Verbum: A Tradition of Ignorance
This past Monday, an unknown number of students posted flyers advertising Dartmouth Indian apparel in an apparent attempt to mock the movement to replace the federal Columbus Day holiday with an Indigenous Peoples Day. This editorial board joins Provost Carolyn Dever, Dean of the College Rebecca Biron and many other campus organizations in condemning this behavior.
The Dartmouth Indian symbol has no place on this campus outside the College’s historical archives. Indian mascots do not honor Native peoples. There is more than ample evidence that most Native Americans find non-Native use of their cultural heritage inappropriate, even hurtful. Asking that we all stop reviving the Indian head as a decoration is a reasonable request.
Some might be under the impression that the Indian head somehow symbolizes tradition and pride in the College. This is revisionist history. The College has never endorsed an official mascot, and our team name was never “Dartmouth Indians.” Evidence suggests that it is not even a home-grown tradition, but was rather a nickname conferred by Boston sports journalists in the 1920s . The Board of Trustees censured use of the Indian in 1974. In other words, when most current students were born, the symbol had already been unacceptable for two decades.
Yet the Indian head itself is not the problem — the problem is why we so stubbornly refuse to let it go. We stress that all non-Native students share responsibility, even if we do not all use the symbol, because too many of us remain indifferent or unfazed by its display. Too many of us are ignorant of the lives of Native Americans. In America — their own ancestral homeland — Native Americans face hardships that many non-Natives will likely never see or think about.
One fifth of Native Americans live on reservations. Native youth have the highest suicide rate of any American ethnic group, and the Native infant mortality rate is 60 percent higher than that of white Americans. They are the poorest people in the U.S., and they are disproportionately victims of police killings. At the College, Native students’ six-year graduation rate is 83 percent — seven points lower than the next lowest racial group, and 13 percent lower than non-Hispanic white students. In our recent survey on mental health, more than 60 percent of Native respondents reported feeling depressed frequently — about 20 percent higher than the next racial group.
Dartmouth students in particular should care about these disparities. Native students have a special place at this school. The College was granted its charter to educate Native students, though we must keep in mind the colonialist foundation of such a commitment. Former College President Eleazar Wheelock later reneged on his plan to educate Native Americans — misusing the funds his Native American colleague Samuel Occom had raised overseas by teaching English boys instead — but it is not by chance that the College’s shield depicts two Native students in front of Dartmouth Hall. Even as we acknowledge the paternalistic history of this mission, Native students have always been and remain integral to the College’s identity.
The College has made real and commendable strides in recommitting to its mission of educating Native Americans, without the proselytizing undertones. Today, four percent of the College’s students are Native, compared to an average of a half percent at our peer institutions. Our initial introduction to the College does very little to convey the special institutional status of Native Americans. Therefore, non-Native students must recognize on their own that their time at Dartmouth is an incredible opportunity to live and learn in a community with Native Americans. The likelihood that any of us will ever live in another area with such a strong Native presence is low. Native students are very much here, and we should be listening to them.
No Dartmouth student or alumnus who truly cares about this college will tolerate the use of the Dartmouth Indian, or any other crass behavior that taunts or disrespects his Native peers. We do not argue that students must be prohibited from using the Dartmouth Indian. We argue instead that any student with an upstanding moral character would never do so. Poor treatment of Native students in particular should be unconscionable, because when we fail in this regard — and this week, we have collectively failed — we make a mockery of this institution.