Reexamining Our Traditions

by Sara del Nido | 11/17/06 6:00am

"If we can't be self-reflective here, where can we be?"

Native American Studies professor Bruce Duthu '80 posed this question to the audience at last Saturday's lecture exploring Dartmouth's historical associations with Native Americans. In light of events this term, it is time that we all reflected on the meaning of the Dartmouth Indian.

Dartmouth has had a dark and complex history of associations with Native Americans since its founding in 1769. But the number of recent incidents show that intolerance of the Native American community is alive and well at the Dartmouth of today.

During Homecoming, Indian t-shirts were sold depicting a Holy Cross Crusader performing oral sex on the image of the Indian. On Columbus Day, two students disrupted a Native American drum ceremony, running into the circle and taunting the participating students (if you can't picture this, imagine someone screaming obscenities in the middle of a church service). The "cowboy and Indian"-themed crew formal was rightly called out as inappropriate. The College also distributed a 2006 alumni fund calendar, one of the photos being of an older alumnus holding out an Indian-head cane to a graduating student. And as plans for the demolition of Thayer dining hall move ahead, the future of the controversial Hovey murals remains the subject of a heated debate.

Some of the parties responsible for these events have apologized for their actions, and these acknowledgments are certainly positive steps. But unfortunately, it is no longer enough simply to apologize for incidents after they happen. We need to create a Dartmouth where these types of incidents will not be allowed to happen at all.

Over 200 members of the Dartmouth community began to explore this problem at last Saturday's event. A visual presentation, given by College archivist Peter Carini and Rauner assistant Mauli Watkins, explained how, despite never having been Dartmouth's official mascot, Native Americans were appropriated and eventually caricatured to represent the College. One Dartmouth Bookstore ad from 1963 portrayed a potbellied, drunk Native American man standing with a scantily clad Native American woman. In one particularly jarring image, a football team from the 1960s posed for their team photo wearing "Indian heads." Carini actually brought one of these bright red and grotesquely ugly heads to the presentation.

Some traditions remind future generations of an institution's origins, and there is nothing wrong with that. But the Dartmouth Indian does not do this. In dishonestly glorifying the Indian as a "noble savage," it fails to indicate the marginalization that Native Americans have experienced in association with Dartmouth for centuries. Most people are unaware that for the first 200 years of Dartmouth's history, fewer than 20 Native Americans graduated from the College, despite the fact that Dartmouth's charter was granted for the express purpose of educating Native Americans. There is nothing to honor in that. The institutionalized nature of the Dartmouth Indian now demands an institutional response. Dartmouth does not endorse the Indian mascot, but the continual recurrence of racist or ignorant incidents proves that some Dartmouth students still see it as traditional and therefore somehow legitimate to stereotype Native Americans. We clearly cannot trust time alone to eradicate Dartmouth's ties with the Indian. For change to occur, the Dartmouth administration must act.

To further the process of creating a safe environment for Native Americans at Dartmouth, I urge members of the administration to take three actions. These are not full solutions alone, but they are necessary steps in changing the frame of the dialogue.

1) Reemphasize the College's rejection of the Dartmouth Indian as a mascot. The College severed this tie many years ago, but it would be worth reiterating a commitment to its own Principles of Community. This statement should come directly from College President James Wright, who has a responsibility to make Dartmouth a safe place for Native American students.

2) Introduce a mandatory presentation like last Saturday's into Freshman Orientation. Whatever your position on the mascot, it is undeniable that Native Americans form an integral part of the College's history. This history -- the true history -- must therefore be taught as soon as Dartmouth students begin their journey here. I heard only positive reviews of last Saturday's presentation from attendees. Even if you don't support the mascot or are ambivalent, it is impossible to fully understand the loaded nature of this image until you have seen its use throughout history.

3) Dartmouth should take a leaf out of Brown's book. Brown University recently published a comprehensive report exploring associations between its own origins as a college and the institution of slavery. Dartmouth should publish something similar with regard to Native Americans in order to symbolically and substantively confront its own history. Just as Dartmouth students should hold each other accountable, the College must hold itself accountable for its own past, and a thorough study like this one would show responsibility and leadership on the part of the College.

For many alumni who never had the opportunity to have these critical discussions, the image of the Indian is inextricably linked to their love of Dartmouth. It would be counterproductive to alienate those graduates whose Dartmouth experiences included the Indian. But I don't see any of these three actions as resulting in alienation. Rather, they are necessary adaptations as we look towards Dartmouth's future, and logical acknowledgements that the Indian is no longer either appropriate or useful here at the College.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that the onus is not on Native Americans to defend their place here. While students continue to address insensitivity in each other, we must also call on our College leadership to exhibit similar conscience and courage. Contributing to the College means critically reevaluating what kind of Dartmouth we preserve in our practices, and remembering Professor Duthu's words. If not here, where?

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