Brown University Is On Occupied Territory and Is Part of the Problem, About-To-Be-Tattooed New Graduate Tells Fellow Graduates

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Brown University’s student protesters have done heroic things despite an administration that often isn’t on board for constructive change, a graduating senior told a commencement crowd Sunday.

Ruth Scott Miller, of Anchorage, Alaska, who describes herself as part Dena’ina Athabaskan (an Alaska indigenous tribe) and part Ashkenazi Jew, began with a traditional greeting in her tribe’s native language, and then quickly offered a version of the land history of Providence, Rhode Island, where the Brown campus is.

“First, we must acknowledge that we are on the occupied territory of the Wampanoag and Narragansett peoples, who have protected and cared for this land for millennia,” Miller said, according to a video of the Brown graduation posted on YouTube. “A land acknowledgment is a crucial step in respecting the enduring relationship of indigenous peoples with their land. But it is not done for reconciliation. It is done for remembrance and uplifting.”

Miller was one of two graduating seniors to address the Brown commencement audience Sunday, May 26. She wore a long feather from the left side of her graduation cap, a bandana around her forehead, and a nose ring in her right nostril.

She described how during her sophomore year she was one of 11 Brown students to travel more than 1,800 miles to protest an oil and natural gas pipeline in North Dakota.

“We stood against the environmental and cultural threat of the Dakota access pipeline. We celebrated a commitment to the earth and to justice, through peaceful gathering, using the weapons of community care and deep love,” Miller said.

The experience was both moving and disheartening.

“I threw everything I had at this fight, and found myself burnt out, running on fumes,” she said.

A professor, she said, “shared the kindest possible words, especially given I was ditching her class.”

“’Ruth,’ she said, ‘Pace yourself. Because in 40 years someone else will be doing something terrible, and you’ve got to fight it as much then as you want to fight it now’,” Miller recalled, adding:

“I was trying to destroy so much that I was letting myself be destroyed.”

She said she has decided instead to use compassion as a weapon:  “I believe in the words of queer Chicana poet Gloria Anzalduá:  ‘We could be the healing of the wound.’ “

She spoke of the meaning of the graduation ceremony.

“This moment is to honor the students at Brown – we who are the laborers, we who are the dissidents,” she said. “… This is for the students who demanded that Columbus Day, named for a perpetrator of genocide, be changed to Indigenous Peoples Day, named for our nation’s first and everlasting defenders. But we must also honor the administrative staffers, faculty members, and workers who have been allies and accomplices in creating a more equal, accessible, and ethical environment for learning at Brown. These are the people who fight to improve our school more each year, often in spite of the institution itself.”

She lauded what she called the hundreds of activists at Brown, but challenged them to do something in the wider world about the causes they believe in.

“How do we fight for liberation beyond our campus? Self-described black feminist lesbian poet mother warrior Audrey Ward reminds us that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Knowledge alone, when used as a weapon, will never be equalizing. Knowledge is liberation when knowledge is exchanged,” Miller said. “… I challenge us all to abandon the tools of domination and oppression. Today let’s leave behind weapons of exploitation, exclusion, and hubris.”

Instead, she called for “radical compassion,” which she said could be “a tool, a weapon, and a peace offering, all at once.”

“Choosing compassion is not choosing passivity. It is using the strength of our love to overcome hate,” she said.

Near the beginning of the speech she said that when she was little she often suffered from fear and anxiety at night, and that her mother would soothe her by telling her she comes from a long line of warrior women.

“And we all have WW tattooed on our butts,” her mother told her, adding that the tattoos were invisible.

Miller returned to that theme toward the end.

“After graduating, I will be getting matching traditional tattoos with my mother, in a … private location,” she said. “They will remind me of who has fought for me, and who I will continue to fight for.”

According to The Providence Journal, she plans to travel in order to continue the fight:

A development studies major, Miller plans to travel to Hawaii and New Zealand to pursue grass roots work toward building global networks of indigenous people.


Ruth Scott Miller addresses the Brown University graduation audience in Providence, Rhode Island on Sunday, May 26, 2019.