boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Another Summers speech questioned

View of Native Americans raises concerns

Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers has found himself in the position of having to explain another speech he gave at an academic conference, offending many participants.

This time, the debate revolves around his welcoming comments at a Harvard conference on Native American studies last September. In his speech, Summers said that many more Native Americans were killed by disease than by European settlers, and talked about ''the vast majority of the suffering" as a ''coincidence that was a consequence" of assimilation, and ''nobody's plan."

A number of participants say they were deeply offended by what they viewed as an effort to downplay Colonial violence, but their concerns did not become public at the time. After another Native American conference on campus two weeks ago, rumors about Summers's remarks began to spread more widely.

Summers's office released a transcript of his remarks Tuesday afternoon in response to requests from reporters.

Summers said in a statement that ''I did not for a moment mean to diminish the severity or ferocity of the widespread violence that claimed a great many lives."

However, some of the attendees reacted to his comments in much the same way as female scientists who objected to Summers's now-infamous remarks on women in science in January. Professor Kay Shelemay, one of the people who invited Summers to speak in September, said she was disturbed by the way he chose to greet the participants.

''I don't see how one can portray the history of Native America in terms of Euro-American settlement as unconscious," said Shelemay, who is chairwoman of the music department and also chairwoman of a committee on ethnic studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. ''It is not comforting to people who have seen their societies disrupted and their ancestors diminished in such a way, to be told that it was the outcome of unconscious actions."

The new controversy is another distraction for Summers at a time when many professors say the debate over his leadership, which culminated in a vote of no confidence last month, has paralyzed the administration. However, several critics and supporters of Summers alike said yesterday that they did not think the speech about Native Americans would significantly alter the campus discussion about the president, since most people's opinions about Summers are already hardened.

At the Sept. 17 event, Summers spoke about poverty among Native Americans as ''a major area of concern," and mentioned efforts at the Treasury Department to encourage banks to make loans to Native Americans.

Summers went on to touch some hot-button issues. He asked how one responds to the desire of Native Americans ''to congregate, to want to self-govern," while also avoiding ''a sense of dependency on the larger society, a reliance on financial transfers from the outside, in terms of special programs that have an aspect of charity."

Finally, Summers noted that ''there are people in this room who know infinitely more about this than I," but said he had read about the demographic history of the United States. He said that for every Native American killed or maimed by European-descended Americans, 10 died of diseases brought by European immigrants.

''There are fragmentary accounts of a kind of early biological warfare. You know, let's wrap a blanket around somebody who has smallpox and then encourage some other people to use that blanket," he said. ''But the vast majority of the suffering that was visited on the Native American population as the Europeans came was not a plan or an attack, it was in many ways a coincidence that was a consequence of that assimilation. Nobody's plan. But that coincidence caused an enormous amount of suffering."

In his statement, Summers said: ''Certainly the horror of violent death is in no way diminished by the concurrent incidence of deaths from disease.

''My purpose, rather, was to underscore the continuing need, in our own day, to address serious and persistent threats to a community's well-being that can result from neglect and inattention on the part of the larger society, as distinct from active malevolence or violence," the statement continued. ''Especially since my aim was to point up the need for more conscious efforts to contribute to the prosperity and health of Native American communities, I regret if my remarks were understood otherwise."

Summers's spokesman said he was influenced by having read several pieces, including Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, ''Guns, Germs, and Steel," and a September 2004 article by Guenter Lewy in the conservative magazine Commentary. Lewy argued against claims that Native Americans were the victims of genocide, saying ''the most important reason for the Indians' catastrophic decline" was the spread of disease to which they had no immunity.

Tara Browner, professor of ethnomusicology and American Indian studies at UCLA, who was present for Summers's remarks, said Summers was factually correct to say that more people died of disease than murder -- but that he came across as dismissive of the violence perpetrated against the indigenous population.

''At some level, people did know the diseases were going to spread, because of the accounts of rubbing smallpox into blankets," said Browner, who attended the talk and is Native American. ''If people had known their diseases would have killed the Indians, would they have cared or changed their behavior? I don't think so."

As with Summers's talk on women, some of the listeners' anger revolved around the impression that Summers, not a specialist in the field, was lecturing to the specialists.

''He said this to a group of very eminent Native American faculty from across the country, that's the most insulting thing," said Michael Yellow Bird, director of the Center for Indigenous Nations Studies at the University of Kansas.

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives