On October 13, 2014, University of New Mexico (UNM) Native students led a campus demonstration demanding the abolition of the university’s racist seal and the recognition of “Indigenous Peoples Day of Resistance and Resilience” instead of the nationally celebrated Columbus Day. On March 4, 2015, the Associated Students of UNM, the undergraduate student government body, passed a resolution urging the Board of Regents to join the rest of the world in upholding international human rights norms by adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and declaring “Indigenous Peoples Day of Resistance and Resilience” a campus holiday. Despite the intensity of the campus debate and sincere efforts by KIVA Club and the Native community, the Regents and administration ignored the resolution. Months later Albuquerque City Council passed an “Indigenous Peoples Day” resolution, joining the international movement to abolish Columbus Day. Native students and community took to the streets on October 12, 2015 en masse to celebrate the victory denied to them by UNM.
While the world around it changed, UNM held down the fort. Its seal, and its celebration of colonialism, remained untouched. Campus ossified.
Originally designed in 1910 by President Edward Dundas McQueen Gray, a Scottish immigrant who settled in New Mexico Territory in 1893, the seal represents what one alumni publication calls “two New Mexico founders, a Spanish conquistador and [an Anglo] frontiersman.” The back-to-back figures join other ostensibly innocent images, symbols, and rituals—the Lobo, the school colors: silver and cherry red, the singing of the Alma Mater, etc.—that make UNM a university. They are part of a brand, UNM’s institutional identity that also expresses certain values and history. According to the Administrative Policies and Procedures Manual, “A cohesive visual identity presents a sense of unity and builds awareness and pride among those connected to the University of New Mexico.” Yet, many see the two men, towering figures of genocide and conquest armed with the tools of conquest, as colonial gatekeepers safeguarding the university from the intrusion of Natives and diverse peoples.
Men bearing sword and musket personify just how order and civilization was achieved in the founding of New Mexico—through violence. Spanish colonization entailed the brutal rape, murder, enslavement, and torture of Natives at the hands of conquistadors such as Oñate and de Vargas. The expulsion of the Spanish from Pueblo homelands during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and their subsequent return were marked by extreme persecution and prejudice. Subsequent Mexican independence involved further persecution and oppression.
The conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo revealed the true intentions of U.S. and Mexican colonial policy toward Natives. The U.S. violated almost every treaty article before the ink was dry. Both nations, however, upheld Article XI, which guarantees that “incursions” into either country on behalf of the “savage tribes” would be met with “equal” force.
U.S. occupation was equally, if not more, brutal and punishing than its predecessors. From forced marches and open air concentration camps for Navajo and Apache prisoners at Bosque Redondo, from Indian killers such as Kit Carson and William Tecumseh Sherman, to mass enclosures and privatization of Native lands, the early U.S. colonial period in New Mexico is replete with examples of genocide and dispossession. That history, like U.S. history in general, is one of profound violence.
Lately, across northern and southern universities, statehouses, and public institutions, courageous activists and students took aim at the racial violence celebrated in icons such as Confederate flags and buildings named after slaveholding elites. The murderous history infused in these symbols boiled over when, amidst massive protests against police killings of Black people, a white supremacist opened fire in a AME church in Charleston, North Carolina killing nine Black parishioners. Pictures surfaced of the killer wearing the white supremacist regime flags of the Confederacy, apartheid-era South Africa, and Rhodesia.
In Albuquerque, Native relatives on the streets are routine targets for racial violence. In 2014, three young men beat beyond recognition two Navajo men killing them “for fun” and admitted to attacking more than fifty others in the past year. That same year, despite a record low in homicides, Albuquerque Police Department (APD) committed twenty percent of the city’s homicides. A recent report also found that “APD systematically engages in racially motivated forms of policing targeting people of color, particularly Native Americans.”
“[V]iolence is America’s sweetheart,” the late Vine Deloria, Jr. observed in 1969. Natives and people of color, in this society, cannot escape it. It saturates our everyday lives. Racist imagery—such as UNM’s seal—is simply a constant reminder.
Recently, a committee of Harvard Law School faculty, students, alumni, and staff recommended that school’s crest—which was modeled on the family crest of a slaveholding family—be retired. Many state institutions retired Confederate flags. Despite these precedents, abolishing symbols of oppression only reveals deep-seated social inequality. Changing iconography means nothing if it is not accompanied by real redistributions of power—such as scholarships, the creation and funding of diversity centers, and equal representation at all levels of the university system including the board of regents. This is bare minimum accountability.
While UNM is not responsible for the crimes of the past, our present moment is a product that history, and for that the university must be held accountable if it celebrates the destruction and attempted annihilation of Natives. Universities are supposed to be bastions of free thought and inclusive practices. UNM’s continued neglect of student demands demonstrates archaic, backwards thinking on Native issues and concerns. If anything the UNM seal mocks the educational advancement of Native nations. Many first generation Native graduates’ historic achievements will be marred by diplomas bearing the seal. For example, I will be the first citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe to earn a doctorate in the humanities.
The very least UNM can do is join the twenty first century, acknowledge colonialism is a crime, and abolish the racist seal. Natives do not belong in museums, UNM’s racist history does.
Nick Estes (Kul Wicasa) is a PhD student in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He studies the history and politics of the Oceti Sakowin, border towns, and Indigenous human rights.