The University of New Mexico has come under criticism once again for its claims that it is a Native serving institution, and this time by Native students and their allies who regard the seal that the university uses to promote its institution as a symbol of colonial oppression and genocide against Native nations and people. The seal features a Spanish conquistador and an American frontiersman standing back to back as a symbol of the history of the state and the university.
Native students and their allies insist that the symbol perpetuates stereotypes of Native peoples as always disappeared and not worthy of mention since the conquest of Indigenous peoples by the Spaniards in 1693. And, of course we have the American occupation of the Southwest beginning in 1846 to the present. Contrary to the message that the symbol conveys, the university established in 1899, has made its reputation upon research founded upon Indigenous peoples and cultures. Schools, departments, and programs drew researchers, scholars, and students to the region to bring the Southwest into the American academy which heavily hinged upon the study of Indigenous peoples.
It was in the 1970s, during the era of Indian self-determination, that Native scholars and students established Native American Studies as a discipline where they controlled the curriculum and fostered Native intellectualism. It was during this era, in 1977, that I arrived as a freshman at UNM, and ill-equipped to take on academic work because of my reservation education that had not prepared me for college. I was introduced to the first Native professors I had ever seen in the classroom, Luci Tapahonso and the late Louis Owens, both of whom taught Native literary studies. Their courses were my introduction to Native intellectualism, even though I was an avid reader at an early age—where I came from on the Navajo nation, Navajo teachers and intellectuals in the public school sector were almost non-existent. In an era when the university opened its doors to people of color and women, it also was compelled to provide not only courses of study that reflected changing faculty and student bodies, but also, for many students like myself, remedial courses for basics like Math and English.
I was like many Diné young people entering the university, in need of critical reading, writing, and thinking skills that so few schools on our homeland offered. It was a struggle to be in a place that rendered Indigenous people as having no value and more often than not, I was in classrooms where I was the only Native and Navajo student. An immense part of my struggle to get through college had to do with the invisibility of Native peoples, like we had no history, no political struggles, and the only thing worthy was our cultures which were to be served up as moments to reflect upon how diverse American culture had become.
After finally graduating from UNM with a B.A. in English, I went on to acquire an M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in History from Northern Arizona University. In college, I faced every hardship that Native students and faculty still face in the academy. But I was always heartened by the lessons taught to me in Native Studies because they matched the convictions I learned at home. From my parents’ personal experiences and from the perspectives of my community of relatives and the Native scholars and our allies, we all knew that the U.S. as a settler nation committed great crimes against Indigenous peoples, with its systematic theft of land and federal Indian laws and policies that legitimized this theft and which simultaneously worked to eliminate us as Indigenous peoples with distinct land bases, nations, and cultures.
In the 1970s, when I entered the academy I had to find my way through it and help to carve out a presence as a Diné scholar, to foster Indigenous Studies and Indigenous feminism as serious disciplines that had much to offer to other areas of studies. I worked to ensure that my scholarship and teaching were relevant to my own Navajo nation and communities. Over the course of at least four decades, Indigenous Studies has made central the fact that the U.S. is established upon the lands and resources of Indigenous peoples and it has made this history visible because it is past time for the U.S. to not only acknowledge the egregious treatment of its Indigenous peoples, but to begin to make amends for it.
The UNM symbol that celebrates its Hispanic and American frontier history was crafted in the era when the U.S. was in turmoil over civil rights, gender inequalities, and Indigenous rights. It is a relic of the past that does not acknowledge the presence of Indigenous peoples, of our quest and struggles to attain sovereignty and self-determination even as we are continually undermined by the U.S. and its refusal to acknowledge that it exists because Indigenous people gave up lands, resources, and lives so that its form of democracy could flourish. It is time for the University of New Mexico to take a step in the right direction, to acknowledge that it exists at the expense of Indigenous peoples, and to cease celebrating a history of genocide against Indigenous peoples. Abolishing the UNM seal is one step towards UNM addressing structural inequalities that Native students and faculty face every day in New Mexico.
Jennifer Denetdale is a citizen of the Navajo nation. A historian, author, and long-time educator, she is an associate professor of American Studies at UNM and is also a commissioner on the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission.