Sisyphus and the Dartmouth Rock

by Alexander B. Hernandez-Siegel | 11/9/06 6:00am

On Saturday evening I felt a great deal of pride in our Dartmouth student body. The annual community dinner gathering of Lambda Upsilon Lambda fraternity was a great success. Collis Common Ground was packed with students, members of the faculty, alumni and guests from the Upper Valley community. Overall, I was so impressed by how the fraternity and its friends in the community were organized, and how they always rise to the occasion to help one another. I was then alerted to a situation downstairs in FUEL where a theme party was being held which dealt with the insensitive depiction of Native Americans. My joyous mood quickly changed.

Considering that this type of situation had occurred yet again this year, and for many years before now, I immediately thought of a colleague's comparison of our work in dealing with such incidents on campus. The image of Sisyphus struggling to push the huge rock up the hill, frustratingly watching it roll down again, and then having to roll it up the hill once more came to mind. In terms of trying to educate the Dartmouth community that such themes are hurtful, I know exactly how Sisyphus may have felt. The students did apologize, but the fact that the student group did not think about the consequences of such a decision made me pause. There clearly is a privilege that many groups possess of not having to worry about such things ... or do they? When I learned that a College office had mailed a promotional calendar with a picture of the old Dartmouth Indian symbol in it, I realized that the issue has risen to a degree in which an institutional response is now needed.

I am not a member of the Native American community, but I am one of their most dedicated allies. My only ethnic connection is that my Puerto Rican heritage carries Taino blood from the island of Puerto Rico. My connection is in blood only since there are no longer any Native Americans left on the island. Due to the rampage of the Spaniards in the 1500s, my only connection is through DNA. A similar rampage still exists today in a psychological and emotional form against today's generation of Native Americans in the United States. When one's community is constantly belittled, I do believe that the end product is the Cornel West definition of nihilism: a feeling of low self worth and hopelessness which may often come out sideways in communities. In our task at Dartmouth, it should be our mission to battle such notions of nihilism and empower all of our student groups despite how the world may be. Considering the immense debt that the nations of the Americas owe to the Native communities in terms of the crimes committed against them in the past and today, Dartmouth surely can aspire to be that "city upon a hill" in demonstrating how we can empower our students.

Everyone speaks of the historical commitment to Native education at Dartmouth. The mission lacked a true inclusion of Native peoples even from the beginning. This can be seen with the original curriculum itself. With President Kemeny's drive to create an anchor for Native students at Dartmouth in the 1970's, I feel a new promise was made. A promise of a Dartmouth education may bring a number of riches, but what message are we sending if we bring Native students to a campus thousands of miles from their homes to an environment where they constantly have to be struggling to battle such negative acts?

In many ways we can compete with our larger peer institutions by stating that we offer an environment where the individual matters and where the student will be validated more as an undergraduate at the College. Validation is the key word here.

The theme of freedom of speech is always present in such discussions. Freedom of speech is one of the most important elements of American liberty, but it also should be noted that rights and privileges should be accompanied by responsibility. I believe that the founders of the newly-created U.S. championed freedom of speech to empower individuals and groups against oppression. After being under the heel of Great Britain for so long, the former colonies had enough. I do not believe that they would approve the use of such an integral aspect of our liberty today as an excuse to easily forgive acts of intolerance which clearly could have been avoided with some sensitive thinking and a little common sense.

Harry Lewis, the former Dean of Harvard College, believes that in today's campus climate we spend too much energy trying to make students happy instead of trying to help them learn from both their successes and their errors. Many educators agree. There will be dangerous consequences in both the personal and professional lives of our Dartmouth graduates who are not taught about appropriate decision-making while they are students.

There needs to be a culture of accountability in relation to our learning. One could argue that we could help students learn this through the curriculum or through voluntary service in communities throughout the world. These could be first steps, but to help students connect their intellectual abilities with social intelligence is the main issue.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!