Native students at the University of New Mexico are protesting the use of a decades-old seal that appears on the school’s official correspondence, as a backdrop for special events and is even affixed to diplomas.
The seal features a Spanish conquistador and a frontiersman—two figures that represent the colonization of the Southwest and the genocide of Native Americans. Traced to the university’s fourth president, Edward Dundas McQueen Gray, the seal was designed more than 100 years ago and has been the university’s official mark since 1969.
Students and community members are using the seal as a springboard to demand systemic changes at New Mexico’s largest university. The Kiva Club, a Native student group, and The Red Nation, an advocacy group, are calling the seal offensive and the university’s treatment of Native students appalling.
“Obviously the seal is a celebration of the settlement of the land, a depiction of two very violent figures who enacted violence against indigenous people,” said Jennifer Marley, a 19-year-old sophomore at UNM and secretary for the Kiva Club. “It’s pretty obvious why that’s problematic, but what is less obvious is some of the other racist images on campus, all the cultural appropriation and the widespread inequality for Natives.”
Students are circulating a petition to “minimize the dehumanization of Natives on campus.” So far, 170 people have signed it.
“UNM has one of the highest populations of Native students in the Western Hemisphere,” the petition states. “Its seal continues to make a mockery of its Native students and the surrounding Native community.”
The groups are also delivering a list of demands to university President Bob Frank and other administrators, seeking abolition of the seal and changes to the campus climate. The demands include reconstruction of a Native Cultural Center, employment of more Native faculty and administrators, creation of a higher education council of tribal leaders, abolition of racist imagery and cultural appropriation, tuition waivers for members of federally recognized tribes, repatriation of cultural and sacred items displayed on campus, and adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as formal UNM policy.
The demands are not new, said Marley, who is a member of the San Ildefonso Pueblo. The Kiva Club has battled similar issues since it was established at the university in 1952.
“These are things people have been fighting for generations,” she said. “The old movements from 50 years ago, those are still going on today.”
The official seal is one of many images used by the university, said Pamina Deutsch, director of the UNM Policy Office. The Lobo mascot and various permutations of the seal—including versions without the two controversial figures—also appear across campus and on official school paraphernalia.
Unlike the other images, however, the official seal can’t be retired or modified without approval from the university’s seven-member Board of Regents. New Mexico state law gives the board final authority over “making and using a common seal and altering the same at pleasure.”
Should UNM change or retire its seal, it would join ranks with other universities nationwide that are rethinking the past and their troubled relationships with Natives. Northwestern University and the University of Denver recently teamed up to conduct a study into historic ties to John Evans, a railroad tycoon who founded both institutions but who also was partly responsible for the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado.
Rutgers University is examining its 250-year history, including relationships with the Lenni Lenape, on whose land the school was built.
“UNM is definitely late to the game,” Marley said. “All throughout the country, we see retirement of the Confederate flag, retirement of offensive mascots. It’s time UNM did the same.”
Deutsch said students are encouraged to file petitions requesting the seal be retired and seeking open dialogue with the Board of Regents about their complaints.
“The seal has changed over time, many times,” she said. “The seal is an evolving representation of the university, and it could be time for it to evolve again.”