Monday, July 22, 2024

The Robbins Memorial Flagstaff by Cyrus Dallin in Arlington. (Photo: Beth Folsom)

An MIT committee issued a “values statement” in October 2021 that suggests that we at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will “strive to be transparent and worthy of each other’s trust [and] challenge ourselves to face difficult facts, speak plainly about failings in our systems and work to overcome them.” The statement by the committee, led by professor Dan Hastings but absent of Native/Indigenous participants, went on to say that the school ought to “take special care not to overlook bad behavior or disrespect on the grounds of great accomplishment, talent, or power.”

With its very clear permission, I would like to speak “plainly” about the place of Indigenous peoples and knowledge at MIT.

This past fall, I was hired to teach the course “Indigenous History of MIT.” Part of the work was (and remains) the task of persuading the school community to address its role in the long history of genocide of Native/Indigenous peoples in the United States. My goal this year has been to uncover the story of MIT (a story of science and technology) that begins with the fact it was funded through the Morrill Act of 1862, which took land and water from more than 80 Native/Indigenous nations. We follow the story from 1861 to today.

Francis Walker, MIT’s third president, became famous through his role in the business of Native/Indigenous erasure. He led the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which had a main goal of moving Native/Indigenous peoples out of sight and out of mind.

The erasure continues.

My work, which is actually the work of the entire Native/Indigenous community at MIT, has been exciting and heavy. It has been exciting because it was sanctioned by the provost’s office and then president Rafael Reif. It has been heavy because it helped reveal the Native/Indigenous absence across MIT. When a national news report came out about my new role, I received a death threat. Perhaps people outside the school didn’t want Native/Indigenous people in positions of influence, but MIT wanted us – right? As I looked around, however, there were no Native/Indigenous people in the administration. There were no tenure-track or tenured faculty who come from Native/Indigenous communities. None of the new assistant deans of diversity were Native/Indigenous.

Reif issued a message to the MIT community in April 2022 that outlined a commitment to addressing the school’s role in the genocide of Indigenous peoples, setting the stage for an admission. Reif promised an “ad hoc” committee to address commitments to Native/Indigenous peoples – immediately hampered by the fact that MIT has zero Native/Indigenous faculty who are in positions of tenured authority to affect the work and by the administration not being advised by a Native/Indigenous expert or a committee of Native/Indigenous elders.

When I came to MIT as an undergraduate in 1999, I heard countless students say Clarence Williams, former faculty, was masterful in his recruitment of Black students and Black faculty. I said we needed “a Native Clarence Williams” – a powerful Native/Indigenous person to be in the president’s office and on the corporation.

Last semester, I exchanged a few emails with professor Paula Hammond and other members of the her committee on faculty diversity and recruitment. I believe they were commissioned around 2008 with a final report that came out in 2010. Hammond remembered that there was one Native/Indigenous faculty member counted in its analysis – but wasn’t tenure-track or tenured.

About a month earlier, I traveled to Harvard to have a conversation with Evelyn Hammonds, who created the Center for the Study of Diversity at MIT in the early 2000s. I asked her one question: “Why did that center never have American Indian faculty or invite Native/Indigenous scholars to MIT?”

I bring up those conversations not to place these two brilliant scholars under a harsh spotlight but to reveal how even in work to diversify – even in work for racial justice – Native/Indigenous peoples have been left out. This is not coincidence. MIT was planned in the 1860s to perpetually extinguish American Indian people. The origins of the institute are a nerdy forgetfulness and preoccupation with engineering work that has never required us to pause to acknowledge where we sit and how we profit from the ongoing genocide.

What we have discovered in my course is a community so compartmentalized – so non-responsible to itself and its own history – that any one leader in any one moment can say things such as “I didn’t know that Natives weren’t here” or “I didn’t mean for there not to be Natives on faculty.” This plausible deniability no longer works in the early 2020s as peer institutions including Harvard, Berkeley, the University of Massachusetts and Stanford tout their Indigenous experts in disciplinary areas from science to law.

MIT is also stuck in a state of Indigenous mockery. I was excited to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day with the community, sure that in the aftermath of my hiring, the school would very purposely commit bandwidth to making Native/Indigenous lives matter. Yet that day the magnitude of the celebration was overridden by one for the Nobel Prize in Economics won by faculty member Joshua Angrist. Indigenous Peoples’ Day was a footnote.

Why is this a big deal?

One of the most surprising finds in our course was the role of Alfred Nobel – whose name is used for the Peace Prize and others – in the 19th Century economy of Indigenous genocide. His main invention, dynamite, was used to demolish Indigenous communities and ecosystems throughout the United States. Nobel “peace” was born in a process of ethnic cleansing through science and technology that ultimately poured large amounts of cash back into MIT.

The Dupont family, who became quite wealthy while funding the Union (and Confederacy) during the Civil War, ended up buying Nobel’s dynamite patent while taking almost total control over the explosion economy into the early 20th century. Much Dupont wealth derived from the business of Indigenous death and dismemberment funded endowments and faculty lines. Three members of the Family sat on the corporation, MIT’s board of trustees, in the early 1900s and crafted the MIT we know today.

Did you hear about the recent news at Harvard? Harvard promised $100 million for work to understand, address and repair damage from the enslavement of Native/Indigenous and Black peoples. In Reif’s letter on Indigenous issues, he stated that $50,000 (which is, unfortunately, a loan on Morrill Act of 1862 money that MIT is due to get anytime) will go to Indigenous life/scholarship in the wake of an institutewide discussion of its role in the genocide. This is not enough. I urge MIT to also dedicate at least $100 million to Project Indigenous MIT, which is the result of our work. Guidelines for spending were included in a 2021 letter to the provost.

I am concerned that we do not know when Native/Indigenous bodies were shared between Harvard’s Peabody Museum and MIT, which has a particular department that profited consistently from access to Indigenous and non-Indigenous relatives stored in Peabody’s cryptlike infrastructure: the Center for Material Research in Archaeology and Ethnology. Did CMRAE handle Native/Indigenous bodies? We do not have records that say. Much of the abuse of Indigenous peoples in the United States is unrecorded because Native/Indigenous peoples have been mislabeled and scattered. In that ambiguity, Native/Indigenous peoples are dehumanized.

CMRAE began in MIT’s early years when faculty (including Ellen Swallow Richards) turned extraction of American Indian minerals from land taken in the Morrill Act of 1862 into a full-fledged discipline: the Department of Mining Engineering. It’s an example of how disciplinary prominence continues to be birthed within genocidal policies that senior administrators have never apologized for.

In many ways, this is a story of MIT’s clumsiness. One of my first conversations on campus in the Fall semester was with the Committee on the Use of Humans as Experimental Subjects, whose administrators couldn’t remember Indigenous-related research that had been vetted by an institutional review board. I asked if they could look in their databases for instances of research proposals from the past that included or affected Indigenous communities. They could not.

Native/Indigenous people at MIT are treated like ghosts. (Reif, in a letter, referred to it as the “presence of absence.”) To change this – to return full humanity to Native/Indigenous peoples – we must require that our students and faculty form relationships with Native/Indigenous communities at and around MIT and where they do work. Anthropologists, historians, chemical engineers, space scientists, managers – people from all disciplines – must be responsible for their presence and the impact of their work in Native/Indigenous lands, spaces and intellectual worlds. Since all of this is stolen Native/Indigenous land and water, that means that we must change how we do our work anywhere. That means that we must reinvent how we prepare and support all students.

Across MIT’s schools and colleges, we must provide students with Native/Indigenous faculty mentors that can lead and teach them beyond their disciplinary specialties with a goal of helping all students see Indigenous worlds in humanizing ways. MIT students cannot wait. How is political science work on voting rights not centered on Native/Indigenous communities? How is environmental and civil engineering taught without Native/Indigenous scholars on faculty? A doctoral student reached out to me once because she wanted me to help her understand the intersection between manufacturing processes and Indigenous community. Each MIT school and college must recruit and retain Indigenous faculty that address and make up for the absence of Indigenous knowledge in each MIT school and college. Ethics ought to be taught by Native/Indigenous scholars.

MIT is a standard-bearer. It has a long legacy of being just that – of being a leading figure in the inhumane American machine that continues to decimate Native/Indigenous life and knowledge. Now, it must lead the way in advancing Indigenous life and knowledge.

Students are told that an MIT education is like “drinking from a firehose.” Do you know what firehoses are used for in real life? To break up crowds. They were used on Indigenous, Latinx and Black Americans during the civil rights movement to keep them quiet, to keep them from fighting for human rights. Firehoses were recently used at Standing Rock against Indigenous peoples as they protested the laying of gas pipelines through their communities – gas pipelines that are, in part, engineered by MIT alum.

It is not okay for Indigenous people not to be at MIT in important roles (as executives, faculty, etc.). It is not okay for faculty or students to be out of relationship with Indigenous peoples and communities. It is not okay for students be overworked and not cared for (which goes against Indigenous principles). We must bring humanity to the school, which must center Native/Indigenous knowledge and scholars across its schools and colleges. MIT must begin to return Indigenous land and provide reparations for its role in dismantling and erasing Native/Indigenous peoples. 


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David Shane Lowry is an anthropologist and member (citizen) of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. He is a senior fellow in the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and lives in Cambridge.

A version of this post appeared in the MIT Faculty Newsletter.