U.S. History Professor Maury Wiseman teaches at Cal State Sacramento, where Chiitaanibah Johnson is taking his U.S. History class. Ms. Johnson is Native American, with Navajo and Maidu heritage. During a lecture last Wednesday, Prof. Wiseman told his class that he did not like to use the term, “genocide,” as he felt that did not describe what happened to Native Americans. Ms. Johnson refuted that and was expelled from Wiseman’s class.
“The whole thing started on Wednesday. He was talking about Native America and he said the word genocide. He paused and said ‘I don’t like to use that word because I think it is too strong for what happened’ and ‘Genocide implies that it was on purpose and most native people were wiped out by European diseases.’”
Ms. Johnson was, rightly, angered by this declaration but held her tongue. She did her research, (including the fact that many of those European diseases were inflicted on purpose) gathered her evidence and, on Friday, presented it to Prof. Wiseman. The discussion that day was about the Iroquois Confederacy and the Portuguese expeditions. Johnson says that Prof. Wiseman made a point of saying that the indigenous tribes were not peaceful and were killing one another before Europeans arrived.
Johnson raised her hand and stated that the Portuguese were not, by any means, the “poor and brave” people who the Professor was describing and that they had become rich by exploiting and raping the lands and people they “discovered.” She then went on to confront his statements about “genocide” not being an apt description of what happened to native peoples. Johnson related the incident to Vince Schilling of ICTMN:
“I told him, ‘you said genocide implies the purposeful extermination of people and that they were mostly wiped out by European diseases.’ I said, ‘that is not a true statement. He said, ‘Genocide is not what happened.’ I stood up and started reading from an article by the United Nations that said ‘Genocide is the deliberate killing of another people, a sterilization of people and/or a kidnapping of their children,’ and he said, ‘That is enough.’ I said, ‘no, you have to tell the truth.’”
Prof. Wiseman accused Johnson of “hijacking his class,” which he proceeded to dismiss. He then told Johnson that she was disenrolled and expelled from his class. Johnson was disappointed that she had no support from her classmates but she was not surprised, saying that she had dealt with racism since she was a girl.
After being contacted by Indian Country Today Media, the university’s Provost said they would be investigating the matter. On Sunday, the Cal State Sacramento History Department sent out this Tweet:
— Sac State History (@SacStateHist) September 6, 2015
On Sunday afternoon, the following statement appeared on the Cal Sate Sacramento History Department’s Facebook page:
Official university statement as of 9/06/15:
Sacramento State was very concerned upon learning about this incident and the allegations surrounding it. The University would like to make it clear that our student, Chiitaanibah Johnson, was not expelled or disenrolled from this history course. Under University policy, a professor cannot unilaterally disenroll a student from a class.
President Robert S. Nelsen is looking into what was alleged to have happened. ‘I take this matter very seriously. I intend to talk to Chiitaanibah Johnson as we work to gather all the information necessary to resolve this situation positively.’
Let’s hope so.
Refusing to call what was perpetrated upon Native Americans “genocide” is sheer denial. Or maybe guilt. But not calling it what it was, will not change the fact that there was a genocide against the indigenous peoples of North America.
But in an institution of higher learning like Cal State Sacramento, a history professor who denies this is not fit to be teaching American history. And one who treats intelligent, fact-based debate as Prof. Wiseman did ought to be fired. Ms. Johnson approached the situation maturely. Something Prof. Wiseman should praise rather than punish. But there are bullies teaching history, too, it appears.
Featured image via Chiitaanibah Johnson via Indian Country Today Media