Amherst College's "Housing Crisis Solution" cartoon in their publication The Indicator

Liberal Uneducation: Amherst College Publication Taken to Task for Housing Cartoon Depicting Tipis

ICTMN Staff
4/19/12

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.

Sincerely,

Dwanna Robertson, MBA, MS

Citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma

Doctoral Student, Department of Sociology

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

dwanna@soc.umass.edu

Adina Giannelli, JD

Graduate Student, Department of Public Health

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

adina.giannelli@gmail.com

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Comments

enufalready's picture
enufalready
Submitted by enufalready on
This is without doubt one of the sillier screeds I have every had the misfortune of reading. As is typical of many in the race-grievance industry, you are searching high and low for racism, the presence of which you apparently are the sole arbiter; "The reason this cartoon is racist is because Native folks say it is racist, " you pronounce. First, who appointed you the arbiter of what Native Folks say? Is the declaration of just one Native person sufficient, or have you taken a survey? I suspect that there are lots of Native people who would disagree with your assessment. I see no evidence, obvious or implied in the cartoon, that the cartoonist is depicting Teepees as substandard housing. If the cartoonist showed double-wides, or McMansions, or cookie-cutter suburban split-levels, would they be "appropriating cultural objects" of Euro-Americans? Are you suggesting that non-Natives have no right to depict Native cultural objects? Please, you must have something more useful to do than spend your time trying to "expose" racism that just isn't there.

denacostello's picture
denacostello
Submitted by denacostello on
I find it quite interesting that someone would say stop trying to find racism where there just isn't any. First off, I am an indigenous woman, and I find the cartoon highly offensive. Had you of used the logic and reason clearly explained and thoroughly discussed throughout the article, you too would have been able to garner the reason it is so troublesome. Considering that Ms. Robertson and Ms. Giannelli did such a thorough job with that explanation, I feel no need to go step-by-step to explain why it should be offensive to someone as yourself. It's pretty self explanatory. Just as there are thousands of us who find mascots of our people across the country offensive, so would we still find the "poor humor" in this same cartoon offensive. No one has to be "appointed" to any position to defend the rights of indigenous people. Just as I would also argue, no one has to be "appointed" to defend the rights of any minority. If you are a human being, you have the right to defend ANY other human being who is being singled out, bullied, picked-on, having their rights taken away, and in some way shape or form, oppressed. Who are you to tell us that this isn't offensive? Did you take a survey? Did you poll thousands to ask if this was offensive? I mean, you aren't even sensitive enough to make sure you took the time to clearly understand the article, the view point from which it was written, you attacked the authors saying they are arbiters of racism, AND you then demeaned their values by saying they are wasting their time. Seems to me, perhaps you could spend some real time studying and learning about the continued oppression of our people, PRIOR to you coming on a website representing us and attacking. It is people such as yourself who truly make this world a sad place. Indigenous people have been oppressed for years. Those years precede yours on this earth. Statistics show that we continue to face those same struggles and challenges on a daily basis, and yet as usual, someone would come onto a public forum and tell us what we should and shouldn't be hurt by. So, Thank you, "enufalready." Thank you for telling us that we shouldn't be offended by a cartoon stating that a man who tried to exterminate our people now has a solution to the housing crisis. (There are far to many inferences to even cover!) I mean, after all, if it were up to him, we just wouldn't even be on this earth anymore. Great post! Thank you so much for opening our eyes to the continued OPPRESSION of our people!

wonder3141's picture
wonder3141
Submitted by wonder3141 on
Holy cow. This letter may have been an appropriate response to something--anything--other than a political cartoon. While I sympathize with those who are offended by a cartoon like this, it's a cartoon after all, and a work of art and satirical and self-deprecating all at once. If offensiveness alone determined whether or not a political cartoon got published, there would be no political cartoons. Every single one of them is going to offend some group of people. That's by design, I think. But here's why I think your response is so off-point: for all we know, the person who made this cartoon had EVERYTHING you said in mind. They said to themselves, "I hate our college for having a murderer as a mascot. I hate that people think tipis are crummy housing, and I hate that Native Americans have it so rough here in America. Why don't I represent those sentiments abstractly through a political cartoon?" We don't know what the person actually thought, but who cares? It's creative artwork, not a policy proposal. Art is about expressing yourself in a way that might/should stimulate independent thought in others. What makes art so compelling is that each one of us is entitled to take away from it what we may. I read that cartoon and say: "what a sharp kid, pointing out the flaws of our government's housing policies while at the same time acknowledging those worse off in our county and, to boot, mocking his/her own privileged college. Clever." I'm just as much entitled to that opinion as you are of yours. And this is why demanding retractions and apologies and explanations from artists for their artwork is so inappropriate. We're all entitled to our opinions--me, you, and the editors at the Indicator. Majority vote will never dictate which of our interpretations is the correct one. Far be it from me to demand an explanation for that, or any, cartoon. If you want to engage in a policy debate on the plight of Native Americans in the United States, and it's clear that you do, then go right ahead. I just don't think that calling out cartoonists is an appropriate way to go about it.

dwanna's picture
dwanna
Submitted by dwanna on
So, if I understand you correctly, "political cartoons" hold no accountability to the rest of the public. Unfortunately, that's the same argument used for Nazi propaganda in the 1940s up to the current day "satirizing" of President Obama's race. Just because it's done, doesn't make it right. Furthermore, the context of The Indicator cartoon gives great weight to why it's racist. If you had read the letter carefully, you would have caught the four (4) reasons we stated that we think this cartoon (to call it a political cartoon is a LONG stretch) is racist. You would also know the terrible history of racism at Amherst College. You don't have to agree, but you could at least consider it. I sense from your comment that you're an artist or want to be, and obviously believe in your freedom to express. Indigenous people deal with a constant barrage of blatantly racist mascots and grocery products, tobacco, and vehicles that appropriate their names. Shouldn't Native folks be given the freedom to call out racism/insensitivity/prejudice? In this specific case, I think remorse is appropriate. If the artist did, in fact, think like you say and produced the cartoon as political protest, then the artist could email me or Adina and express her sentiment. We would gladly speak and reason together with her. And we have heard from numerous alumni, current students, professors from Amherst College, Smith College, and UMass. But, alas, we have not heard from anyone who was connected to the production of this cartoon. All it would take is an apology or an explanation. We don't want a fight--we want to come to an understanding. So, for you to continue to defend actions that appropriate and degrade indigenous cultures (or any others) is to reproduce the harm done in the first place.

wonder3141's picture
wonder3141
Submitted by wonder3141 on
Thanks for taking the time to reply to my post--I appreciate your joining the fray! The best I can say is that, along the spectrum of pure political policy statement--say a congressional speech--to pure abstract work of art--like a painting--this type of cartoon falls somewhere in the middle, such that, I believe, there's sufficient room for interpretation about intent, meaning, and implication to insulate it from the need for public explanation and institution-wide apology. My fear is, without this grey area, there would be a real chilling effect on creative expression. That's why I'm reluctant to agree with you that the editors of the Indicator and Ms. Lipton need to come out and defend themselves here. My guess, however, is that their next issue will address the topic head-on, assuming they get their hands on your letter. Now, I take your point that, even when it comes to political cartoons (or, to be more fair, just regular cartoons), there IS such a thing as crossing the line. You're right that you just can't call something art and get a license to spew hate without accountability. That's a fair point. From my perspective, though, this cartoon is safely behind the line, but again I appreciate that others are justifiably more sensitive. In the end, in my opinion your letter was too aggressive in calling into question Amherst College's institutional character, and in portraying the newspaper and the cartoon as starkly racist. I think it's less cut-and-dried than that, but I can appreciate your frustration when it comes to American attitudes toward Natives, generally speaking. Thanks again for responding!
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