USF takes first step toward acknowledging campus’ impacts on Indigenous tribes

The USF Department of Anthropology released a statement Nov. 24 acknowledging that the Tampa campus is built on Seminole land, taking a major step in cultivating a relationship between USF and Indigenous populations. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/USF DEPARTMENT OF ANTHROPOLOGY’S COMMITTEE FOR DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION

The Department of Anthropology is opening doors for a better relationship with Indigenous people by releasing the USF Land Acknowledgement statement, the first of many future efforts to advocate for solidarity and avoid Indigenous historical erasure.

The USF Department of Anthropology released the statement Nov. 24 to spread awareness and appreciation of the fact that the Tampa campus resides on former Seminole, Calusa and Tocobaga land. The statement will allow the university to collaborate on more efforts to unify USF and the Indigenous peoples by facilitating conversation between the two parties, according to USF Department of Anthropology Chair Antoinette Jackson.

“The land acknowledgment statement is 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 acknowledgment 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.”

While the statement was released close to Thanksgiving, professor in the USF Department of Anthropology Diane Wallman said the statement has been in the works since May and it was a coincidence that it was approved by the Seminole Tribe so close to the holiday.

“It just sort of worked out that way and also, along with Native Heritage Month, I literally got word of it two days before Thanksgiving that they had signed off [on the statement],” she said.

The timing of the release allowed the writers to preface the land acknowledgment with a paragraph about the historically inaccurate portrayals of Indigenous people within the celebration of Thanksgiving. 

Wallman spearheaded the efforts to release the statement by speaking with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Along with the USF Department of Anthropology’s Committee for Diversity and Inclusion, she corresponded often with the tribe on language in the statement in order to best convey solidarity.

“It is a first step in engaging with yet another community that has been underrepresented in university outreach in terms of recognizing historical erasure and addressing past wrongs,” she said. “The Department of Anthropology is leading the way in how the university can be good community partners and stewards in the present even as we address past faults.”

Wallman said the department already has many connections with local Indigenous tribes through research and projects by students and faculty. Among the projects, the department collaborated on the completion of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act which asked universities to inventory Indigenous remains used for research and then contact tribes to ask about burial rites and ceremonies. 

However, she would like to see these connections expanded.

“We have partnerships and pipelines for example with [historically Black colleges and universities] in Florida and other organizations and things,” she said. “We could think about developing a [Memorandum of Understanding] with the Seminole and other groups to work on topics and help them with research or other things that they’re interested in with the resources we have available.”

Wallman also hopes that the statement will encourage Indigenous students to attend the university, as the statement is meant to express solidarity, respect and understanding of their history. 

She said that she would like to see increased pipelines and tools created to allow Indigenous students to apply and attend the university, though these endeavors are only in the idea stages. 

“We’ve kind of gotten this out there and there’s precedence that hopefully, we can take these steps through the university and through the upper bureaucratic levels of that in order to make these changes,” Wallman said.

Sarah Taylor, Instructor II in the USF Department of Anthropology, said that the land acknowledgment is simply the beginning of the future dialogue between USF and Indigenous people.

“The first step moving forward, from my point of view, is to listen to what the Seminole people need from us,” she said. “We visualize collaborating to create opportunities for Native American students through scholarships, internships and other academic means.”

Wallman said that the statement allowed the department to acknowledge the erasure of the history of many Indigenous communities within the school curriculum in Florida.

“I don’t know how much actual Indigenous history [schools] go into and how deep into the colonial period, the disruption and death that was brought to the Indigenous people here,” she said. “These are histories of people that were here thousands and thousands of years and we have to be aware of that.”

Many universities have released similar statements in the past year, like Northwestern University and the University of Utah. Even the St. Pete campus released a statement earlier in the month acknowledging the land on which it stands. 

They have become so common because of the efforts to advocate for inclusion and equity at a national level. Many populations are unfairly represented and inadequately acknowledged, according to Wallman, so more universities are putting out these statements. 

“The purpose of the statement is to bring awareness to the history of the land that we sit on at USF because it’s often kind of erased and put in the background,” Wallman said. “I think that’s like the premiere purpose of these statements, to acknowledge and recognize that and then pursue next steps.”

While the next steps have not been concretely decided on, members of the anthropology department are enthusiastic about possibilities that could be pursued in the future as potential ways to continue encouraging unity among USF and Indigenous people.

“We see this statement as being something we add to syllabi to raise awareness amongst our students and inspire them to engage differently with Native American communities going forward,” Jackson said. “We also view this as an opportunity to work more proactively with the Seminole and other Native groups and to include issues impacting these communities in department-level social justice initiatives.”

Jackson hopes that the statement, as well as the support of the statement by USF President Steven Currall and administration, shows dedication to diversity and inclusion within USF. 

“As a university and as a department, we really are trying to put our money where our mouth is regarding these issues that are so pervasive right now because of everything that has happened in the past year,” Jackson said. “I think we need to take advantage of these movements to try and make actual changes in our institutions, and that’s what we hope we can do with this statement.

“This is just our first little step.”