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Native American activists criticize Springfield College for keeping some Indigenous names on campus

The Hillyer Art Library at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.
Nirvani Williams
The Hillyer Art Library at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

Some Native American activists are criticizing Springfield College after the school decided to rename only some parts of its campus that carried Indigenous names.

In an announcement Monday, the college’s president and board of trustees said they had unanimously decided to stop using terms like “council ring,” “sti-yu-ka” and “seven fires” on campus as part of a reassessment of cultural appropriation at the school.

But they kept other names like Camp Massasoit and Massasoit Hall. The college has said the decision emerged from a process that included perspectives from a Renaming Committee, students, staff and alumni.

The school’s decision was a “bitter pill to swallow” for Native Americans like Rhonda Anderson who were involved in listening sessions the college held on the issue. Anderson, who is Iñupiaq - Athabascan from Alaska, is the Western Massachusetts Commissioner on Indian Affairs and the co-founder and co-director of the Ohketeau Cultural Center in Ashfield. She said Springfield College prioritized white alumni voices in its decision.

“This is an Indigenous issue on representation and agency over identity and it should be centered as such,” she said.

In its decision, the school said that it was keeping the name Massasoit on campus because of the importance the name has to alumni.

“For thousands of our alumni, Massasoit Hall is iconic: It is where they first encountered life at Springfield and for so many, it is the place they first met the people who became their lifelong friends,” President Mary-Beth Cooper said in a statement announcing the decision. “Sixty-three years of Springfield students have lived in that building. They aren’t going to call it something else, and personally, I don’t think they need to.”

But for Anderson, the continued use of Massasoit does nothing to honor Indigenous communities or educate people about the actual Massasoit — a leader of the Wampanoag confederacy.

“It’s not the college’s place to assume that that name will keep our thriving cultures thriving and actual and living, which we are,” Anderson said. “That name will do nothing to uphold the true history and the true contemporariness of Indigenous cultures.”

Springfield College declined to make Cooper available for an interview Thursday.

The school is also keeping the name Pueblo for a campus building, saying it is “named for its Southwestern architectural style.” Cooper said in her statement that the school will add background on the name to the building and others that have kept their names.

That decision upset Rhonda LeValdo, an Acoma Pueblo activist based in Kansas who participated in listening sessions the college held.

“It’s just weird how they’re using that term and applying it to a building when we’re a people, there’s many Pueblo nations out there,” she said. “It’s not just architecture. And to use this term in their own way is cultural appropriation.”

LeValdo is a founder of the organization Not in Our Honor, which advocates against the use of Native American imagery in sports. She said that during its listening sessions, the college let non-Natives take over a conversation that belongs to Native peoples.

“They’re trying to not listen to us because they don’t want to lose the financial things with their alumni,” she said.

Anderson has also been involved with activism around the use of Native American imagery in sports and at schools across Massachusetts. She said that she wishes everyone understood that at the time people were coming up with the names or mascots they currently use, white people were engaged in a project of ethnic cleansing against Indigenous peoples and their cultures.

“I quite often come across the opinion of primarily white individuals that feel as though we’re removing their memories, and I honestly wish I had that power,” she said. “That’s simply not the case. That’s not happening here. What’s happening here is righting a wrong.”

Disclosure: Springfield Museums is an underwriter of NEPM. The newsroom operates independently of the station's fundraising department.

Dusty Christensen is an investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He currently teaches news writing and reporting at UMass Amherst.