Sac State president: neither side at fault in confrontation over term ‘genocide’

Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen has concluded a history professor did not violate university policy last month in a classroom confrontation with an American Indian student over the use of the word “genocide” – an exchange that made national news.

In a statement to faculty, staff and students, Nelsen nonetheless said the school would take a series of measures to address issues raised in the Sept. 4 exchange, in which student Chiitaanibah Johnson, 19, said she was ejected from her American history class for arguing with professor Maury Wiseman. A minor in genocide and Holocaust studies will be added in the Ethnic Studies Department, and the school will conduct training for both faculty and students on cultural sensitivity and student conduct and decorum, Nelsen said.

“We can all agree change must happen,” Nelsen said in his statement. “We cannot and should not stop the conversations that the incident has provoked. To the contrary, we as a university must learn from this incident and the discussions surrounding it.”

Johnson, a Maidu and Navajo Indian, said Nelsen’s response falls short. She said she is disappointed that the university president didn’t directly address how the class was taught or seek an apology from Wiseman for how she says she was treated when she raised hard questions.

Johnson said the central issue is still how California State University, Sacramento, and other universities teach American Indian history. She said the new genocide course should be part of the history department, not ethnic studies.

“It’s really frustrating when they keep pushing us off on ethnic studies to marginalize us from the mainstream,” she said.

Nelsen did not respond to a request for comment beyond his statement, which said that neither Wiseman nor Johnson were at fault.

According to Johnson’s account, Wiseman said genocide was too strong a word to use for what happened to American Indians, because it implies intent, and many Indians died of diseases that accompanied white settlers.

Johnson said Wiseman accused her of hijacking his class and implying he was racist, and kicked her out. She told her story to Indian Country Today Media Network. It soon went viral and now has nearly 163,000 likes on Facebook. A Sacramento Bee story on the controversy has produced dozens of comments.

Wiseman, in his first public comment, told The Bee in an emailed statement Wednesday he never intended to minimize what happened to Native Americans. He said the remarks Johnson objected to came during a lecture about pre-Columbian America and the earliest contact between Native Americans and Europeans in the 1500s.

“I said the following,” Wiseman recounted: “Native peoples created small-scale hunting and gathering societies, large-scale fishing societies, grand agricultural civilizations ... there were a large number of people on this continent when Europeans arrived.

“I don’t like to use the term ‘genocide’ because genocide is something that is done on purpose, but needless to say European diseases – primarily European diseases – will wipe out Native American populations in the two continents and hence one of the reasons why later in history many Europeans will imagine that these continents were empty. But we know that as many as 25 million people might have lived in what we call Central America today. Another 7 to 10 million people lived in what we call North America today.”

Wiseman said his subsequent lectures detailed what happened between Indians and European settlers in the mid-1800s.

Aaron J. Cohen, chairman of Sacramento State’s history department, also came to Wiseman’s defense. In emailed responses to questions from The Bee, he said Wiseman “never said genocide was too strong a word to use to describe the decimation of the Native American population at the hands of of English settlers or later the U.S. government.”

Cohen noted that the United Nations’ definition of genocide includes intent as a component. Few scholars would argue that European settlers actually intended to introduce the diseases that wiped out huge numbers of Indians, he said.

Cohen added that this view of history can be held without considering the person who teaches it a genocide “denier.” He said his department has reached out to American Indian scholars and students and has been given the OK to hire a new assistant professor specializing in Native American history. Cohen also noted that Brendan Lindsay, author of “Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide 1846-1873,” is a member of the history department.

Johnson’s mentor, Cindy La Marr, executive director of Capital Area Indian Resources, said the CSUS system, a major training ground for public school teachers, is missing an opportunity to look at the way American history is taught in public schools. Based on her 25 years in Indian education, La Marr said, it’s still taught from a Eurocentric point of view. This includes the perspective that California’s missions and westward expansion were good things not just for the country – but for Indians.

“The core of the problem is what happened between Taani and the professor that day,” La Marr said. “If you stand up for yourself, you’re told to get over it.” She said the university’s proposed measures “look great, but in reality they don’t truly address the problem, which is what happens to American Indian students when they stand up.”

Nelsen said he hopes to make Sacramento State, one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, a national model of inclusive dialogue on topics such as genocide. “We must seize this opportunity to encourage respectful discussion of controversial topics in the classroom, even if these discussions may interrupt a planned lecture,” he said.

Nelsen grew up on a Montana cattle ranch. A centerpiece of his office is a saddle that he says once belonged to Calamity Jane, a frontierswoman who claimed she fought Indians.

Johnson, who met with Nelsen twice during the course of the investigation, said he told her he and his dad were cowboys, which touched a nerve, considering her own family history. She said many of her great-grandfather’s children were killed or kidnapped by settlers in Northern California – not killed by disease.

“It’s like cowboys and Indians, modern style,” the sophomore said of her classroom conflict. “Today, instead of us getting scalped and killed and enslaved or whatever, we’re in a classroom fighting for the truth.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @StephenMagagnini