Staff Editorial: USF’s past and present relationship with Native Americans 


Many people at USF are probably aware that the University occupies Indigenous land and its presence comes from a history of settler violence. Fewer people, however, may be aware of what the University is doing to face this history.

Last year the USF provost’s office and the Lane Center for Catholic Social Thought and the Ignatian Tradition launched the Indigenous Engagement Project (IEP), a formal commitment to furthering engagement between the University and Indigenous communities. Associate politics professor Kouslaa Kessler-Mata (Chumash and Yokut) and Lane Center Executive Director Erin Brigham who penned the white paper, “A Year of Discernment: Indigenous Engagement at USF,” are leading the project. Brigham’s white paper is part of the IEP and lists specific recommendations for USF on building a relationship with Native Americans.

Since the publication of Brigham’s white paper, the provost’s office promised to conduct outreach to local Ramaytush Ohlone leadership, create community-engaged learning protocols centered around Indigenous education, and establish the Native advisory committee, co-chaired by Kessler-Mata. 

Contracted by the Lane Center for the IEP, former USF historian Alan Ziakjka published a piece called “The Jesuits and Native Communities” that contextualizes the importance of reconciliation.

According to Ziajka, the Jesuits began their missionary work in the early 16th century in North and South America and by 1750 had created the largest network of missions and schools in the world. In 1855, the Jesuit Anthony Maraschi founded St. Ignatius Church and St. Ignatius Academy (which became known as the University of San Francisco in 1930) to “help civilize and educate [the] tumultuous Gold Rush Town.” 

Maraschi simultaneously served on the board of trustees at USF and at Santa Clara, where he worked alongside California’s first Governor Peter Burnett. Jesuit historian John McGloin describes Burnett as a “close friend of the Jesuit Fathers of old St. Ignatius as well as a devoted member of the Gentleman’s Sodality connected with the [Jesuit] church.”

Burnett was also a slave owner, advocated for the exclusion of Black people from Oregon and California, and advocated for the extermination of Native Americans whom he deemed “savages.” Between 1850 and 1854, Burnett signed off on the massacres of Modoc, Yurok, Shasta, and Tolowa tribes, allocating $1.3 million to mass killing campaigns.

When Burnett passed away, St. Ignatius Church held a funeral service. According to McGloin, the “vast congregation which crowded the church testified to the esteem felt for the deceased.” Although there is no evidence on how Burnett’s views may have influenced the Jesuits at St. Ignatius Academy, Ziajka notes “It is hard to believe, however, that the Jesuits at the time were unaware of Burnett’s views, or that they knew nothing about the implementation of those views in decimating the lives and cultures of Native Americans in California.” 

Bearing this history in mind, Ziakjka recommends that the Jesuits, the Catholic Church, and the state accept their “history of engagement” with Native Americans, a sentiment echoed by Kessler-Mata. 

In Kessler-Mata’s white paper, “Owning our Colonial Past and Present,” she wrote, “We must start with the premise that our institutions are the products of settler colonial processes where Indigenous people were replaced with and by settler populations.

“Starting at the present means taking stock of where we are now, as well as keeping our understanding of the past. As a university, what are we doing in relation to the Indigenous populations on our campus and outside of it in our communities?”

At present, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCUs) falls behind other universities in this work and USF is no exception. As Kessler Mata’s noted in her research, six of ten AJCUs surveyed have formal land acknowledgments, but USF does not currently have an official one. 

USF has used Suquamish alumna Calina Lawrence’s land recognition statement since 2017. The IEP team voiced their gratitude for Lawrence’s work but recommends that USF create a formal land acknowledgment in collaboration with Ramaytush Ohlone leadership. “[…]land acknowledgments are place-based efforts…it is important to ensure that the correct participants are at the table.” 

From the pool of AJCUs, New York’s Le Moyne College proves the most “noteworthy” for its reconciliatory efforts despite its shortcomings. Le Moyne teaches a Native American history course, has a minor focused on race in America, and has an African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American program (AHANA) that gives academic support and opportunities for students who identify with those backgrounds. 

In 2018, the college gave an honorary degree to Oren Lyons, an Onondaga Faithkeeper and activist. This was the university’s first public acknowledgment of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and an admission that the Jesuits harmed them during forced conversion. 

In Wisconsin, Marquette University has also been making progress. The university recently adopted a formal land and water acknowledgment and established a partnership with the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College (LCOOC), an Ojibwe tribal college. The partnership will enable LCOOC students to transfer to Marquette and will grant one LCOOC student a scholarship each year.

According to the latest census, only 0.2% of the population at USF identifies as Native American. However, Native students are lumped into one data category “Native American,” and the IEP recommends that distinct categories like California Indians, American Indians, and Indigenous South Americans be created. A further challenge, as highlighted by the IEP, arises as cases have bubbled up of students falsely checking the “Native” box to receive university benefits.

Moving forward, IEP hopes to address these challenges so that USF can accurately serve its population of Native faculty and students. The small number of Native students who do join USF often get lost in the masses because there are no on-campus spaces and resources created for them — such as Native American graduation ceremonies, clubs, or scholarships. In an interview with the Foghorn, Kessler-Mata said that Native students have joined the Indigenous Peoples of Oceania Graduation Ceremony because there is no designated celebration for them. 

“Symbolically the fact that we don’t have anything for graduating [Native] students is reflective of the fact that we haven’t invested in the students since the time that they’ve arrived,” she said.

The Foghorn reached out to two Native American graduates for comment on their USF experiences but at the time of publishing did not receive a response. 

Moving forward, as outlined by Kessler-Mata, the University’s first step must be formal outreach to local Ramaytush Ohlone leadership by USF leadership. From there, USF can create a collaborative land acknowledgment which will mark the beginning of a continuous and reciprocal relationship. 

Until last year, Kessler Mata worked with Dean Eileen Fung from the college of arts and sciences to push this process forward. Beyond this collaboration, top-down leadership from the administration remained absent with no university-wide initiatives in place. According to Kessler-Mata when Provost Chineyere Oparah joined USF last summer “the stars aligned” to launch the Indigenous Engagement Project (IEP). “There was this big vacuous space that needed to be filled,” Kessler-Mata said.

Because Kessler-Mata is one of few Native USF faculty members, it is important that she is not alone in pushing forward this process of engagement. “Creating collective buy-in is really one of the important challenges that we face, to make sure that everyone feels empowered to be able to help push us collectively forward — it can’t just be on the one Native faculty,” she said. “It really has to be the work of existing administrators and faculty to say, ‘OK well, I can carry this water too.’”

With the IEP in progress, Kessler-Mata sees even more potential for growth. Beyond what the University has committed to, Kessler-Mata wants to expand support for Ramaytush and Ohlone students through “concentric circles.” 

Through scholarships, first admission preference, and other efforts, “It would be quite a signal to say, ‘This is your homeland, we want to help bring you back into your homeland and to support you in doing that work that you want to do,’” Kessler-Mata said. 

Until USF gets to that point, changes will occur in alignment with the IEP’s primary recommendations and with the oversight of the newly established Native advisory committee. In an email to the Foghorn, Oparah said, “I am grateful for the leadership of our Indigenous faculty, librarians, staff, and students and am eager to see the transformational work of the Indigenous Engagement Project move forward.” 

Also affirming the University’s plans in a statement to the Foghorn, Father Paul F. Fitzgerald, S.J. said, “The importance of reconciliation is acknowledging historical injustice against Indigenous communities, and in that context we still have much work to do. Our ongoing work is inspired by a faith that does justice — a critical part of our Jesuit mission and identity.” 

It is crucial that top University officials like the President and Provost commit to reconciling USF’s relationship with Native Americans, but it is equally important that they stay committed to these efforts. Energy around this subject is currently high and we hope that by taking the necessary first steps outlined by the IEP, the “buy-in” that Kessler-Mata hopes for will continue to grow at USF. Continuing to shed light on the dark history associated with this land, and the complicit hand USF played in it, will help students understand the resources and advocacy we need to call for today.


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