Workshop on Native activism kicks off Boston series


Hannah Bernstein

As Brown University Professor Adrienne Keene began her presentation, she asked participants if they knew what Native land they were standing on at the moment. Only one person raised her hand.

The presentation was about bringing often ignored Native issues into anti-racist activism and was held in the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute Wednesday. It was a kick-off for a larger series of Native educational events at Harvard University, Babson College and other schools in the Greater Boston area.

Keene said during the presentation that she intended the talk to be an interactive workshop for activists looking to learn about incorporating Native communities into their work.

In addition to her work at Brown, Keene founded “Native Appropriations,” a blog to talk about Native issues in mainstream culture. Keene brought those issues into the workshop, discussing the problems with recent Women’s March and Muslim-ban protests signs reading messages such as “We’re All Immigrants” and “This Land is Our Land.”

“A lot of people over and over have been saying in reaction to what’s going on in the world, ‘This is not America,”’ Keene said during the presentation. “To me, as a Native person who knows what my ancestors have been through and can look at history and the history of policies in our country that were designed to completely eradicate people—the other immigration bans we’ve had to the Chinese Exclusion Act on down—for people to say, ‘This is not America’ is erasing that history. This always has been America.”

Keene also talked about Native land throughout the workshop and said the theory of stolen space is key to starting conversations about Native issues.

“The big message is that Native people often get erased in conversations about race or about social justice or in anti-racist work, so thinking about not only not erasing Native people, but centering [the idea],” Keene said. “No matter what, you’re on indigenous land, so thinking about that relationship is something that’s incredibly important to honor in this work.”

Sophomore history major Laura Acosta, who attended the talk, said she came as a member of the Acting Out theater club, which promotes activism through theater. She said she wants to bring Native perspectives into the group.

“I think since the club’s so deeply rooted in activism, I would really love for us to bring indigenous issues into the club,” Acosta said. “Whether that’s through fundraising, some sort of event or bringing these voices and issues to the stage.”

Acosta said she learned the value of being receptive to others, especially in a divided country.

“For me, this is all part of the narrative of the last few days and worries I have about moving forward as a nation [and] as a young person in the nation, what to expect for my future,” Acosta said. “Whether that will be for me or the people who surround me who might have other issues different than the ones I have.”

Keene also talked about the election and said she feels the skills she has gained as an educator and writer for the past seven years prepared her for today.

“In some ways, I’ve been joking with my friends, the last seven years have felt like me training for this moment,” Keene said. “I learned in the early days of the blog how to write a compelling narrative, how to write a tweet people will listen to, and now it’s go-time.”

Salem State University graduate student Stephanie Brandenburg said she came to the workshop to learn how to support her Native friends. She said she now knows more about local organizations like the North American Indian Center of Boston, which Keene mentioned during the workshop.

“[I have] more awareness of what I can do locally—because I don’t think I knew any of these organizations—and an interest in actually knowing what Native land I’m on,” Brandenburg said. “I never thought about that before and it was really important and eye-opening.”

Keene said “Native Appropriations” was created to call out celebrities and companies when they culturally appropriate or say something offensive about Native culture. Coming out of the election, she said her focus has sharpened to issues that directly affect Native livelihoods, like the Dakota Access pipeline, which could endanger the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s water supply.

“Two weeks ago, I was going off about Blake Lively’s new campaign and how she said she was Cherokee,” Keene said. “Now, that kind of stuff feels less immediate. Now, it’s a process of trying to educate folks about these very real and pressing things that are actual threats to our tribal sovereignty and to our existence as Native people.”

Photo courtesy Sarah Jackson, Northeastern communication studies professor