Owning Our Colonial Past and Present

Commitments and Responsibilities of Jesuit Colleges and Universities to American Indians

Pierless Bridges, Vol. 3, 2022
September 29, 2022
Kouslaa Kessler-Mata, Associate Professor, Politics Department

Across the country, colleges and universities are taking a hard look at how they came into being and at whose expense. Since Georgetown’s groundbreaking 2015 initiative(1) to examine the university’s founding and its relationship to slavery, many public and private institutions of higher education have similarly begun to ask about their own history and to consider ways to make amends for their inherited legacies. In this piece, I suggest that members of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) are uniquely positioned to engage these questions in relation to Indigenous communities given the historical lineage of our institutions as well as our founders’ moral and ethical commitments as Jesuits. I reflect on some of the work that is presently going on in different AJCU spaces and consider how we might collectively move forward in addressing our institutional inheritance.


First, a note on who I am and why I am writing this piece. I am a Native woman, living and working in the traditional ancestral territory of the Ramaytush Ohlone. (2) I have worked at USF for over 14 years in the Politics Department, first as a dissertation fellow and later as a tenure track faculty member. Over this period, much has changed in the broader, national context for conversations on foundational legacies and institutional inheritance. With support from our new USF leadership, Provost Chinyere Oparah, and USF’s mission officer and Lane Center director, Dr. Erin Brigham, I was supported to help USF identify ways we can build community with Native people.

Outside of USF, I spend a considerable amount of my time as a community member doing uncompensated work for my tribe (3) in various capacities. For example, I was nominated by my tribe and appointed in 2020 to sit on the governor’s California Truth and Healing Council. (4) Our charge is to clarify and correct the historical record of state and tribal relations in the spirit of truth and healing; our work lasts through 2025. I also sit on the California Department of Education’s American Indian Education Oversight Committee for the State Superintendent where we address educational challenges facing American Indian students and tribal communities in public schools. Finally, I work for my tribe in navigating policy matters related to our homeland territories in San Luis Obispo County, a position that requires me to work with federal, tribal, and state governments in the region and advocate for the tribe’s positions on land and ocean access and protection-related issues. As a result of this work, I see every day how land theft and colonization from California’s Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. periods continue to impact our communities and limit our access to political processes and power, land, and cultural resources, among others.

And yet, when non-Native institutions and organizations talk about reconciliation and historical reckoning, it is often constructed as a discussion about the past. It is not. These discussions ought to start in the present by considering things as they are now and trace back in time to understand how the development of the institution maps onto the historical context that leads to today. The particular conditions of contemporary California Indian communities today are informed and shaped by the past. Our work as an institution is to understand the linkages between our existence and theirs and to, eventually, reach out to engage with them if relationships do not already exist. The question of what is owed and what our ethical and moral responsibilities are to these communities can be informed and animated by the existing Jesuit principle of reconciliation and reflect the more recent work examining Jesuit relationship to slavery.(5) There are many models now underway for us to consider; what we need is the connective tissue across our institutions to support this work. Below, I outline some of the important considerations to make in the process of initiating this work.


In thinking about this process, 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. While Native communities may still reside in their ancestral homelands, they are often at the margins and generally do not retain autonomy over their territories. Starting at the present means taking stock of where we are now, as well as deepening 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? This process is both inward and outward looking. We must ask what kinds of institutional support do we provide for Native people on campus and off campus? How well are we supporting our Native American students, faculty, and staff? Who within our institution is doing what kinds of work with Indigenous communities? If there is a push toward reconciliation on campus, is leadership playing an active role? Has a comprehensive, principled approach been put into place to support internal and externally facing work related to local Indigenous people? This initial internal reflective process must take place before reaching out as an institution to local Indigenous communities.


Among the most well-known efforts to make visible the presence of Indigenous communities in academic spaces are land acknowledgments. According to Professor Joely Proudfit (Luiseño)(6), and Alexis Bunten (Aleut/Yup’ik)(7), land acknowledgments are just the start of a university’s work to incorporate decolonizing practices. They are the initial point for conversations inside and outside of the university for how to engage local Native communities and for thinking about what the institution’s commitments and interests are in pursuing this work. Proudfit, Bunten, and many other Native scholars have argued that land acknowledgments, absent any institutional commitment to Native communities on and off the campus, are merely empty and performative, doing little more than assuaging the guilty conscience of a group willing to acknowledge history, but do nothing to reckon with it. Of the 10 respondents to our survey, six of the 10 Jesuit colleges and universities report having adopted land acknowledgments, while two of the 10 are “working on it,” with the remaining two schools currently without one. Of the two schools without a land acknowledgment, one indicated that it was a topic that had been discussed, but the decision was made to hold off on it until other structural changes were made that would ensure such an acknowledgment were not empty and performative.

In the case of USF, we do not have a university-adopted land acknowledgment. Departments and programs, university leadership, individual faculty, student organizations, and student support services have all developed land acknowledgments independently over the past seven-plus years. This evidence shows a willingness and desire throughout the university to enter into a conversation regarding how best to engage with tribes and Native people on and off campus. To build on this interest, I recommend that our university—and others who have not yet started their work in this area—initiate an internal process to bring together representatives from across campus to drive the conversation. This must include campus executive leadership in building and implementing the initiative. Without the support of university leadership, the impact of land acknowledgments as a transformative action loses a great deal of its potential. Because the process of developing a land acknowledgment should be as much a reflective as prospective process, there are likely to be calls for the commitment of institutional resources. Without leadership buy-in, any assembly of well-meaning faculty and staff is far less likely to have the necessary, university-wide impact.

University participants are not the only people who should be at the table in the development of a land acknowledgment. One of Professor Proudfit’s most frequently used mantras is, “Nothing about us without us.” In developing the CSU San Marcos Land Acknowledgment Toolkit,(8) Proudfit outlines a collaborative approach between institutions and the Indigenous inhabitants of the land and region that a university occupies. She employs the “Four R's of Indigenous Research” in the toolkit to establish the foundational principles for developing a transformative land acknowledgment: responsibility, reciprocity, respect, and relationships.

In elaborating on each of these prin- ciples, Proudfit outlines important considerations and moments for reflection that institutions should consider in this work. In developing land acknowledgments, universities are able to build relationships with tribal communities.

For our part, over the past year I initiated conversations with the chairperson of the Ramaytush Ohlone, the Indigenous people of San Francisco, in order to hear from him how he would like USF to engage the tribe moving forward. He, too, reiterated Proudfit’s suggestions that the university leadership start by reaching out directly to introduce themselves and indicate their interest in developing a relationship with them, and that a land acknowledgment would be a great way to start that process and to learn more about one another. Establishing communication between principals of an organization and a tribe—not individual staff, faculty, students, or individual tribal members—is key to ensuring that the effort receives the support it deserves. There are additional ways in which the chairperson for Ramaytush suggested we collaborate, but all of those discussions were set aside until the formal introduction between principals takes place.


In addition to evidencing leadership buy-in and support, done right, land acknowledgments can serve as the first concerted effort at collaborative work with the local Indigenous com- munity. Many institutions across the country are also creating Native American advisory councils to help guide and develop these relationships with Indigenous peoples. While there is no “one way” to create these, the general parameters are that they include, at a minimum, Native representatives selected by the local Indigenous tribe or tribes on which the campus(es) sit and possibly Native student alums of the university, and that they are standing bodies, not select or temporally bound. You can only know who is authorized to speak for the tribal communities by asking the tribal communities. Self-identified Native individuals who want to work with the university are not always best positioned to support the relationship-building processes. There are some Jesuit institutions that have convened presidential-level working groups on specific themes or issues, but there is a broader need for establishing routine and enduring relationships. These advisory bodies can sit in relation to many different facets of the institution—though they ought to be positioned for impact, thus directly connected to the board of trustees, president, or provost—and should be established through formal agreements, memorandum of understandings, respect for Indigenous protocols and the like. This is a much larger topic than can be discussed here, but it is key for ensuring meaningful and respectful relationships are built with Indigenous communities.


Through various, albeit limited and incomplete, outreach efforts on campus at USF and across the AJCU, I found significant faculty and staff interest in initiating and continuing conversations across Jesuit institutions on Indigenous-related projects, including: 1) historical reflections on the settler colonial foundings of our institutions and their impact on Indigenous communities, 2) interest in discussing what it might mean to decolonize Jesuit educational institutions, 3) building support communities across AJCU institutions for Native faculty and staff, 4) identifying resources for institutions interested in building linkages with Indigenous communities, and 5) learning about and engaging in best practices for research on, with, and for Indigenous communities for faculty.

While all of these potential projects are worthwhile and while many faculty are making efforts to raise these issues on their home campus, it is important that the AJCU, as an orga- nizing body, plays a facilitating role in coordinating and supporting activities related to these projects. A cornerstone of the AJCU is our commitment to reflective practice. Our Mission Priority Examen (MPE) self-studies and peer review processes would be excellent ways for colleges to initiate this work. The current Guide for Mission Reflection (9) indicates that the next MPEs should respond to the theme of reconciliation as discussed in General Congre- gation 36.(10) There are at least two touch points in the MPE Characteristics that would enable Jesuit institutions to take up this call. First, under Characteristic Two, institutions are asked to reflect on their curriculum, research of faculty, and diversity and inclusion practices to gauge how these activities create opportunities for intellectual growth and demonstrate commitment to Jesuit values.(11) Certainly, asking what it means to decolonize colonial institutions pushes us to consider what we teach and how we teach, as well as what we research and how we do so.

Characteristic Three asks members of the AJCU to reflect on their “commitment to social justice and reconciliation, to anti-racism, and the care of our common home” (Earth), all of which are clearly relevant to animating these projects.(12) The final part of this characteristic 27 emphasizes a commitment to serving the global community. However, right relationships start at home and are place-based, particularly in the Indigenous relations context. Perhaps
one of the most important aspects of Indigenous studies, and a key issue regarding decolonizing academic spaces, is our moral and ethical obligations to working with the local Indigenous communities in our immediate presence. This is not a zero-sum position, but it is to suggest that an institution cannot achieve its goals of being with and for others, of advancing social justice, without first doing so in relation to the Indigenous communities in which it is situated.

There are, of course, additional connective points between the MPE self-studies and peer review processes. For example, the religious pluralism of the Jesuits, along with the commit- ment to environmental justice as a moral imperative, maps on to many Native spiritual beliefs and practices. There is potential for building programs that support Indigenous knowledge and research, but only if right relations have been established first. Whether we are talking about decolonizing university spaces, supporting Native faculty, students, and staff, or build- ing inclusive programs that incorporate Indigenous research, it all depends on our ability to successfully address the twin foundational pillars: historical reckoning and building bridges with tribal communities. Our institutions are all at different points in this process. With a little constructive support and guidance, I am confident we will be able to engage these critical processes and advance our commitments to reconciliation and social justice.


KOUSLAA KESSLER-MATA (yak tityu tityu Chumash and Yokut) is associate professor in the Politics Department at the University of San Francisco, where she has taught since 2007. She completed her BA in American Studies, with a minor in American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University, and her PhD in Political Science from the University of Chicago. She teaches courses on public administration, political theory, as well as American Indian politics. Previously, she worked for California Indian Legal Services and the National Congress of American Indians, and currently sits on the board of directors for the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center and yaktityutityu k?išnasime, organizations dedicated to supporting and fostering Native cultures and communities.

  1. www.georgetown.edu/slavery/ 14 May 2022.
  2. www.ramaytush.org/ 14 May 2022.
  3. www.yttnorthernchumash.org/ 14 May 2022.
  4. www.tribalaffairs.ca.gov/cthc/ 14 May 2022.
  5. To read more about the Society of Jesus’ commitment to this work, see the “Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project”: www.jesuits.org/our-work/shmr/ 16 May 2022.
  6. Director of American Indian Studies and the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center at CSU San Marcos.
  7. Co-director of the Indigeneity Program at Bioneers www.bioneers.org/peoples/alexis-bunten/ 22 May 2022.
  8. “You’re on California Indian Land, Now What? Acknowledging Relationships to Space & Place” www.csusm.edu/cicsc/land.pdf 22 May 2022.
  9. A Guide for Mission Reflection v3 static1.squarespace.com/static/55d1dd88e4b0dee65a6594f0/t/612fafa56362bb224b 00f773/1630515115139/A+Guide+for+Mission+Reflection_09-21.pdf.
  10. Documents of General Congregation 36 of the Society of Jesus www.jesuits.eu/images/docs/GC_36_Documents.pdf 20 May 2022.
  11. A Guide for Mission Reflection v3, 14.
  12. Ibid, 16.