Dartmouth College rocked by racist controversies

HANOVER, N.H. – Founded in 1769 as a school for American Indians, Dartmouth College has recently been rocked by a series of incidents that Native students say are biased, racist and insulting.

In early December, the National Congress of American Indians voiced its solidarity with the student organization Native Americans at Dartmouth in calling on college administrators to address the recent string of “culturally insensitive, biased and racist” events that have created a hostile campus environment at the Ivy League college.

“Colleges and universities are places where diversity and tolerance should foster productive, inclusive, and thriving intellectual communities,” NCAI President Joe Garcia said.

“When cartoonization, mockery, and insensitivity of Native peoples, cultures, and traditions persist on college campuses, Native students are at a unique disadvantage in that intellectual community. NCAI joins NAD, [Dartmouth] President James Wright, and the broader Dartmouth community in condemning the recent series of biased incidents at the college, and stands with NAD in its efforts at combating bias in your community,” Garcia said.

During the past semester, Dartmouth’s Native students protested a number of events, including the distribution of homecoming shirts depicting a knight performing a sex act on an American Indian caricature and other T-shirts printed with a picture of the discontinued “Dartmouth Indian” mascot.

The students complained that fraternity pledges interrupted a American Indian drumming circle on Columbus Day. They also opposed the scheduling of a Dec. 29 hockey game against the University of North Dakota, whose mascot is the “Fighting Sioux.” UND is one of several schools whose use of American Indian imagery has been labeled “hostile and abusive” by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The anti-Indian incidents were so offensive that Dartmouth’s Native American Council, composed mostly of faculty members, placed a two-page paid advertisement in The Dartmouth, the college daily newspaper, describing recent events and demanding a community response.

But the situation boiled over in late November after the Dartmouth Review published an issue with an inflammatory cover illustration depicting a Native as a crazed-looking “savage” holding up a scalp. The cover headline was “The Natives Are Getting Restless.”

(The illustration is well-known and has been used by national anti-Indian coalitions opposing Indian sovereignty and casinos. It appears on the Web site of Frank Parlato Jr., a relentless opponent of the Seneca Nation of Indians in upstate New York, and showed up recently in messages spread by the Michigan anti-Indian group 23 Is Enough in its campaign to stop the Gun Lake Tribe from opening a casino.)

Inside the review was a long article called “NADs on the Warpath” that ridiculed Native students for protesting the events that they saw as racist.

The Review is an independent conservative student publication that is not affiliated with or funded by the college. It has a history of clashes with minority groups for its portrayal of them.

A day after the Review was published, more than 500 students, faculty and administrators protested the publication in a demonstration supporting the American Indian community at Dartmouth.

But in an editorial Dec. 2, the review’s editor, Daniel Linsalata, stood behind “the editorial content” of the edition.

Linsalata said the cover was meant to be a “hyperbolic tongue-in-cheek commentary” on those protesting the semester’s events. He offered his “regret” that the cover “may have” offended people, then went on to attack the NAD organization and its leadership, and ended up justifying the cover and stories.

“The accusation that this cover was maliciously designed as a wantonly racist attack on Native Americans is patently false,” Linsalata said.

Wright was appalled by the publication, however, and apologized in a three-page letter to the college community.

“I take it as a matter of principle that when people say they have been offended, they have been offended. We may apologize and explain, we may seek to assure that offense was not intended, but it is condescending to insist that they shouldn’t be offended, that it is somehow their fault, and that they are humorless since they can’t appreciate that what was perceived as offense is merely a ‘joke,’” Wright wrote.

He noted with pride that since recommitting itself in 1970 to its original charter mission, Dartmouth College has made a focused effort to recruit both American Indian students and faculty. The college now includes the largest Native population among Ivy League colleges – around 160 students, or 3 percent.

In his press release of support, Garcia noted that Dartmouth has appointed a committee to review how to preserve a set of murals depicting the Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, the college founder, “recruiting” Indians to the college.

The set of eight murals were painted in 1937 – ’38 by Walter Humphries, a magazine cover illustrator and Dartmouth alum. They illustrate a school song written by Richard Hovey in 1894 that was allegedly a comical rendition of the founding of the school. The panels include a picture of a Native man crawling out of the woods on hands and knees to lap up rum from the ground.

Garcia applauded Wright and Michael Hanitchak, director of Native American Programs at Dartmouth, for “their efforts to create a more inclusive and broader-thinking institution.”

“We hope that all institutions of higher education realize the importance of their social role in fostering these ideals. We hope they will continue to be responsive to the concerns of Native students following this series of troubling incidents,” Garcia said.