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Tierra y memoria

<h6>Courtesy of Rodrigo Córdova Rosado<br>
</h6>
Courtesy of Rodrigo Córdova Rosado

​​​​𐓰𐓘𐓲𐓘 𐓵𐓘𐓻𐓪𐓲𐓟, I hear the crashing ocean in the rustling of leaves along the limbs of the ginkgo north of Prospect House. I hear finches chirp as the morning dew moistens my shoes as I pass Lewis Library. And I remember the humidity of my island and the smell of petrichor as the rain pelts my window in Forbes. 

Land and memory are a reflective combination. They have defined the Native experience on this land — now known as the United States — long before Jefferson inked his quill. The land we stand on was stolen from the Lenape — the memories ripped from it like a sapling from its roots — for us to live with the consequences. To live in Princeton as a member of an Indian Nation, Tribe, or “domestic dependent nation,” as the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs defines federally-recognized Native communities, is to be keenly aware of this history and the responsibility of the present to address the consequences of the past. It is to be aware of the exposed roots rotting for lack of care on the land and in our memory.

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I am a guest on this land. I come from people who lived on Borinquén (now known as Puerto Rico) before the historical record begins, from people who built cities along the Middle Waters (the Mississippi River Valley), from people who were uprooted to Indian territory in Oklahoma, and from people who sailed the Atlantic in search of spices but arrived to find conquest. I am 𐓷𐓘𐓻𐓘𐓻𐓟, Osage, and have arrived on this land made of soil foreign to me. In sharing this feeling with all of our communities, we must ask: How do we grow in this unfamiliar place? How do we tend the roots ripped from the earth in the place we seek to grow our own?

Being a part of the Indigenous community here is one of the highlights of my time at Princeton. Whether we’re discussing water rights in the Southwest, or the push and pull in our communities over the sacred and how it impacts people and projects like mountaintop telescopes, or feeling like your identity is reflected by folks in a new and strange place: communities have the power to build new homes. They are the mycelial network that ties us together. This is the ongoing project of revitalization: a reaction to the centuries of physical and cultural genocide that took place here. From Indigenous language courses to the engendering of Indigenous studies in academia, we are attempting to re-seed what boarding schools, forced assimilation, land allotments, and the destruction of our environments took away from us. And yet, we still do not have an Indigenous studies program at Princeton, a dedicated space for Native peoples, nor do we discuss what the purpose of a land acknowledgment truly is. Like many things in Native communities, perhaps these will come with time. Unfortunately, time is running out.

I was a junior in college when Hurricane María blew through my home. The last thing my dad told me before I lost contact with my family for a week was “no te preocupes (not to worry), la casa está hecha de ladrillos, no de ramas o paja (the house is made of bricks, not sticks or straw.)” Last week we had the same conversation. Last week my family in Florida, land of the Seminole, Calusa, and Myaamia, was struck by such a hurricane as María. Last year the forests around the world burned. This year our forests have burned. Will there even be a forest next year?

Accelerating climate change poses an existential threat to land and memory, the core of who we are. Rising to the challenges we have been given means starting with recognition of our responsibility to the land, and each other. We who were born of stars that exploded billions of years ago, given form on the Earth made from that stardust: we are made of this land, and we must relearn how to live on it. Eighty percent of the world’s biodiversity is cared for by Indigenous communities, contained within 20 percent of the land, held by five percent of humanity. We have grown with the land as it grew with us, and it is time to return the land to its caretakers. Not only because it was wantonly and savagely stolen — just read how Andrew Jackson’s soldiers made horse bridle reins from Native skin — but because our track record of caring for the land is a few millennia long. As a recent anthropology paper put it, Indigenous Peoples hold essential knowledge for the conservation of our planet’s biodiversity, so partnership, rather than endless cycles of ecological impact studies, just might avert the ecological collapse ahead of us. In the rapidly changing landscape of the future, I see a need to interrogate what we intend to do to seek justice alongside survival. 

To walk on this campus is to know there is the potential for amazing, transformative action. It is also to know these walkways cover the land and the blood spilled on it. To hold both of these truths is the responsibility of our communities. To see land and memory intertwined, the physical world and our experience of it, is perhaps one of the greatest lessons my communities have taught me. It guides my path in wanting to research the cosmic past and our human perception of it, and it reminds me how unlikely I was to be the one to ask these questions.

On rainy days I remember afternoons at my grandparents’ watching “Plaza Sésamo” — Big Bird’s role is played by a colorful parrot named Abelardo. The campus leaves are turning the color of the warm sunset I watched over the ocean after eating some of the day’s catch with a side of coconut arepas from Don Candi in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. On cloudless nights we observe planets at the Peyton Hall telescope, almost like the moments back home, after I sat on a beach and saw the Milky Way for the first time. The water was cool and the rising Moon was yellow.

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Author's Note: This essay intentionally does not include a translation in the text for the first two words in Osage to reflect my desire to center a Native perspective. For transparency, 𐓰𐓘𐓲𐓘 𐓵𐓘𐓻𐓪𐓲𐓟 translates to “[The] wind blows,” while 𐓷𐓘𐓻𐓘𐓻𐓟 is the autonym for the Osage, meaning “[people of the] middle waters.”

Rodrigo Córdova Rosado is a graduate student in the Department of Astrophysical Sciences and guest contributor to The Prospect. He can be reached at rodrigoc@princeton.edu.

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect@dailyprincetonian.com. 

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