Dartmouth Apologizes for Indian Incidents

College officials speak out about disruption of events, use of Native American imagery and invitation to U. of North Dakota.
November 27, 2006

Dartmouth College's president and athletics director issued pre-Thanksgiving apologies for a series of incidents that have angered American Indian students and professors.

Following a meeting with Native American leaders, Dartmouth President James Wright sent a  letter to the campus expressing concern about "racist and insensitive" behavior that Indian students have experienced. "I apologize on behalf of the college," he wrote.

Wright acknowledged that much of the behavior that has angered American Indians -- such as the distribution of clothing with Indian symbolism -- is not illegal and could not be punished by the college. But he called for more people -- himself included -- to speak out against offensive comments.

"Freedom of expression is a core value of this institution," he wrote. "The college is not going to start a selective dress code and we do not have a speech code. Free speech includes the right to say and to do foolish and mean-spirited things. We have seen several examples of this exercise this fall. But free speech is not a right exclusively maintained for the use of the mean and the foolish -- it is not unless we allow it to be, and then the free part has been minimized."

Wright's letter was distributed just after an advertisement appeared in The Dartmouth, the student newspaper, noting some of the incidents that have upset Native American students this year. (A spokeswoman for the college said that the president's letter was in the works prior to the ad's appearance.)

Among the incidents cited in the ad:

  • On Columbus Day, fraternity pledges disrupted a student group's observance of the day (which is viewed as anything but a celebration by Native American leaders) with "clapping, mock dancing" and jumping through "the sacred center of the Native students' drumming circle."
  • A fraternity sold T-shirts, prior to the football game against the College of the Holy Cross, depicting a Holy Cross Crusader performing oral sex on an Indian.
  • A party in November organized by athletes featured a "Cowboys, Indians and Barnyard Animals" theme, with students dressed as Indians. One athlete, when confronted about the party, told a student who complained that the theme was really "Cowboys, Barnyard Animals and Indigenous People."

The ad said it was inappropriate for people to make light of such incidents or of the use of Indian imagery. "As Native people, the right the decide what offends us belong to us and us alone. It is arrogant for non-Native people to presume that they somehow have this right," the ad said. It added: "It is wrong for one race of people to appropriate the cultures and customs of another race of people. Objectification is about power."

The treatment of Indian students and the use of Indian symbols is particularly sensitive at Dartmouth. The college was founded in 1769 with the stated goal of educating both Indian and white students, but the mission of educating Indians was largely ignored for two centuries. Starting in the 1970s, however, the college reclaimed that original mission, and Dartmouth has educated hundreds of Native American students -- something few elite colleges have done -- and the college has a well respected Native American studies program.

As the college was reaching out to Native American students, it also abandoned the use of the "Indians" as its team name. The Dartmouth Review, a conservative newspaper, has campaigned to restore the name and regularly distributes to students T-shirts with the Dartmouth Indian symbol on them.

In his letter, Wright reiterated the college's view that the issue of the Indian symbol was long settled (in favor of not using it) at the college. The college's prior use of the symbol, Wright said, reflected its "amnesia" about its obligations to Native Americans.

In the last year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has pushed member colleges that still have Native American symbols or team names to abandon them. The University of North Dakota is among the institutions that have resisted the push -- recently filing suit over the matter -- and its Fighting Sioux hockey team is due to visit Dartmouth for a tournament in December.

Josie Harper, director of athletics, published a letter in The Dartmouth last week condemning North Dakota for keeping the name, and called that university's position "offensive and wrong." Harper said that when the university was invited -- two years ago -- its team name wasn't considered and that "perhaps" it should have been. In his letter to the campus, Wright pledged to develop policies to deal with the issue of playing teams with Indian names. Reaction in North Dakota has not been surprising. A spokesman for the university told reporters that no other university has apologized for playing North Dakota, a traditional hockey powerhouse, and bloggers backing the Fighting Sioux name are calling Dartmouth politically correct.

The politically correct charge is one of the reactions in Hanover, too. Dartblog called Wright's letter "a weak-kneed concession to a political interest group."

Others, however, are strongly backing the president's response. Bruce Duthu, a professor at Vermont Law School who also teaches Native American law at Dartmouth and who is a member of the Houma tribe, said that he was unsure why, but this semester has seen "hate-filled idiocy" of the sort that hasn't taken place recently at the college. "We haven't had overtly racist incidents, but for some reason we are."

Duthu said Wright's response was "wonderful," but said it should have come earlier in the semester, after the first incident. "He's saying that this kind of intolerance is just not acceptable." Noting that Wright has strongly supported the recruiting of Native American students over the years, Duthu said he believed the letter was sincere and that Wright would continue to speak out as necessary.

Wright was also correct to call for individuals to take personal stands against intolerance, Duthu said, rather than trying to legislate a solution. "In an educational setting, you have free speech and sometimes that means you have to put up with idiots," he said.


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