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Dartmouth Indians: The New Tradition

By Stefan M. Beck | Sunday, June 8, 2003

Student Assembly, the sacred conscience of Dartmouth, recently cooked up a plan to mend the wicked ways of some of our peers. The plan, which seems to be modeled on late '90s gun buybacks, is an SA- and school-funded trade-in of T-shirts and other merchandise depicting the defunct Indian mascot.

Remember Buyback America? Rep. James Walsh of New York called the program 'kind of silly,' arguing that criminals 'will not trade their guns for groceries or tennis shoes.' No kidding. Nor are the students who sport the Indian oblivious to the attendant controversy—so they aren't likely to swap their goods for the ubiquitous green hoodie, Dartmouth shot glass, or even a sawbuck's worth of Vox Clamantis in Deserto window decals. That is, not unless they've undergone some kind of road-to-Damascus conversion to 'sensitive' thinking.

We at the Review welcomed SA's plan at first. We mistakenly thought it was a buyback, and planned to sell a few bundles of our back-stock to Wright for beer money. When we learned the truth, we decided to keep our shirts and instead stir up the murky and foul-smelling pot of campus debate. Michael Ellis '06, TDR's beleaguered Publisher, blitzed out an advertisement for our classic graduate accessory: the Indian cane. The message thoughtfully began, 'When your grandchildren ask you about your time at Dartmouth, what will you have to show them?'

Responses to Mr. Ellis's question were by turns witty ('f-ck off racist motherf-cker'), imaginative ('pick another race to make fun of...how about swedish people??'), optimistic ('Old copies of a long-defunct paper called The Dartmouth Review? A collectors item!'), and downright perplexing ('A cane from an organization I support, that's what.'). Yet for all this variety, the two dozen pieces of hate mail had something in common. Each was a sort of Pavlov response, a knee-jerk appeal to a claim that most are too lazy to question—that the Indian is racist, backward, offensive, &c.

I'll outline the reasons why this simply isn't true. A slavish devotion to 'common knowledge' and a fondness for self-congratulation prevent most people even from acknowledging that these reasons exist; still, I owe it to the freshmen and to the Review to go over them for the millionth time.

Here's one of the strongest arguments for the Indian. In 'The Indian Wars,' in the March 4, 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated, columnist S.L. Price writes:

The pollsters interviewed 351 Native Americans (217 living on reservations and 134 living off) and 743 fans. Their responses were weighted according to U.S. census figures for age, race and gender, and for distribution of Native Americans on and off reservations. With a margin of error of 4%, 83% of the Indians said that professional teams should not stop using Indian nicknames, mascots or symbols, and 79% of the fans agreed with them.

There you have it: hard, statistical proof that most Native Americans aren't offended by Indian mascots. In fact, the article goes on to say, an incredible majority are not even offended by Washington's 'Redskins,' though the term is arguably much nastier than an icon like Dartmouth's erstwhile 'Indian head.' Some even see the mascots as a source of pride, as the Irish Catholics of Notre Dame see their beloved pugilist leprechaun.

So it seems that only Ivy Leaguers, either wracked by 'white guilt' or initiated into the mystery cult of Sensitivity, possess the moral capacity to feel outrage at the sight of the Indian. Who knew?

I've heard tell that the 'Indian head' is a 'racist depiction' of Native Americans. But it should be obvious that the Indian mascot is not meant to depict present-day Native Americans, so how can this be the case? Native Americans have changed a great deal over the course of history. So have people of all ethnicities. That's why I'm studying English at Dartmouth College rather than wearing a bearskin and sacrificing holly-crowned virgins to Wotan. That's why people of Scandinavian descent don't dust off their battle-axes and sack Minneapolis whenever the Vikings play.

One of Michael Ellis's critics proposed the following: 'Why not make white people canes? ...these canes could display a caricature of the white race that will be perceived by white students as shockingly offensive and hurtful.' As it happens, a group of Asian students at a University of California campus did just that. They made T-shirts for their intramural team, the Fighting Whities, which were emblazoned with the 'shockingly offensive and hurtful' likeness of Ward Cleaver. Boo hoo. The thing is, no one shed a tear, because the shirts were hilarious. Similarly, the University of Nebraska has for its mascot a fellow called Herbie Husker, a 'redneck' in overalls and a cowboy hat. Nobody's crying there, either.

Of course, the analogy doesn't work, because Dartmouth's Indian was never meant to be funny. It wasn't meant to be racist, either, or to suggest (as one Dartmouth professor creatively argued) that the Indian mascot 'serves' the cabal of white oppressors who control our school. The stylized and quite flattering image of an Indian warrior was meant to convey pride, dignity, strength, and everything else befitting a sports team or (perhaps in those days) Ivy League student.

Could it be that those who say otherwise can't bear to be deprived of the feeling of moral superiority that comes with carping about 'injustices'? Or that they just love the elaborate mental games one must play to find the hatred and prejudice hidden in the Indian? I wonder.

But I don't want to argue for the old traditions. The Indian is never coming back, at least not in a big way. What I want to do is propose a new way of looking at the Indian. Another angry letter (there were so many!) said that 'the only thing the canes stand for now is a fight between conservatives and liberals.' He got one thing right: the Indian does stand for a fight. But this fight is apolitical, and it's a cheap and dirty trick to say that only a conservative (meant to be synonymous with 'bigot,' you see) could stand on the Indian's side.

So what is this fight for? For one thing, it is for the right to express pride in ways other than those prescribed by the pissed-off, humorless few. It is the few, I believe, who have shamed everybody else into feeling indignant where no insult exists. They have poisoned the well—making Dartmouth a place where people are quicker to feel suspicion and outrage than to stop and think: is this really a big deal? Are these people really wearing these shirts or carrying these canes to express their dislike of Native Americans? Ladies and gentlemen, were that position anything but ludicrous, we would have made President Wright our mascot years ago.

There is another more sobering question in all this, and it has nothing to do with T-shirts, mascots, or Dartmouth College. Should we throw around words like 'racist' and 'bigot' so casually that they have no meaning left when they're really needed? These words are regarded today as magic bullets, secret weapons to reach for whenever reason and argument seem too taxing. If one disagrees with my defense of the Indian, he or she should take great pleasure in arguing me into the ground. Instead, as our extensive collection of hate mail demonstrates, most rely on the abuse of words and ideas that should be reserved for more serious use.

We are not, for the millionth time, racists. It's time to put that tired old song and dance to bed. Nor are we ignorant. We've heard the arguments; we've considered them; and we've made our own in reply. If you'd care to say that we're contrarian, obsessively devoted to doing the opposite of what we're told, you're getting closer to the truth. But for us, that's fun with a purpose. When we wear an Indian T-shirt, we send a necessary message: try all you like, but we're not going to kowtow to Dartmouth's little tyrants.

We're not going to be cowed by shrill and meaningless slurs—again, we know we're not racists, and no barrage of poorly-written emails will convince us otherwise. Most importantly, we're not going to buy into what is essentially a political claim—that the Indian symbol 'victimizes' Native Americans—because it's dressed up as a self-evident moral truth. No, we're going to keep on displaying our Indians with pride, and, if I may say so, we're going to look damn sharp. We encourage you to do the same—if you've got the nerve, you know where to go for the goods.