It is time to acknowledge our founders’ flaws

Photo Courtesy of Lewis & Clark Digital Collections and Archive

Recently, collegiate institutions across the United States have been coming to terms with their historical connections to racism and their complacency therein. Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice was one of the first major examples of a university seeking to seriously accept blame and strive towards amending its historical harm. The violence brought by Lewis & Clark’s third president and founding stakeholder, Rev. Edward R. Geary, demands that we begin a path of conciliation of our own. 

Geary, a key figure in the founding of our college (first located in Albany, Oregon, and later moved to Palatine Hill in 1942), was sent to Oregon to establish an educational institution in 1850. According to his obituary, Geary “was compelled by the necessity that knows no law, to support his growing family by secular pursuits,” which he did by working within the federal Indian Affairs office. Here, Geary assisted in the negotiating and signing of treaties with the northern tribes of Oregon while actively calling for the removal of citizens of the Chinook Nation. Additionally, following the removal of many tribes in the Willamette Valley, he helped run and manage a reservation that held removed people. Geary’s obituary says that “he had much to do with shaping the policy of the government towards these Indians and providing for their future education and improvement.” 

In 1859, Geary was appointed superintendent of Indian affairs for Oregon and Washington. Soon after, the U.S. Congress ratified the treaties that Geary had been a signatory to four years prior. In this way, Geary helped craft and execute the removal of the Indigenous people who first called Oregon home. Geary’s first annual report published in 1859 clarifies his role in clearing Indigenous tribes from their land. In it, he says, “as a means of mutual safety to the races, and for preventing the horrors of savage warfare, no scheme commends itself so strongly as that, now become the policy of the government, the collection of the Indians on properly located reservations.”

Geary firmly believed it was natural for Indigenous cultures to be eradicated. He espoused that “roaming unrestrained without a fixed abode … man has never risen high in the intellectual and moral scale.” Geary believed it was destined that the Indigenous people on this coast should “succumb to superior intelligence … and finally dwindle into extinction.” He believed that “this destiny can only be … sustained and protected by the resources of the government.” Geary sums his beliefs as such: “There is neither respite nor escape. They must rise with the billows or sink beneath them. The alternative is civilization or annihilation.”

Geary also advocated for the use of schools to bring about cultural genocide. In his 1860 annual report, he says, “The civilizing influence of the school room … is wholly counteracted by the associations of their savage homes. Industrial schools, where … children may be placed, boarded and brought under proper discipline, away from their homes and savage associates, presents, in my judgment, the only feasible plan for … results.” The assimilative possibilities of education that Geary believed in were abhorrent. Rather than remembering him for striving to develop educational enterprises that could “one day be a beacon light to the whole Northwest,” we should remember him for maintaining “the civilizing influence of the school room.”

We cannot pretend that these are just empty words written in some bygone era. They had power and led to real consequences, manifesting in the removal and killing of Indigenous people. The money and prestige Geary obtained while removing these people from their homes is what allowed him to contribute so much to our college. These impacts are felt by the descendants of these tribes every day. Meanwhile our institution exists on land that we stole.

LC should act quickly, but not to issue a lengthy apology about the growth we have made since Geary’s time. This history calls for more than a mere letter. As we stroll by the Frank Manor House with blissful ignorance, the tribes who originated in the Pacific Northwest live with the memory of the depravities carried out by one of our founders. It is inexcusable that for our sesquicentennial, LC conducted biographical research into many of the key players of our institution, including Geary, but omitted details from his horrific past. Geary’s past was far from hidden; most of the quotations and information in this piece come from Geary’s obituary, a copy of which is in our school’s special reserves and available for free online. 

Our community has the ethical obligation to advocate for change. Due to the atrocities outlined above, LC should conduct an investigation into the harms Geary inflicted and publish the results with recommendations on how to rectify his damage. LC students should do more to support the Indigenous students on campus by attending and supporting their events. As students, we must have conversations about the past violence that now allows us to receive our education. The best path forward is one where we reach out to harmed tribes and seek to have continual dialogues about their lived experiences and ways we can offer support; refusing to do so is morally indefensible. This process of creating legitimate ties must start with direct outreach from our college leadership. With our college planning large infrastructural spending through the Strategic Plan, we should consider building a space that is open to Indigenous people and their needs, a place of gathering where students and tribes can learn from each other.

People at Geary’s funeral regarded him as a “pioneer of enlightened civilization” for the colonizing force he helped herald throughout Oregon “like a bugle-call;” it would be wise to remember this before we howl “Roll Pios!”

This article presents opinions held by the author, not those of The Pioneer Log and its editorial board.

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