Claudia Fox Tree amplifies Indigenous voices

Claudia Fox Tree, M.Ed, is an educator and social justice activist who will present a panel at Mount Holyoke for Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

By Christian Feuerstein

Claudia Fox Tree, M.Ed, is an educator and social justice activist who facilitates courses and workshops on decolonizing teaching practices, including “un-erasing” Native American First Nations Peoples (FNP). Fox Tree is a member of the Iukaieke Guainia Taino Tribe. She gives voice to Indigenous experiences and asks allies and co-conspirators to come on the journey with her. 

She will be presenting a panel at Mount Holyoke College on Monday, October 11, entitled “Indigenous Peoples’ Day Teach-In: How to be an Ally to Indigenous People.” The talk is free and open to the public. Fox Tree spoke with Mount Holyoke before her talk.

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Talk about your upcoming presentation at Mount Holyoke College on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

It’s virtual, and it’s a panel. I’m very excited about it. It’s about Indigenous Peoples’ Day and how to be an ally to Indigenous people. I will be moderating it, and I’ll be adding things into it; however, I’m bringing along some of my multiracial collaborators, and they’re going to talk about what they’ve learned and what they are doing now and how they push in their own districts. I think it’s really important, if we’re going to be allies, to hear from other allies, to hear what their struggles are. 

What do you hope people learn from this panel?

I hope people come away with some ideas for their personal next steps. Maybe one of the panelists will strike them in a way that they think, “Oh, I can do that!” or maybe they’ll think, “Yeah, it’s been hard for me, and that’s OK.” 

I don’t think anybody has it particularly easy when dealing with these issues, but I think that the panelists have one thing that a lot of other people don’t have, which is that they had me in their life. They knew an Indigenous person. There was a study done recently, and I believe that 65% of the people surveyed didn’t know an Indigenous person. 

So the panelists have me as a friend, and they see what happens to me, what I have to deal with, and that has prompted them, since they’re also activists, to integrate what happens to me as part of their work. It’s pushed them in their thinking. 

Why are formal land acknowledgments important? 

I would say that tribal land acknowledgments are important first steps to acknowledging how Indigenous people were invisible and to thank them for using their land — often under circumstances that are very hazy as to how the land was gotten in the first place. They start to redress what has happened, historically. They are also not enough — they are a first step in acknowledging that invisibility. 

I think of them as dynamic, living things. You might have a couple of sentences that everybody [in an institution] says, but then you make it personal; you talk about what you have been doing to give back to the Indigenous communities for using the land, for not having learned the history of the people who were on it. Are you volunteering? Are you testifying? Are you writing letters? Are you making sure that the Indian Child Welfare Act doesn’t get rescinded? Maybe you’re going to raise funds for missing and murdered Indigenous women. So, what you are personally doing is part of making your land acknowledgment dynamic and meaningful. 

As an educator, you do a lot of work on K–12 curricula. How do you make sure that Indigenous history isn’t overlooked in K–12 education? 

First of all, I can say that I give people facts and information about history. Sometimes I’ll do a little mini-lesson in a course or workshop that they could take the next day and do something with it. You have to start somewhere, and you build upon it. You can look at how you teach and how you assess, as well as what systemic things you are dismantling along the way. 

People sometimes think that the only place that you can talk about Indigenous people is in history classes. But it really isn’t! Clearly, it could be novels for English class, but most certainly [in] science, from astronomy to ecology to farming. For the same reason, in math. The Babylonians weren’t the only ones that used to have a base-60 system. 

As an advocate, I believe that we should not be starting in Mesopotamia. We should be starting in the Americas, because that’s where we live! 

Using Indigenous examples from our own land would raise the visibility of Indigenous peoples. It would also raise the connection to the people and what went on in this country. It will help us respect the history when burial grounds, sacred sites or fossils are found, because we will have this connection to the actual history of this land instead of always thinking about Europe or Greece or Rome.