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Friday, Mar 24, 2023

Abenaki Denounce 9/11 Flag Memorial Vandalism

In the five hours between the defacement of the College’s Sept. 11 memorial outside of Mead Chapel and its reconstruction, both The Campus and middbeat posted brief online articles on the incident, accompanied by the same photograph. In it, a young woman with a red bandana in her hair places a handful of small flags, symbols of a joint effort between the College Republicans and College Democrats to commemorate the 2,977 lives lost in the terror attacks, in a large, nearly full black trash bag.

It was only a matter of minutes before commenters on middbeat, and later The Campus, recognized the face of one of the College’s most passionate student activists, Anna Shireman-Grabowski ’14.5 as the woman with the red bandana, irrevocably linking her to the incident.

Word of Shireman-Grabowski’s involvement spread rapidly across campus, primarily by means of Facebook posts, and shortly before midnight on Sept. 11, she issued a statement to middbeat taking credit for the incident and explaining her actions.

“Today I chose to act in solidarity with my friend, an Indigenous woman and a citizen of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy who was appalled to see the burial grounds of another Indigenous nation desecrated by piercing the ground that their remains lay beneath,” wrote Shireman-Grabowski.

“I understand that this action is confusing and painful for many in my community. I don’t pretend to know if every action I take is right or justified — this process is multi-layered and nuanced. I do know that colonialism has been — and continues to be — a real and destructive force in the world that we live in. And for me, to honor life is to support those who struggle against it.”

Shireman-Grabowski explicitly stated that members of the “local Abenaki community should in no way be implicated in [the] events,” an assertion she reinforced in a follow-up statement published to middbeat, submitted on the evening of Sept. 13.

“I want to take a chance to further clarify that this action did not happen on behalf of, in consultation with, or in connection to, local Abenaki communities,” she wrote. “That was a mistake. I take responsibility for the hurt I caused by implicating Abenaki communities in my actions. I want to apologize for the negative and unfair consequences these events might have on communities of which I am not a member.”

The actions of Shireman-Grabowski and three others were inspired by fellow protester Amanda Lickers, who herself is not Abenaki, a group related to the Algonquians, but rather a member of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy.

Lickers was brought to campus by Shireman-Grabowski to participate in a workshop titled “Settler Responsibility and Decolonization,” held at noon on Wednesday, Sept. 11. As described in an article published by the Addison Independent, it was at the workshop that Lickers was informed that the College was the site of an Abenaki burial ground. After discovering the presence of the flags on campus grounds, Lickers made a spontaneous decision to remove them out of respect for the Abenaki.

The College, however, has no proof of sharing land with the Abenaki.

“It has never been suggested that this is a Native American burial ground,” Director of Public Affairs Sarah Ray told mainstream media outlets.

“Native Americans have lived in the Champlain Valley for over 12,000 years.” wrote Associate Professor of History William B. Hart in a formal statement to The Campus. Hart added that while former seasonal Abenaki encampments near Brandon and Vergennes hold fragmentary mortuary remains of apparent families, “to this date, there are no known Indian graves on or near Middlebury’s campus.”

“This does not mean that there are no native mortuary remains to be found on or near the campus. Rather, it means that none have been excavated or found,” Hart clarified, ultimately calling the possibility that the College sits atop a sacred Abenaki burial ground “unlikely, although not impossible,” and only verifiable after an unlikely and “undesirable” archeological dig.

In spite of this, Shireman-Grabowski has long believed otherwise.

On January 13, 2013, Shireman-Grabowski and Student Co-chair of Community Council Barrett Smith ’13 presented the Student Government Association (SGA) Senate with the “Decolonizing Middlebury College Bill.” Claiming that the College had been built on land stolen from the Abenaki tribe, the bill recommended that the College return the land to its rightful owners, which bill supporter Sam Koplinka-Lehr ’13 specified as “all of it [the Middlebury College campus].”

Chief Donald Stevens of the Nulhegan Band of the Abenaki Nation doubted the veracity of the students’ claims.

“I would have to question the motivation of these individuals and also their knowledge of Abenaki burial grounds,” said Stevens. “We do not make known our burial grounds to the public, unless they are already public knowledge, for the protection of those sites.”

Stevens noted that even if the site of the memorial had been a burial site, the placement of the American flags “would not be offensive to us. We honor our warriors and the fallen with objects to display respect and to honor their bravery,” he wrote in an email.

The College Responds

As news of Shireman-Grabowski’s involvement in the incident spread beyond the confines of the Middlebury College campus, commenters on student-run publications, as well as Facebook and local and national news organizations, wondered how the College would approach its investigation into the incident and subsequent disciplinary action.

Such queries were soon answered, at least partially, by an all-campus email sent by President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz on the morning of Sept. 12.

“Like many of you, I was deeply disturbed by the insensitivity of this act. Destruction of property and interfering with the rights of others to express themselves violates the standards of our community. The College has begun a disciplinary investigation of this incident,” Liebowitz wrote.

“There is always something to learn from differences of opinion. In this case the disrespectful methods of the protesters o

vershadowed anything that might have been learned from the convictions they claimed to promote. We will not tolerate this kind of behavior.”

Public Safety was involved with the initial investigation of the incident “and may participate in the disciplinary proceedings if requested,” wrote Director of Public Safety Lisa Burchard in an email.

When asked to detail the possible disciplinary proceedings or judicial hearings which Shireman-Grabowski might be subject to, Associate Dean for Judicial Affairs and Student Life Karen Guttentag declined to comment “out of a commitment to the fundamental fairness of our [judicial] process.”

Shireman-Grabowski’s actions infringed upon multiple College community standards, as outlined in the “Student Life Policies” section of the Middlebury College Student Handbook, including “cultivating respect and responsibility for self, others and our shared environment” and “fostering a diverse and inclusive community committed to civility, open-mindedness and finding common ground.” As the flags planted on the lawn were purchased with funds belonging to the College Republicans and College Democrats, the destruction of the memorial could also fall under the category of theft or damage to College property and the property of others.

The “Demonstrations and Protests” section of the Handbook states that while “students, student organizations, faculty and staff at Middlebury College are free to examine and discuss all questions of interest,” it should be done in an orderly fashion so as not to disrupt the regular operation of the College or community. Additionally, students wishing to stage a demonstration or protest are encouraged to contact Public Safety “to discuss College policy, demonstration-specific regulations and safety issues” as a means of ensuring the safety of all participants. Burchard said that she was not contacted by anyone in advance of the uprooting of the 9/11 memorial protest.

It is possible that Shireman-Grabowski’s participation in earlier, appropriately-conducted protests, such as those against the Keystone XL pipeline and the Addison County Natural Gas Project, will be taken into consideration during the disciplinary process, as the “Scope of Oversight” section of the College handbook states that “students will be held accountable for policy violations that take place between the time they first arrive on campus … and their graduation, or the College’s confirmation of their resignation or expulsion. Conduct that takes place on or near Middlebury premises or property; occurs at or in connection with a Middlebury-related event … may be subject to the College disciplinary process.”

While the College continues to investigate the act of vandalism, efforts are already being made to learn from the incident and move forward as a community.

An all-student email sent on Friday, Sept. 13 announced a series of “Protest and Civility” discussions with the goal of considering “the responsibilities we have as an academic community to treat one another with respect and tolerance, even as we pursue political and social agendas that sometimes divide us.”

Seven professors, each with a different specialization and educational focus, will be moderating the discussions, scheduled throughout the week of September 16.

Professor of Religion James Calvin Davis cited his background in religion and ethics, as well as his published work’s emphasis on public moral discourse, as helping him to drive powerful and productive dialogue in his discussion on Tuesday.

“My hope is that those in the discussion will take the time to explore what it is we think we mean by civility, and what we do when the expectations of civility seem to stand in the way of our pursuit of justice or what we perceive to be the truth,” Davis wrote in an email. “These aren’t easy questions at all, but they’re essential — for a pluralistic democracy and for an intellectual community.”

The Campus will publish coverage of the discussions in its Sept. 26 issue.

Additional reporting by ZACH DRENNEN.