Alumna Carson Smith, BA ’19, is among the students credited with leading and sustaining the effort initiated by Native American students to rename university landmarks honoring Junípero Serra, the Spanish missionary considered to be the architect of the California mission system.

Alumna Carson Smith is among the students credited with leading and sustaining the effort to rename university landmarks honoring Junipero Serra. (Image credit: Courtesy Carson Smith)

Smith, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is now a graduate student at Oxford studying socio-legal research. She has kept abreast of the changes that resulted from her leadership and that of other members of the Stanford Native American community. As a junior in 2018, Smith was awarded a James W. Lyons Award for her use of peacemaking as a pathway to conflict resolution. At Oxford, her studies center around culturally competent conflict resolution. She hopes to continue this work after graduating.

She talks about the renaming process and her role in the effort.


Looking back, what is your view of the renaming process Native American students initiated?

I’m proud of what students and allied administrators have been able to do. This process began when I was a freshman and started to find a resolution when I was a senior. So many people have supported this movement, whether through activism, designing classes around the subject of renaming, writing op-eds or involvement with the student and faculty senates or the renaming committees. This kind of change relies on many people calling for reform over an extended period of time, and the effort – especially that of indigenous folks – cannot be forgotten.

I was able to witness the Serra House building and Serra House dorm renamed after Carolyn Lewis Attneave and Sally Ride, respectively. Even as names are removed, this process needs to continue. More than just removing Serra’s name, it’s important that he is remembered for his actions. We also need to remember to educate ourselves about the diverse histories of Stanford. For instance, Stanford sits on the ancestral lands of the Muwekma Ohlone, who are still part of this community.


What were the origins of the request by Native American students to rename landmarks honoring Junípero Serra?

The renaming process began with LJ Bird, who was a student senator when I was a freshman. LJ motivated the indigenous community, myself included. LJ planned teach-ins and brought the issue to the Graduate Student Council and the Faculty Senate. It quickly led to a burst of op-eds, conversations on campus and eventually a resolution being passed by both student senates and the Faculty Senate. President John Hennessy created a committee charged with considering the question of renaming locations honoring Junípero Serra.

The Native American Cultural Center (NACC) also contributed to this momentum. NACC’s Social Justice Team planned an event bringing the indigenous and Catholic perspective, which often overlap, into the conversation around Junipero Serra.


What was your role?

I followed in LJ’s footsteps and ran for Undergraduate Senate so that I could access institutional pathways for change. I was part of the first committee charged with the question of renaming. That committee had a hard time making progress, and two new committees were tasked with creating renaming principles and then applying those principles to Serra.

When working with students and community centers, I found a lot of support. Serra’s name on campus seemed counterintuitive. His legacy celebrated the colonization of California while overpowering the stories of indigenous peoples.

The hardest job was pushing back against academic arguments founded on solely theoretical perspectives. Sometimes individuals relied on these perspectives to argue for maintaining Serra’s name. However, the question of renaming had impacts that were tangible and substantial. The task around renaming was one that had to keep the well-being of students in mind and know that the resolution would have real-world and everyday impacts on people, especially marginalized communities. It couldn’t be approached from an abstract angle.

I eventually found myself again working with the renaming committees as a Peacemaker. The final renaming committee approached the Native student community for feedback on the renaming process. A lot of indigenous students were feeling excluded and unheard. I tried to guide both indigenous students and representatives from the renaming committee through some questions that sought to unpack how students were impacted by this process. The conversation ended up focusing on Serra’s legacy, historical trauma and the day-to-day impact of Serra on indigenous students’ well-being and success.

But there were so many who contributed to this process. There were students writing and planning rallies. There were other students working on the renaming committee. All of this time from people around campus is what finally led to change.


How are your studies at Oxford?

I’m really enjoying it; however, I also miss Stanford’s Native community. This is the first time in quite a while that I haven’t been around indigenous people every day. Being around other Natives as an undergraduate was really important in helping me find my academic path. I feel that I have been able to do so much work with Peacemaking because other indigenous students, administrators and tribal experts have supported me.


How have the values of your tribe helped shape your work in human rights?

There are many things that my tribe values, and as a nation, we are extremely diverse. The values I’ve gained from my community are based on giving back to your community and putting family at the center. Those ideas are connected because your community is an extension of your family.

My work, which mostly looks at Peacemaking – an indigenous form of conflict resolution – doesn’t exist without community. It relies on everyone taking part in the conflict resolution process. Often, Peacemaking rebels against the concepts of two disputing parties with a third-party mediator and instead finds ways to invite community members into the dispute resolution process. It relies on having aunties and friends and parents and teachers and elders who all care about you. All these people can help support you through a conflict. When we rely on our communities, we find the strength to work through our disputes and breakdowns.