Amherst College is apologizing for a poster some students considered racist and insensitive that was displayed December 5 on a wall in a biology classroom.
The poster is a depiction of Lord Jeffery Amherst, commanding general of British forces in North America during the final battles of the French and Indian War. He is the mascot of this exclusive and prestigious liberal arts school.
Historical accounts point to Lord Jeffery as a pioneer in biological warfare. He is credited with requesting that smallpox-infected blankets be sent to the American Indians, starting an epidemic among them.
The poster, titled “A gift from Lord Jeffrey Amherst,” shows Lord Jeffery gifting a stack of blankets to an American Indian man dressed in leather and fringe, with feathers clinging to a headband. An American Indian woman and child are in the background; a baby is strapped to a cradle board.
The caption reads, “Thank you. Have these been autoclaved?”
The only other text on the poster states: “Welcome to the Lord Jeffrey Autoclave.” An autoclave is a device used to sanitize equipment with hot steam.
Amherst College, a private school established in 1821, and the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, were named after Lord Jeffery. Students and athletes answer to nicknames like the Lord Jeffs or the Lady Lord Jeffs.
“As a college, we regret that this offensive image was posted,” said Caroline Hanna, spokeswoman for Amherst College. “We are committed to creating a welcoming, supportive and respectful environment for the entire community, and we have taken steps to ensure that this behavior won’t be repeated.”
Biology faculty removed the image “within minutes” of learning it had offended students, Hanna said. Faculty also met with individual students who complained about the image and offered apologies both personal and on behalf of the department.
The apology came after student Danielle Trevino, Choctaw, sent a scathing letter to the biology department, calling the poster “truly hurtful and alienating.”
“As biologists, you should be especially aware of the devastating effects of germ warfare on human populations, especially considering that Native Americans are a minority among minorities,” Trevino wrote. “The fact that Amherst is our mascot does not make the humorous use of his image acceptable.”
Treviso asked that the image be removed and that the department be held accountable.
“I will not stand for lighthearted references to genocide or allow an already-marginalized population to be further ignored on this campus,” she wrote. “I will also not allow an academic department to think they cannot be held accountable for the insensitivity that occurs within their spaces.”
Trevino, a junior from Oklahoma studying English, also is working on a certificate of Native American studies offered by the Five College Consortium, a unique collaboration among the five colleges and universities in Western Massachusetts’ Connecticut River Valley: Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College, Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Trevino is the sole member and senior co-chair for the Native American Students Organization at Amherst College, formed partially in response to issues having to do with the college’s controversial mascot.
“Throughout this area, there are not a lot of Native Americans,” she said during a phone interview. “I’m one of the few people addressing this here. I have to say I’m a Native person and that this bothers me before someone does something. I feel that when I address issues of the mascot, I have to say I’m Native before anyone understands that this is not OK.”
This is not the first time Amherst College has come under fire for publicizing insensitive or racist images. In March, the college’s publication, “The Indicator,” ran a cartoon depicting the housing shortage. The cartoon shows three tipis in a clearing, along with the caption, “Housing Crisis Solution: Lord Jeff Approved.”
Students complained about this incident and the editor of “The Indicator” and the cartoonist issued apologies.
Amherst College, along with the other four institutions in the Five College Consortium, is making strides toward better awareness and understanding, said Kathleen Brown-Perez, a member of the Brothertown Indian Nation, a professor at UMass Amherst and chair of the consortium’s Native American studies committee.
Amherst College recently hired two Native faculty members—a first in its history, Brown-Perez said, but the area, not known for reaching out to the Native population, has a long way to go.
Brown-Perez points to the autoclave incident as proof that pushing for better awareness of American Indians and Alaska Natives is “two steps forward, one step back.”
“I would love to say I was surprised by it, but I’m not,” she said of the flyer. “They are the Lord Jeffs. That’s controversial in itself.”
Education about Native populations has to start in elementary school, Brown-Perez said, but that doesn’t happen in Massachusetts.
“Children don’t even learn about Native Americans because it’s not on the [standardized tests],” she said. “I still get students in my class who are surprised to learn that Native Americans are still alive. The level of cluelessness among the students is shocking.”
Education continues in colleges, among students and faculty members, Brown-Perez said.
She faulted Amherst College faculty for endorsing insensitive or racist flyers, but praised the college for the steps it is taking to right the situation. The college plans to address the issue in an upcoming edition of “The Indicator.”
“Even if they don’t know everything about Native Americans, they [faculty] should be aware that it’s offensive,” Brown-Perez said. “I do respect Amherst College for hiring two Native faculty members. They are moving forward, but there’s still a general lack of understanding.”
Amherst College, ranked second best liberal arts college in the country by U.S. News & World Report and 13th out of all U.S. colleges and universities by Forbes, is an exclusively undergraduate institution. It serves a student population of about 1,800, of which zero reported being of American Indian or Alaska Native descent, according to enrollment data from 2011.
Trevino may be the only American Indian student on campus.
“Sometimes it’s a bit discouraging,” she said. “There’s pressure for me to speak up about it, to address it and tell people.”