as one on the big ideas that define Winona State University. You also invited our thoughts or “perspectives” regarding our mission. Members of the Turtle Island Student Organization (TISO) have done just that since the spring of 2014 regarding the Indigenous Learning Garden Initiative, “a big idea that would define WSU”.
For ten years we have been waiting on WSU to fulfill its promise to indigenous students and community members to build a learning garden to contextualize the “End of the Trail” sculpture. President Judith Ramaley initiated this commitment to the indigenous community and you President Olson reaffirmed this support in 2014. It is now 2017 and there is no substantial progress to be seen. Yes, WSU may be in contact with one tribe. We are grateful for that. Support of this project included recognizing the responsibility to ensure an equitable process was employed meaning, contacting the 25 Nations our proposal has listed. Privilege could be preventing thi realization regarding the importance of contacting at the very least, the Nations of the Oceti Sakowin. We encourage WSU and you President Olson to ponder that thought.
As our leadership has urged in semesters past, TISO has taken up the challenge to confront institutional racism and inequities on our campus. Since, we have been a driving force behind the implementation of Indigenous People’s Day. We committed to that effort for two years until it was recognized. TISO has helped advocate for the recognition of our shared history and the original people of the land we live on with several allies, with inspiration from an elder. Also, we have been a driving force behind the movement to bring context and education to the images that represent or better yet, misrepresent indigenous culture and our very own history as a Nation. Lastly, we continue to advocate for the Indigenous Learning Garden, which those who came before us began in 2007. To them, our friends and our allies, we are ever grateful.
This issue of institutional racism and inequities against indigenous people of North America we have noticed, is an area your voice has been silent. The silence has been deafening regarding atrocities and acts of terror impacting Indian Country during our time here at WSU. Is that on purpose or a learned behavior that most of us may not notice because society has allowed us to overlook the First Nations?
Since 2014 there have been opportunities to raise your voice for indigenous Hawaiians to support their struggle to save their sacred mountain Mauna Kea from further desecration, but you remained silent. Where was WSU’s support for Oak Flat in July of 2015 in their struggle to protect their sacred land from being sold to Resolution Copper Co for mining in a land grab deal made by Congress? Most recently where was the support for Standing Rock Sioux Tribe among the other Nations who are stakeholders of the Fort Laramie Treaty? Those are People that will be represented in the Indigenous Learning Garden, are they not?
In light of human and civil rights violations, treaty violations, and violations of our very own constitution (Article VI, check it out) you remain silent on any issue afflicting Indian Country. There was even silence on February 20th, 2017 when nearly 30 community members came out in the rain to encourage WSU to divest from the conflict at Standing Rock, ie end the financial partnership WSU has with Wells Fargo & Company. On the 20th, we came to ask WSU to stop supporting the continued genocide of our people through willful ignorance, to stop refraining from being a conscious consumer as an institute of higher learning. We can no longer afford to be so careless if we are truly committed to our mission. We continue to urge WSU to divest from Wells Fargo for reasons that go far beyond the fight for basic rights and water at Standing Rock, but across all of Indian Country.
Knowing we cannot stand indifferent in the face of historical challenges to eliminate inequities in our communities, how can you remain silent on all of these issues effecting the original people of this land, but use your voice so strongly for other communities both foreign and domestic representing our entire university. Where is the social justice and equality? Where is the inclusiveness in what we are witnessing as indigenous students?
We have also noticed parallels of inequity regarding your silence on issues affecting Indian Country with your silence regarding the Indigenous Learning Garden. Our inequities as indigenous people with the federal government is comparable to the inequities between educational institutions and indigenous students, between the silent narrative at Standing Rock in mainstream society and the silent narrative of indigenous people on our campus.
Well, President Olson, you’ve presented WSU a challenge and TISO is taking you up on that challenge. The Turtle Island Student Organization is calling you out! You’ve asked us to consider using our lives to stand for fairness and inclusion. We are trying to do just that and only ask of you, what you have asked of us.
We ask you to please consider, that you lead by example. Actions speak louder than words. Promises have been made to us and to those that came before us. We are here to collect on those promises. President Olson, with all due respect, enough is enough. Remember where you reside. This is Indian Land and we are here to help us all remember that fact so that we may learn from our history in order to prevent ourselves from repeating it. We know this is truth and not an assumption as we have seen the stark reality of history repeating itself with the Indian removal on Indian Land at gunpoint with live rounds, less lethal rounds, armored vehicles, boats, planes, and helicopters since August 2016 at Standing Rock. Just days ago the last camps were beginning to be evicted on February 28th. Why is that date important? Do you remember? Our society tells indigenous people get over it; it’s in the past. You know as well as us; that is not true. Not in the least bit.
TISO stands with the indigenous people of this land, our relatives enduring continued genocide… as we speak. For better our worse, WSU is enabling this to occur by our doing business with Wells Fargo and by not teaching our shared history in a holistic manor. President Olson, where do you stand? Where does WSU stand? TISO invites you to rise with us, to end WSU’s financial partnership with Wells Fargo & Company, and to create an opportunity on our campus for holistic learning so we may know our shared history to better our world. It has to start sometime. What better time than now?
Let us be conscious consumers and conscious learners, to think critically and analyze the world we intend on improving as Warriors. We ask WSU to publically support and build the ILGI with as much collaboration with tribal Nations as possible. We also ask for WSU to end their financial partnership with Wells Fargo & Company to ensure we are not supporting the continued institutional racism against First Nations with our money and make WSU’s reasons for doing so public. We would like to close with the words of an elder we greatly admire and are aware you do as well. “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mitakuye Oyasin, (All our relations)
Turtle Island Student Organization
-“We are still here. Remember us.”