The Indigenous History and Future of MIT

April 19, 2022

To the members of the MIT community,

Late last spring and again in the fall, I met with the participants in a class called “The Indigenous History of MIT.” These conversations opened my eyes to important aspects of MIT’s connections to Native nations and tribal lands, the histories of Native communities in New England, and the history of Indigenous students, staff and faculty on our campus. I announced our intention to create this class nearly two years ago, and am grateful to the students and their instructors – Dr. David Shane Lowry '03, Distinguished Fellow in Native American Studies, and Professor Craig Wilder – for their leadership as we explore this critical part of our institution’s history.

You can read about the class in this interview with Dr. Lowry from the fall. Tomorrow one of the students in the class, Alvin Harvey, will present at the Institute faculty meeting and, in the days ahead, MIT News will publish a story on the students’ research, so that all of us can benefit from their findings.

Today I write to announce steps we will take to advance Indigenous scholarship and support our Indigenous community, now and in the future, as we respond to what we are learning.

Advancing Scholarship

Listening to the students’ presentations, it became clear that we are only scratching the surface in understanding MIT’s Indigenous history and Native issues more broadly. Leadership in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (SHASS) and the History Section also helped us realize that it is past time for MIT to feature cutting-edge scholarship and educate our students in this rapidly expanding discipline. Therefore, MIT will create a tenure-line faculty position in Native American studies within SHASS. We will launch a search for an experienced scholar next academic year, with the aim of having that person in place at the start of the 2023–24 academic year. This position will serve to anchor the many existing efforts on campus around Indigenous issues.

We will also expand our support for the MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars Program, which honors the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Two positions will be added, with at least one each year reserved for a scholar of Native American studies. The MLK Program’s scholars become deeply engaged in the life of the Institute through teaching, research and other interactions with the MIT community. Until SHASS has filled the faculty position, the portfolio of the scholar of Native American studies will include leading the ongoing exploration of MIT’s Indigenous history, which we will continue to support.

Furthermore, we will fund a study to research and document the role Francis Amasa Walker, MIT’s third president, played in advancing the American reservation system, which cruelly and unjustly relocated Native Americans from their land to make way for European settlers. Researchers, including Simson Garfinkel '87, PhD '05, have written accounts of President Walker’s role in justifying the reservation system, but to my knowledge no definitive modern history exists. MIT has a responsibility to unearth and shine a light on that history so that we may learn from it, and we intend to do so.

We will also provide new opportunities for students to pursue scholarship in Indigenous languages. Since its launch in 2003, the MIT Indigenous Language Initiative (MITILI), a master’s program in linguistics, has trained graduate students from Indigenous communities, so far including the Passamaquoddy, Iñupiaq and Wôpanâak nations, that have endangered languages. The program provides a linguistic framework to help protect such threatened languages and revitalize them. To build on this important work, MIT will fund two graduate fellowships in MITILI for each of the next two academic years.

Community Support

We are in the process of finalizing a strategic action plan for diversity, equity and inclusion that will detail a coordinated, systematic approach for actions that I believe will strengthen the entire MIT community. While we prepare for the plan’s release, we will take several actions specifically to support our Indigenous community.

  • In concert with MIT’s Office of the Vice President for Finance, the Indigenous History class has conducted a review of payments that Massachusetts made to the Institute as a result of the Morrill Act of 1862, which established MIT as a land grant university. These annual disbursements from the state ended without explanation in 2008. Working with the Office of the State Treasurer, we are now exploring whether the state might resume these annual payments, which we would direct to help support Indigenous community efforts on our campus.
  • Recognizing that there may be complications in the legislative process, starting now and until the state takes action, we will channel an equivalent sum each year to Indigenous efforts on campus, jumpstarted with a one-time allocation of $50,000. These funds are in addition to the support we currently provide to our Native student groups – both financial and through efforts like the new convening space for use by MIT's Indigenous communities in Building W31.
  • To achieve swift action on several pending questions, I have asked Chancellor Melissa Nobles and Institute Community and Equity Officer John Dozier to co-chair an ad hoc working group of faculty, staff and students, taking special care to ensure that our Native community is present and deeply engaged, to advise me on:
    • A specific use for the funds we will allocate, for maximum impact.
    • Whether MIT should develop an official land acknowledgment statement or a statement of relationship with our internal and external Indigenous communitiesand, if so, what the process for developing such a statement should entail. In 2019, members of our Indigenous community, working with officials from local tribal organizations and Institute staff, drafted a land acknowledgment statement. Shortly after publication, MIT became aware of tribal disputes regarding historical land claims in Cambridge and the surrounding area. If we are to develop an official Institute statement, we must work collaboratively with tribal leaders so that the statement is accurate and respectful of those claims.
    • The best way to ensure that, going forward, the MIT administration maintains open, regular communication with Native American communities on and around our campus.

I expect to receive snd share the working group's recommendations before the end of 2022.

  • We also remain committed to the Indigenous Communities Fellowship, which MIT Solve launched in 2018 to support innovators across the United States working to address Indigenous communities’ social, environmental and economic goals. In just a few years, Solve has grown the program to include more fellows, from more regions across the country, with more funding and increased interactions between the fellows and MIT faculty and students. All told, Solve has supported 28 fellows and helped facilitate nearly $700,000 in funding. MIT will continue to support and expand this vital program and other related Solve-led efforts, including a recent collaboration with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning to develop a class called "Indigenous Environmental Planning."
  • At Solve at MIT, Solve’s annual signature event, May 5 through 7, we will welcome the 2020 and 2021 Indigenous Communities Fellows to campus and highlight their important work. You can register for the opening plenary session here.

* * *

In our meetings last spring and again in the fall, the Indigenous History students spoke of the “presence of absence” for Native people and issues on our campus. The phrase stayed with me.

The actions we announce today are, in part, an expression to our Indigenous students, staff, faculty, postdocs and alumni that we see, hear and value them. These actions are also an acknowledgement that we have work to do, and reflect a lasting commitment to move forward in ongoing dialogue and partnership with Native communities at MIT and beyond.


L. Rafael Reif