AAS Letter on the Mascot

Recent years have seen several student-led attempts to encourage discussions on the place, contemporary relevance and inclusivity of our current unofficial mascot, Lord Jeffery Amherst. These conversations should continue. The college’s community has demonstrated a desire for a serious reconsideration of our mascot and we should not let past failures stifle student speech. Nonetheless, the question should not be approached as a given either in favor of or opposed to the Lord Jeff. Although there is strong support for changing the mascot, as an article last semester in The Student’s sports section demonstrates, there is also strong support for keeping the Lord Jeff. While we unequivocally endorse the institution of a new college mascot, we also recognize the voices who sincerely oppose such a change.

Lord Jeffery Amherst (1717-1797) is notoriously known for advocating the use of smallpox-infected blankets as a tool of biological warfare against Native Americans. That Amherst advocated the use of such tactics is unambiguous. In a letter sent to a colonel serving under his command he writes, “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians.” Writing again to the same colonel, Amherst suggests that “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.” As the Amherst College Archives notes, though, it is not clear that infected blankets were distributed at Amherst’s command.

However, regardless of whether Jeffery Amherst’s suggestion was actually carried out, the arguments for changing the mascot remain strong. The problematic nature of the Lord Jeff comes not from the outcome of his noxious suggestion but from the suggestion itself and the intense, underlying racism it betrays. His implication that the ultimate goal of the infected blankets was the complete destruction of the Native American “race” is what disqualifies him as a legitimate candidate for the mascot of Amherst College. Rallying around Lord Jeff demonstrates willful ignorance of the very real sentiments of Jeffery Amherst. We should not be willing to condone his words.

Asking our peers, some of whom identify as Native American, to rally around a mascot who advocated the genocide of an entire nation of peoples is not something we can do. In continuing to support the Lord Jeff as the college’s mascot we risk alienating members of the student body who do not feel as though they can, in good conscience, endorse him. In doing so, we weaken our community by creating a class of students who can and do support the Lord Jeff and a class of those who cannot and do not, therefore, precluding the existence of a mascot that can serve as a point of commonality for all Amherst students.

While the value of the Lord Jeff certainly has its place in this discussion, perhaps the larger question is what our mascot should be. And although we do support a change in mascot, we do not support a change to a particular alternative. The choice of a replacement, as well as the choice to replace, must be as democratic as possible. In order to facilitate this, the AAS will later this semester issue a poll asking whether or not the mascot should be changed. If a majority of students support this, we will create a website where students will be able to submit ideas for a new mascot. Here, the Amherst community will be able to comment on ideas, add additional forms of media (e.g. designs for possible logos or uniform) in support of a potential mascot and ultimately vote on their top choice. This will be supplemented by forums and events funded by the AAS in order to encourage face-to-face conversations on the subject of the mascot.

Amherst College deserves a mascot the entire community can rally around — one that reflects our present, anticipates our future and acknowledges our past without chaining us to it. We also deserve a serious, student-driven conversation on what our mascot should be. After all, a mascot is no more than the support it receives from those it represents — in our case, the Amherst College community. As such, while we do support the eventual installation of an official college mascot, we also recognize that student sentiment is more important than administrative decree in this matter. If the process for moving away from the Lord Jeff towards a new mascot is not as dynamic and inclusive as possible, it is unlikely that the change will have as large an impact on our community as we hope. And so, in order to facilitate and reopen the conversation the AAS invites all students, faculty and staff to its meeting on Monday, Oct. 26 to discuss issues surrounding the mascot. We hope to see you there.

The Association of Amherst Students