Below is a letter reprinted with permission from two students at the University of Massachusetts. The letter was addressed to the editor of the Amherst College’s publication “The Indicator,” the president of Amherst college and the assistant to the president, in response to a racially insensitive cartoon. The University of Massachusetts is part of the five-college consortium in Western Massachusetts that includes Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College, Hampshire College and Smith College. In the letter they address the concerns of Native students that often go overlooked and unaddressed at these bastions of liberal education.
Dear Amherst College Community,
At what is arguably the country’s most prestigious liberal arts college, the students of Amherst College are receptacles of tremendous privilege. By virtue of this privilege, they have access to a deep well of resources — including academic knowledge and professional opportunity. Young Native people have been systematically deprived of these same resources for generations. Why do we remind you of this?
Recently, your school news journal, The Indicator (Volume XXXIII, Issue 2, page 19), ran a cartoon depicting the “Lord Jeff approved” housing solution in the form of tipis. We find this incredibly insensitive, and ultimately, racist. Let us be clear, the person who drew the cartoon (Tricia Lipton), the editors who approved it (Nadirah Porter-Kasbati and Laurence Pevsner), and the student body, faculty, and staff of Amherst College who subsequently read it and perhaps even laughed are not necessarily racists. They have, however, participated in racist behavior, unintentionally or not.
Our complaint requires contextualization. Lord Jeff, your school mascot, and the man for whom Amherst College and the community that hosts it are named, acts as a constant reminder of the horrific deeds enacted against indigenous people in New England. And whereas there may be some dispute as to whether the idea of giving smallpox-infected items to Native people actually originated with Lord Jeff, there is no such doubt that he clearly approved and ordered “Measures to be taken as would Bring about the Total Extirpation [extermination] of those Indian Nations” (British Manuscript Project, U.S. Library of Congress, microfilm reel 34/38, Item 244).Thus, your steadfast approval of Lord Jeff as your mascot perpetuates the presence of genocide jokes on your campus and cries of “Let’s massacre them!” at your sporting events. Our knowledge of this is both firsthand and through correspondence with many of your current students and alumnae.
What you may not realize is that indigenous people in the United States – and far beyond – have been subject to systemic and state-sanctioned land encroachment, abuse, forced migration, economic isolation, educational deprivation, racism, and genocide, for at least half of a millenium. As a result, today’s Native American youth (ages 14-24) are chronically over-represented in the juvenile justice system, and tragically, experience grossly elevated rates of suicide relative to the population as a whole (70% higher). Tellingly, this same population of youth is chronically underrepresented at institutions of higher learning, including your own, despite your claims of diversity and acceptance.
Most contemporary depictions of American Indians by outsiders reproduce racist, timeworn, illegitimate, and anachronistic tropes of Natives (read tipis here). Numerous studies tie terrible consequences to the internalization by Native youth of inaccurate stereotypes; e.g., suicide and criminal behavior, etc. Depictions such as the one your publication featured in its March 26th issue play no small part in these lived realities.
Why do we assert that your cartoon is racist? First, you depict tipis as substandard when compared to the social norm of Euro-American housing, which is not only offensive but quite inaccurate. Tipis were engineered to keep families dry in the rain, warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and can be put up and taken down with ease, having little impact on the land. Second, tipis were not even used in the Northeast! The cartoon appropriates a cultural object of many Plains Indian tribes and makes it the butt of a joke. In addition, the text on the depiction states “Lord Jeff approved.” Lord Jeff is known for his hatred of “Indians,” so those words imply Indians left empty tipis (through murder or displacement) that can now be occupied by non-Indians.
But most importantly, the reason this cartoon is racist is because Native folks say it is racist. They are the people this cartoon offended or wounded. They get to decide whether or not it is racist, not those who participated in the oppressive acts.
As a journal of social and political thought, the very purpose of “The Indicator” is to critique the social and political problems entrenched in our society — to challenge racism, rather than reproduce it. As a publication/editorial board/student population, we would like to encourage you to take a moment to reflect. Your use of tipis ties the attempted extermination of the indigenous groups of North America to Lord Jeff and to your college and its students. Indeed, Amherst College continues a close, and deeply troubling, historical and contemporary connection with Jeffery Amherst, even with the knowledge of his horrific acts as a British soldier. Perhaps, consciously or otherwise, discomfort at this longstanding relationship actually compelled the production of the cartoon in question. Perhaps, this cartoon is intended to function as a sort of satire – a play on the well-known history of Lord Jeffery Amherst and the devastating impact he has had on the Native American communities even beyond this region. This is, at best, a horrible trivialization of the historical genocide of Native people — and at worst, a joke about it.
Certainly, there is a place for satire in our culture. We are not humorless, but we find no humor in the production and reproduction of racist tropes and paradigms. Joking about racism and its effects does nothing to alleviate either racism or its effects. Indeed, it further isolates the already marginalized. This cartoon actually reproduces the divide between Amherst College and Native people by perpetuating the idea that indigenous groups are all the same and serving to dishearten Natives about their treatment in the Northeast, especially those on your campus or any that live in the Pioneer Valley.
We assume that you are well-intentioned and good-spirited and harbor no personal animosity to Native Americans, American Indians, or other indigenous people on this continent or elsewhere. But positive intentions will never outweigh the negative effect of racist imagery. Racism, and its impact, are alive and well and deeply felt by Native Americans throughout the United States.
Your college motto is Terras Irradient, “Let them give light to the world.” You could truly give light by issuing an apology for and a retraction of the cartoon. Saying you’re sorry goes a long way in the world. It provides acknowledgement, remorse, and space in which healing can begin. You would be living out your motto while simultaneously providing goodwill to Native Americans across the United States. We would also be happy to engage in dialogue with any concerned. Working together, we can be a model for bringing resolution to racial tensions and discrimination through accountability, knowledge, empathy, and forgiveness. We eagerly await your reply.
Dwanna Robertson, MBA, MS
Citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma
Doctoral Student, Department of Sociology
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Adina Giannelli, JD
Graduate Student, Department of Public Health
University of Massachusetts, Amherst