Another Summers Speech Flap

Harvard releases text of speech last year on American Indian issues amid criticism from some who heard it.
April 20, 2005

Harvard University officials on Tuesday released a transcript of a speech by President Lawrence H. Summers on American Indian issues. The university gave the transcript to The Harvard Crimson after reports surfaced in an article in The Washington Post that his comments had offended some of those who attended the talk.

One Harvard professor was quoted in The Post as saying of the president's talk: "It was wrong, it was hurtful, it was unnecessary, and it was offensive."

In an article published today, The Crimson quoted several of those who attended the talk as saying that Summers had played down the role of white Americans in directly killing Native Americans. The comments that angered scholars compared the number of deaths in battle to the number caused by disease.

The exact comments, according to the transcript, were as follows:

"For everyone who was killed or maimed in some attack by European-descended Americans on the Native American population, for every conscious death that came in war, 10 were a consequence of the diseases that came to North America with the European immigrants. There are fragmentary accounts of a kind of early biological warfare. You know, let's wrap a blanket around somebody who has smallpox and then encourage some other people to use that blanket. But the vast majority of the suffering that was visited on the Native American population as the Europeans came was not a plan or an attack, it was in many ways a coincidence that was a consequence of that assimilation. Nobody's plan. But that coincidence caused an enormous amount of suffering."

In an interview with The Crimson, Summers cited scholarly works that back his view, and some of his critics in the article agreed that he was "factually correct," but they said the remarks were offensive because they minimized the responsibility of the United States for the deaths of so many American Indians.

Others criticized Summers for comments that they said stressed problems in Native American communities. The transcript does refer to such problems, and also calls for a renewed national focus on issues affecting American Indians.

In an interview with the student newspaper, Summers said that he "did not mean for a moment to diminish the severity or ferocity of the widespread violence that claimed very many lives." He went on to say that he was urging Harvard to take Native American issues more seriously and "I regret if my remarks were understood otherwise."

Summers has been under fire -- and has apologized repeatedly -- for several months now, following comments he made and has since disavowed about why there are so few women in senior positions in science and engineering.


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