Fourth installment of the History Speaker Series: Professors Noelani Arista and Philip Deloria reflect on Indigenous issues and communities

Jade Ciriello and Maeve Goldman

On Monday night, professors Dr. Noelani Arista and Dr. Philip Deloria discussed the obstacles Indigenous people face today and the erasure and romanization of their history during the fourth iteration of the Upper Division (UD) Speaker Series: “How Did We Get Here?: Reflections on Indigenous Issues and Communities.” 


The event was hosted by history teachers Emily Straus and Barry Bienstock and moderated by Devin Allard-Neptune (11) and Rowan Mally (11). 


Allard-Neptune was grateful for the opportunity to moderate the event, especially since she is learning about Native American history in her current history class, she said. “Vast Early American History has really opened my eyes to the importance of this history.” 


Mally is also in Bienstock’s Vast Early American history class. “We have discussed a lot about Indigenous history and how it’s often overlooked in standard American history classes, so this was really interesting,” Mally said.


Both Arista and Deloria are highly acclaimed historians and authors of literary works exploring Indigenous peoples’ histories. Arista completed an award-winning dissertation on Hawaiian governance and the political impact of Euro-American contact. She is currently an associate professor at the University of Hawaii, teaching Hawaiian, 19th century American, and Pacific World history. 


Deloria has written a renowned book discussing the construction of American Indians’ national identity by white people. He is a professor at Harvard University, where he focuses on the existence of American Indian history in a global context, as well as the historic relationships between American Indian people and the United States.  


In the discussion, Arista and Deloria spoke about the absence of Indigenous people in the media and how Native American history is often excluded from the narrative of American history. “Indigenous people make up somewhere between 1.5% and 1.9% of the American population,” Deloria said. However, Native American people do not get nearly enough of the attention they deserve from the rest of the American population, he said. 


Deloria said Native American people are often omitted from American history and only selectively represented through a European lens, he said. “They therefore are contained in particular kinds of forms.” 


Arista added onto Deloria’s ideas by talking about the frequent stereotypes and “strategies of containment” that she often experiences. “There’s nearly no way for me to show up in any discussion and say that I am from Hawaii without the paradise filter being placed on my body, or my history, or my culture,” she said. “For a lot of people, my language doesn’t even exist, because most people assume that our mode of keeping and narrating history, our ability to historicize, comes directly from inherited oral traditions.”


Allard-Neptune said the discussion highlighted the vitality of including Indigenous people’s opinions in discussions about Indigenous issues. “These people have a very important perspective and extensive knowledge on these subjects, and asking them to offer insight on how Indigenous people are threatened by the environment was something that I was particularly interested in, as well as the response to current events, such as COVID-19,” she said.


Arista also touched on the threat of climate change in the Pacific due to rising sea levels, as well as technology initiatives that can improve the Hawaiian response to climate change. “I’m building fish ponds, obtaining or trying to secure food security, because we don’t know if the ships are going to stop coming and bringing goods,” she said. Arista explained that Hawaiians are invested in their community and will do their best to initiate conversations about food sovereignty and climate change.  


“Wherever the native people are in the territory or state, they are fighting for land and cleanliness of water and the environment in ways that will benefit everyone around them,” Arista said. However, people view these problems as solely Indigenous issues, she said.


It is critical to raise awareness about what is currently occurring in the Pacific, Arista said. She elaborated on the differences between Native American people and scientists coming over to Hawaii. The scientists try to dictate to the Native American people the sciences of their environment, even though these people have been there for centuries.  


One of the questions posed to the speakers surrounded the correct terms and labels to use when talking about Native American people. Deloria said although there is no perfect universal terminology, words such as Indian and Native American are applicable, and in certain situations, the term Indigenous can also be used. 


Mekhala Mantravadi (11) said this part of the discussion stood out to her. “I now understand that it’s much more complicated than just a label,” she said. “It’s an identity for people, and identities are personal, so you can’t just go around making labels that you feel comfortable with. It’s the identity that people have, and they get to choose. You have to respect that.”


French teacher Caroline Dolan was particularly interested in Professor Arista’s discussion of language reclamation programs. “I’ve thought about it more in the context of Polynesian languages, or in West African languages where French was a colonial presence in terms of linguistic space, so it was really interesting to hear how those programs are functioning today and how they’re thriving,” she said. 


AJ Walker (11) said watching the speaker series made him reflect on his own identity. “I see a lot of similarities between the way white Americans treated Black people and the way they treated Native Americans in the past, and I appreciated the point they made about how, just like Black history is American history, so is Native American history,” Walker said. “This concept forced me to think about how I, as a Black American, can help amplify the voices of other marginalized groups who face similar acts of oppression and discrimination.”


Allard-Neptune said if people can take what they learned from the discussion and look more into the history of what happened to Indigenous people, the school community would be in a much better place to discuss issues that the American Indian community faces. 


“We can’t overlook Indigenous histories, and we have to remember that Indigenous people and American Indians are part of our community,” Mally said. “A lot of times people only provide them with the necessary respect if they are wearing feathers on their heads or tribal attire, which is wrong. They can be members of our community too, but they still have their American Indian heritage.”