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Nuclear Princeton: Indigenous scholarship and representation in an institution ‘not designed’ for Native students

Preliminary findings based on research conducted by Jessica Lambert '22 (Choctaw Nation) and Keely Toledo '22 (Navajo Nation) under the guidance of Professor Tiffany Cain. Funded by a RISE (Recognizing Inequities and Standing for Equality) Summer Grant administered by the PACE Center for Civic Engagement.
Preliminary findings based on research conducted by Jessica Lambert '22 (Choctaw Nation) and Keely Toledo '22 (Navajo Nation) under the guidance of Professor Tiffany Cain. Funded by a RISE (Recognizing Inequities and Standing for Equality) Summer Grant administered by the PACE Center for Civic Engagement.

Over the past few months, the University’s long history of systemic racism has become increasingly more visible. Between the changing of the name of the Woodrow Wilson School and Wilson residential college and the Department of Education investigation on racism, the University’s history of racism has made a lot of national headlines.

Yet, for all of the University’s (lackluster) efforts to acknowledge its history of anti-Black racism over the past few months, there has been no discourse about the impacts of racism towards American Indian and Indigenous peoples, both on our campus and off. The lack of discourse around anti-Native racism at the University is paralleled by minimal representation and resources for people of Indigenous heritage.

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Princeton has the fewest resources for Indigenous students of any Ivy League institution, with fewer than 0.2 percent of students identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native, no affinity spaces, and very few Indigenous faculty and staff.

Despite the University’s failure to provide resources for Indigenous students, an effort called Nuclear Princeton has created an academic space for Native students to not only form community, but to bring to light the ways in which the University’s nuclear research has harmed Indigenous communities. This project is just the start of a necessary effort to acknowledge the often overlooked racism implicit in academia. 

Overseen by anthropology professor Ryo Morimoto, Nuclear Princeton is a student-driven project seeking to acknowledge how the University’s research in nuclear science, engineering, and technology has affected Indigenous communities.

Nuclear Princeton is supported by the Council on Science and Technology, Princeton Science and Global Security, and the Addressing Racism Fund from the Office of the Dean of the Faculty. I spoke with three of my peers who identify as Native about their experiences with working on the Nuclear Princeton project: Jessica Lambert ’22 of the Choctaw Nation, Keely Toledo ’22 of the Navajo Nation, and Brooke Kennedy ’23 of the Walpole Island First Nation. The three Anthropology concentrators are also involved with Natives at Princeton and the University’s Indigenous Advocacy Coalition.

Through Nuclear Princeton, student researchers, including Toledo, Lambert, and Kennedy are reckoning with the history of settler colonialism and environmental racism propagated by research on projects such as the Manhattan Project. The students have been engaging in archival and oral history research with University researchers and Indigenous community members to create this project.

Morimoto, a leader of the effort, explained that the students are also “working to expand the university curriculum by designing a course that explores the connection between Princeton, Native [peoples], and the environment through nuclear science, technology, and engineering.”

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“This is a very specific topic, how Princeton has engaged in nuclear research and how it has affected Indigenous communities. It’s weird that no one has really brought these together, to situate research in broader contexts” Lambert explained. “[We shouldn’t] isolate the effects of uranium mining and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; they’re explicitly interconnected… Indigenous voices are so erased, which is something we’re seeing.”

“With Nuclear Princeton, Indigenous students are encouraged to reflect on this background and history,” Toledo added. “Princeton usually pushes us to go off and contribute elsewhere, outside our home communities. There are not many opportunities that are funded to go explore issues happening in your own community.”

The fact that Nuclear Princeton’s work is so novel reinforces how elite institutions like the University often seek to distance themselves from the harm associated with their scientific research. By empowering Indigenous students to bring the University’s legacy of environmental racism to light, Nuclear Princeton has given students a space to negotiate their identities as both members of Native communities and the University community. It should not be novel to reflect on the University’s flawed past. By acknowledging the harms that have been done, University researchers can become more conscious of how research still can have adverse effects for marginalized groups today.

“We are able to bring more awareness to Indigenous culture and lack thereof on Princeton’s campus,” Kennedy weighed in. “There have been issues with mining for uranium, which affects Indigenous communities, but no one ever hears about it… We are still underrepresented on campus. This is a great way to start introducing more Native cultural norms to Princeton’s campus while also working on scientific research.”

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When I asked these student researchers about the value of Nuclear Princeton for Indigenous representation and visibility on campus, they told me it was so much more than just a research project. There are very few Native students at the University, and collaborating on this project helped foster community among those involved. Though the University lacks official affinity spaces for Native students on campus, Nuclear Princeton can help to bring awareness of Indigenous cultures to campus. Too often, the important work of Indigenous students, as well as the harmful history of settler colonialism on Indigenous communities, go overlooked. Nuclear Princeton changes the narrative to include more Native voices in the University’s past and present.

“So often, Princeton doesn’t have any support system for Native students. It’s easy to get lost,” Lambert added. “Ryo is super supportive and so nice. It really makes a difference to know that you have a professor cheering you on and wanting you to succeed.”

The mentorship and guidance offered by Morimoto is a highlight for the student researchers at Nuclear Princeton. Even if the supportive infrastructure for Indigenous community within the University is lacking, programs like Nuclear Princeton allow voices that have been historically silenced in scholarship to be taken as legitimate and valuable.

“Institutions were never designed for Native students. They were never meant to include us. Small programs like this are important. Ryo is aware of our trauma and is understanding,” Toledo explained. “I think it’s possible to have multiple projects like this one, for other minority groups… There’s a framing of Native students taken as legitimate scholars. Support us the best as you can as an institution of scholarship, support us as scholars and as people.”

Nuclear Princeton’s work to empower young Indigenous scholars is a crucial step toward environmental justice. This form of reckoning with the University’s racist past is an essential step toward racial justice for Indigenous students at the University, who are too often overlooked. Instead of hiding behind a mask of denial, Nuclear Princeton acknowledges this past and gives voice to the people whose lives were impacted by the pursuit of scientific knowledge at the University. The University should not only be concerned with rigorous academia and scientific pursuits, but also with being a place of learning, inclusion, and being in the service of (all of) humanity — it’s in our motto after all.

Hannah Reynolds is a junior in the Anthropology Department. She can be contacted at hannahr@princeton.edu.

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