As an alum of the college, I’m heartened that students have reset the institutional momentum to get rid of the Lord Jeff mascot. I’m still puzzled, though, by the responses of those who hang their support for keeping the mascot on a saccharine notion of the college’s traditions that withstands little scrutiny. For example, in his op-ed for the Dec. 10 edition of The Student, Michael Johnson ‘16 asks us to contextualize Lord Jeffery Amherst and his documented support of biological warfare against the Delaware and insists that we not “judge … his actions by today’s standards.”
If we go by Johnson’s account, Amherst’s actions and attitudes are mere relics of a sordid past no longer with us. Johnson also argues that such actions should be treated as the choices of an agent operating in an uncertain moral world. He is wrong on both counts. His appeal to the intrinsic fogginess of war faced by Amherst obscures broad continuities in U.S. history: British colonials like Amherst foreshadowed the 19th century U.S. wars of conquest aimed at eliminating Native communities from their own lands, violence which elites justified ideologically as the inevitable disappearance of “savage” or “primitive” peoples whom they viewed as subhuman. Amherst was not operating in the fog of war but in the vice-grip of a powerful and enduring ideology of Euroamerican imperialism. This discourse of civilizational supremacy gave cover to no-holds-barred military practice against Indigenous peoples, including the biological warfare Amherst advocated. What’s more, that discourse has stayed fairly consistent from the colonial period and into the 21st century, where it remains the stuff of U.S. counter-insurgency jargon — with terms like “Indian country” and “Operation Geronimo” sprinkled liberally as reminders of the continuities between Anglo-American militarism then and now.
Johnson seems especially concerned that changing the name is merely symbolic, and in one respect, I agree: Any more-than-symbolic move to rename Amherst would have to be addressed not as an easy disavowal of a racist bogeyman of the distant past but by reckoning with our own complicity in these continuing histories of U.S. imperialism. The problem with Amherst is not that he no longer represents “our values” but that he unfortunately represents them much better than we’re willing to acknowledge as a nation.
Furthermore, Johnson fails to distinguish between contextualizing a given individual — again, a fair burden for historians — and the serious moral choice before the college now as to whether he properly represents the diverse community the college aspires to build. There is little evidence to indicate that Amherst’s subordinate officers in fact carried out his suggestion to give smallpox blankets to the Delaware. But why should this fact redeem him? I would ask those intent on keeping Lord Jeffery around: What are the positive values you believe he represents as an historical figure? British imperial vigor? Genocidal intent? Why call, as Johnson does, for the facile relativism of historical distance when the name so clearly invokes the violence of colonialism for colonized communities? Johnson’s appeals to the “common ground” connecting past and present students carry little weight when these supposed commonalities become the very source of contention to begin with. He is correct to point out that such a standard for collective symbols is a high one to meet, but that’s a good thing. The fact that the college took the name from the town proper, as Johnson mentions, is a superficial way of deflecting responsibility; it became the college’s moral burden to bear as soon as we took the name as our own.
Johnson invites us to appreciate the intergenerational community and tradition created by rallying around Lord Jeff. For those like Johnson still bound to the idea that this tradition might be worth holding onto, I would note that Amherst is not the first university in the US to question its own connections to racism and colonialism: For example, on the strength of a commissioned study of David Nichols’ role in the horrific massacre of nearly 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people in 1864 at Sand Creek, Colorado, the University of Colorado at Boulder changed the name of Nichols Hall to Cheyenne Arapaho Hall in the late 80s. More recently, the University of Denver and Northwestern University — institutions both claiming John Evans, then-governor of Colorado territory, as a founder — have created committees to investigate and acknowledge Evans’ role in the same massacre and are looking to expand their Native American studies programs. Each of these institutions has decided — contrary to Johnson’s suggestion — that we can and ought to judge these historical figures and reject tradition.
Finally, Johnson asks the college community why we can’t instead pursue other meaningful initiatives, such as efforts to increase the number of Native American applicants to the college. While I applaud and support Johnson’s suggestion that the college do more to recruit Native American students, symbols also matter in tangible ways. Mascots are material: We build statues, contrive holidays, and sing songs to celebrate these figures. The line in the fight song — that Lord Jeff didn’t do “a thing” to the Indians — serves as an egregious example. In singing that song, we create material spaces and institutional memories that honor Lord Jeff and we forgo opportunities to celebrate and build on alternative, anti-colonial legacies. I’d suggest as an alternate starting point to Lord Jeff the Abenaki, Mashpee and other Native nations’ practices of cultural and political reclamation eloquently narrated by American Studies Professor Lisa Brooks in “The Common Pot.”
By enabling communities of fans, students, alumni and administrators to suppress these histories, racist mascots embolden institutional racism and colonialism and give tacit shelter to the rampant ignorance of and vitriol often directed towards Native American communities in the present. Whatever the ultimate outcome of such a debate at the college, it is all the more important that it be sparked in the Northeast, where the very presence of American Indian nations has only recently — and very tenuously — been acknowledged by the federal government. Replace Lord Jeff now. Let’s begin the work of constructing an anti-colonial and genuinely democratic vision linking the college’s past and future.