On August 13, 2021, I wrote the following letter of concern to high level campus administrators at the University of Arizona, namely N. Levi Esquerra (Senior Vice President for Native American Advancement and Tribal Engagement), and Karen Francis-Begay (Assistant Provost for Native American Initiatives). The letter is deeply rooted in who I am as a Hopi person, and as a scholar in the fields of American Indian Studies and Native American history.
From:Gilbert, Matthew Sakiestewa – (sakiestewa)
Sent:Friday, August 13, 2021 4:50 PM
To:Esquerra, Nathan Levi – (levie) <firstname.lastname@example.org>; Francis-Begay, Karen R – (kfbegay) <email@example.com>
Subject:All Native voices @ UA matter
Dear Levi and Karen,
I hope that this email finds you well.
I write to express concern and inquire about whether campus administration is respecting and taking into consideration the differing opinions held by Native people at UA regarding the COVID vaccine and mask mandates.
I am especially concerned that President Robbins and UA officials will require Native people on campus to take the COVID vaccine, which may go against their religious or cultural beliefs, and may go against the counsel of their elders and healers in their communities.
For the past several months, campus administration has approached the COVID situation from a Western scientific perspective, understandably so. However, this approach does not take into account or give room for an appropriate Native response to the vaccine based on an individual’s cultural or spiritual beliefs. Nor does it consider the long and painful history that Native people have endured involving the federal government’s mandatory inoculations, forced sterilizations, and racism and discrimination toward Natives under the guise of “public health.” It goes without saying, then, that many Indian people have not forgotten about this past and still do not trust the federal government, the CDC (a federal government agency), or believe that the government has their best interests in mind.
What then do we say to Native students, faculty, and staff on campus who bring these concerns to our attention? Do we tell them that their past and the opinions of their elders do not matter? Do we tell them that the counsel and practices of their medicine people are backwards and not based on science? Do we tell them that the ancient ways of their people have no place in modern society? Perhaps instead we should simply tell them that the Great White Father in Washington insists that they get the vaccine and mask up, for he knows what is best for them.
Are we as Indian people no longer disturbed by such paternalism? Have we lost the will to push back for fear of being censored or cancelled? It is, after all, the America we now live in. And we would be amiss to think that this form of paternalism does not exist at UA. It certainly does. For example, during the most recent COVID briefing earlier this week, two older white men, medical doctors by profession, occupying the most powerful positions on campus, told each of us: Get vaccinated, mask up, and if it was up to me (President Robbins), I would “mandate” the COVID vaccine for every student, faculty, and staff.
Again, the message to Indian and other people of color is clear: We know what is best for you. Obey us.
But this “one size fits all” approach diminishes and/or ignores the very real cultural and historical differences and concerns among Native people, and other so-called ethnic minorities on campus. And it undermines our agency as people from Indigenous and other marginalized communities.
Not long after Monday’s COVID briefing, President Robbins and UA officials changed the campus policy on masks, mandating that everyone wear a mask indoors if they are not able to also social distance. As you know, some question whether this was legal or enforceable. Time will tell. Regardless, it would be good for President Robbins and other campus officials to take a step back and see the irony in their response, which appears to be this: While we have chosen to disobey state law (if this is indeed true), we nevertheless expect YOU to obey our laws.
Know that while I have concerns regarding President Robbins’ COVID response, I do have the utmost respect for him and acknowledge the tremendous responsibility and challenge he has to lead UA through this situation. We are, indeed, very fortunate at UA to have a medical doctor at the helm, especially now.
Two years ago, I came to UA to build bridges and not tear them down. And I came willing and able to assist campus administration to make UA a better place for Native people. But I am Head of a small department, with no power or real influence on campus. You, however, have the “ear” of the President and Provost. You have a seat at the table. And you have an opportunity here to support and be a voice and advocate for all Native people as we enter a new semester and era of COVID.
Thank you for all the good work you do on behalf of the Indian community at UA. I am honored to call you my colleagues and friends.
Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert
Professor and Head
Department of American Indian Studies
University of Arizona