#AbolishtheRacistSeal: IFAIR 2016 Talk

This talk was given March 3, 2016 as part of the Indigenous Book Festival’s opening roundtable, “Beyond Stereotype, Prejudice, & Racism,” at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

I want to make two simple claims: 1) The University of New Mexico profits from the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the occupation of Indigenous lands. 2) UNM’s official seal celebrates this fact.

Originally designed in 1909 by President Edward Gray and officially adopted in 1914, the seal represents what one alumni publication calls “two New Mexico founders, a Spanish conquistador and a frontiersman.” Back-to-back figures of two men armed with the weapons of conquest (a sword and musket) join other seemingly innocuous images, symbols, and rituals—the Lobo, the Alma Mater, the school colors red and silver—that make a university a university, a kind of identity and brand that creates an image of UNM as identifiable and characteristically distinct. According to the Administrative Policies and Procedures Manual’s section on the University’s graphics and symbols, “A cohesive visual identity presents a sense of unity and builds awareness and pride among those connected to [UNM].” “The most formal symbol of the University,” it continues, “is the seal. The seal is reserved for use on documents or forms of the highest official rank from the University President, the University Secretary, and the University Board of Regents such as diplomas, certificates, certain invitations, legal documents, and other printed materials. Use of the seal must be approved in advance, by the University Marketing Director.”

Its most basic definition: a seal as a design or insignia plays the official role of representing an organization, an institution, or political entity (like a city, state, or nation). It originated as a stamp to impress an image or sign of authority into wax as a way of securing, authenticating, and approving. Seal derives from the Latin signum. When used as a verb, signum means to mark or to sign. In its formal, ceremonial usage, it becomes a symbolic act representing power and authority. For a sovereign, it embodies the will of a ruler over the ruled, or the power over life itself, the power to mark those deserving life and those deserving death. Wars, executions, diplomatic treaties for peace and trade all bear the marks of seals. Even the banality of bureaucracy, from letters to official statements to press releases, bears the marks of seals. The seal, too, is used like a brand to mark property, much like one brands cattle. It is also a form of possessiveness, embodying and laying claim to the what is and is not part of the official order of things. In this sense, it plays a role of inclusion and exclusion.

If a seal is an impression of power, then, the seal of UNM is an impression a history that gives it authority. And that history is one marked by violence, dispossession, and death. Like much paraphernalia relating to power and authority, the masculine figures armed with sword and musket personify just how order and civilization was achieved in the founding of New Mexico—through violence. Spanish colonization entailed the rape, murder, enslavement, and torture  of Indigenous peoples at the hands of conquistadors such as Oñate and de Vargas. The expulsion of the Spanish from Indigenous homelands during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and their subsequent return were was marked by extreme persecution and prejudice towards Indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, subsequent Mexican independence was also filled with further persecution and oppression. The conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo revealed the true intentions of U.S. and Mexican colonial policy toward Indigenous peoples. The U.S. violated almost every treaty article before the ink was dry, but both the U.S. and Mexico did, however, uphold Article XI, which guarantees that “incursions” into either nation on behalf of the “savage tribes” inhabiting the newly acquired territory would be met with force of “equal dilligence [sic] and energy” by both nations. Indeed, U.S. domination was equally, if not more, brutal and punishing than its progenitors. From forced marches and open air concentration camps for Navajo and Apache prisoners of war at Bosque Redondo, from Indian fighters and Indian killers such as Kit Carson and William Tecumseh Sherman, to mass enclosures and privatization of unneeded Indigenous lands, the early U.S. colonial period in New Mexico is replete with examples of Indigenous genocide and dispossession.

As a fledgling territory, the founding of the University of New Mexico played a pivotal role in the path towards statehood. Founded in 1889 amidst federal Indian policy that advocated the fragmentation of tribal land and the stealing of Indian children from families to be forced into boarding schools, UNM was originally granted acreage as Trust Land, much like many territorial universities in the so-called Western frontier. The subduing and dispossession of Indigenous peoples during this time is largely lamented due to the closing of the frontier; yet out of this unspeakable violence was borne UNM and the state of New Mexico. The 1910 New Mexico Enabling and Ferguson Acts granted the state 13 million acres of Trust Land. Of which, 200,000 acres were granted to public universities like UNM. In total, 5 million acres were reserved for universities, schools, and other institutions. Of the now 9 million surface acres and 12.7 million subsurface acres of Trust Land, about 96% of value extracted from these lands coms from non-renewable resources like oil, gas, and coal. This highly lucrative business attracts over 9,500 oil and gas leases and 166 mineral leases that cover 3.1 million acres for a value of $433 per acre. For fiscal year 2013, revenue generated from these land at a sum of $577 million realized its second highest earning year, down from 2012’s record-setting $658 million. As of 2013, UNM directly benefits from 253,336 surface acres and 344,821 subsurface acres of public Trust Land. From these lands, UNM earned $8.5 million.

If we return to how UNM brands itself to create “a sense of unity and pride,” we can begin to think of various ways in which the University narrates itself and its history, how it tells its story. The UNM seal tells a story, too—a story that is celebratory of the anti-Indian violence forged within the University’s history and how it benefits from the dispossession of Indigenous lands. What is perhaps most insidious about the commemoration of colonial conquest is its celebration of two essential actors and perpetrators of genocide—a conquistador and frontiersman—and the sacred and sanctimonious status the seal holds for its alumni and benefactors. As much as the assault on the racist imagery of Indian mascots is seen as a direct assault on the sanctity of whiteness (and settlers) to possess and lay claim to Indigenous lands and bodies, defacing and interrupting the colonial narratives of a university seal will, too, be seen as an assault on a “tradition” and the sanctity of possessive whiteness. But what this “tradition” celebrates and what this sacredness protects can categorically be defined as anti-Indian, or explicitly Indian hating. The stakes are high to talk openly and fluently about colonization and occupation. To do so creates an uncomfortable space of overwhelming hostility and tension. History, after all, is the past’s saturation of our present moment. It cannot be ignored. But to bring it up is to bring it into existence as something to be “dealt with.”

It is not by accident that the lands stolen by the figures consecrated on UNM’s crest—the conquistador and the frontiersman—created a source of revenue for the University. The University, in this case, literally profits from the dispossession and death of Indigenous peoples. Changing the racist-colonial celebration of the seal, however, will not rid the University of this pervasive history of violence and dispossession, nor will it change colonial, racist behavior. What I have been talking about so far is the colonial structures of power, premised on genocidal conquest and Indigenous erasure. The violence of colonial occupation and dispossession is not only fundamental to UNM’s being, but it is also reimagined as a history of securing freedom and rights—freedoms for some and unfreedom for others. It permeates the University even as it actively denied and ignored. But it is not my intention to blame the University, nor its constituency, for the wrongs of the past. While UNM is not responsible for the past crimes of its forbearers, our present reality is a product that history, and for that the University has to be held accountable if it perpetuates and, indeed, celebrates the destruction and attempted annihilation of the original people of this land.

That’s why the very least the University can do is to abolish the racist seal. Recently, a committee of Harvard Law School faculty, students, alumni, and staff recommended that school’s crest—which was modeled on the family crest of a slaveholding family—be retired.  Across university campuses movements have galvanized to abolish symbols that celebrate racism—such as Confederate flags and icons of slavery. Abolishing these symbols of oppression, however, only revealed institutionalized inequality. Changing university iconography means nothing, we were told, if it is not accompanied by real, material resources—such as scholarships, the creation and funding of diversity centers, and equal representation at all levels of the university system including the board of regents. This is bare minimum accountability. As we have seen, some administrators at these institutions lost their jobs for upholding and defending status quo inequality. It was only after student protest and sit-ins did these universities capitulate. At UNM, we are reminded by the administrators’ utter neglect and disdain to institute Indigenous Peoples Day as an official holiday after successful undergraduate organizing in passing a resolution. Universities are supposed to be bastions of free thought and progressive politics. If anything, UNM administrators’ neglect of Indigenous students and demands demonstrates classic reactionary and backwards thinking on Indigenous issues and concerns. One needs to only look at the national movement to see how cities and institutions across the nation have already implemented Indigenous Peoples Day, including the city of Albuquerque.

In conclusion, as Indigenous peoples we must refuse to allow our educational achievements (some of us as first generation graduates and doctorates) to be tarnished by UNM’s unwillingness to enter the twenty first century and to respect the basic fundamental of human rights standards. That is, colonialism and genocide are crimes against humanity and so too is their celebration. World consensus agrees. We demand this seal be abolished and the Indigenous peoples of this land receive accurate and appropriate representation. We do not want this insidious racism branding our accomplishments on our degrees and graduation gowns. We, as Indigenous peoples, do not belong in museums. This university’s racist history does. Hecetu welo!

Book Review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Originally appeared in La Jicarita:

Reviewed by NICK ESTES

unknownHistory, especially Indigenous history, is still a site of struggle in academia, in public education, and in the popular national imaginary. The narrative conventions of U.S. history often create convenient niches for the so-called “Indian Wars” under the umbrella of a “history of the West.” Past atrocities safely remain in the distant past, perhaps unfortunate, but nonetheless in the past. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States derails this narrative. She contends that the genocidal history of the U.S. against Indigenous peoples was not only foundational to bring the nation into existence but required to export it as a global project in the twenty-first century. Indigenous peoples, perhaps the first and longest standing enemies of U.S. empire, remain central to this history of the U.S. and its future.

For this reason, Dunbar-Ortiz’s highly accessible An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is the Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee of our times. When Bury My Hearthit bookstores in 1970, it became a national bestseller. Mass protests against the Vietnam War drew connections to the U.S.’s genocidal and imperial past of Indian-hating and colonial massacres. In the same moment, the burgeoning Red Power movement was radically altering the landscape of Indigenous scholarship and political struggle on the domestic and international stages. It didn’t call U.S. imperialism exceptional, but rooted in the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Dunbar-Ortiz, a participant in both of those struggles, writes in a time when the militarization of the globe under U.S. empire in a post-9/11 world has again exposed the fallacy of U.S. democracy. Yesterday’s enemies of empire, Indians, are made anew in our present moment as the ever-looming “terrorist threat.”

To understand this, Dunbar-Ortiz asks us to reconsider the foundation of the U.S., making several claims. First, the U.S. is a colonialist settler-state, which “is not to make accusation but rather to face reality, unless Indigenous peoples are erased.” (7) The “refusal or inability” of U.S. historians to understand their own history is the source of the problem, or “the absence of the colonial framework.” (7)

Second, Indigenous resistance is over five centuries old and needs to be re-framed within a broader history of the Americas that does not result in complete annihilation and disappearance. She writes, “Surviving genocide, by whatever means, is resistance.” (xiii) This also means rethinking history from an Indigenous perspective as active participants in shaping their own histories of themselves, the land, and the formations of U.S. colonialism.

Lastly, U.S. “culture of conquest” means violence, genocide, expropriation, destruction, and dehumanization of Indigenous peoples. It is a historically rooted structure, not an event that happened in the past. Indian hating was a requirement to export colonial violence to rest of the world. “Perhaps it was inevitable,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “that the earlier wars against Indigenous peoples, if not acknowledged and repudiated, ultimately would include the world.” (12)

Piece by piece, An Indigenous Peoples’ History dismantles the U.S. national narrative, and rigorously interrogates it from an Indigenous perspective. Beginning with the origin stories of European settlers arriving in the “New World” who sought to transform the landscape into the image of the land they left, death and elimination of Indigenous peoples followed in their wake. They appropriated the existing infrastructure of trade routes and agriculture and initiated war after war of extermination to seize land and resources. Here, Dunbar-Ortiz works against the so-called “terminal narratives” to which many U.S. historians subscribe, that Indigenous population decline was mainly due to biological factors such as disease. Conveniently absent from these narratives is over three centuries of colonial warfare waged against Indigenous peoples. “Commonly referred to as the most extreme demographic disaster—framed as natural—in human history,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “it was rarely called genocide.” (40)

European ideas of property also played a crucial role in the colonization of the Americas. Peasantry dispossessed of land and livelihood, especially in British occupied Ireland, comprised the rank-and-file of newcomers who came to make a life of their own. They had little choice in the matter when faced with the alternative of starvation and death at home. With them also came soldier settlers, or Ulster-Scots, who were seasoned and violent settlers in the colonization of Northern Ireland. They also brought the practice of scalping, which they first used on the Irish, and the tools of colonization necessary for violent war making against Indigenous peoples. These Scots-Irish settlers formed the wall of colonization as both fodder for the “Indian Wars” and as militant settlers who pushed frontier boundaries. They willingly or unwillingly cleared the way for “civilization” by transforming the land into real estate. The myth was born that white European civilization was “commanded by God to go into the wilderness to build the new Israel” and “entitled to the land through their blood sacrifice.” (55)

Revered U.S. presidents from Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln also washed their hands in Indigenous blood. Jackson’s genocidal Muskogee war won him his political career. As president from 1829-1837, he won support from landless, poor settlers to whom he promised land by implementing removal policies for many of the “Five Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole) in the South. Killing and hating Indians was not only politically profitable, it was a requirement for office after Jackson.

Lincoln’s tenure was no different. Credited as the author of the 1863 “Emancipation Proclamation” and for “freeing” black slaves in the Civil War, his role as a national “hero” is irreparably stained by his treatment of Indigenous peoples. Lincoln won favor with poor white settlers, much like Jackson, with his promises of “free soil” under the 1862 Homestead Act and the Morill Act, which opened up Indigenous land in the West for settlement and “land grant universities.” (140) He also sent Union troops to violently crush the Dakota in Minnesota Territory and expel them from their homelands in 1862; 38 Dakota men were hung in a public display of force. To date, this remains the largest sanctioned mass execution in U.S. history. Lincoln was also president during the 1864 Navajo “Long Walk” where thousands of Navajo were rounded up and forced marched to an open-air concentration camp.

Successors would walk proudly in these “bloody footprints” across the land and through time. What became known as the “Indian Wars” violently opened up Indigenous land in the West to help relieve the pressures of class conflict and economic crises in the East due to industrialization. With the so-called closing of the frontier and the massacre of 300 Lakota people at Wounded Knee in 1890, almost all land in the U.S. had been divided and privatized. This was further exacerbated by the 1887 Dawes Allotment Act, which gave reservation land allotments to individual Indigenous families and then allowed the sale of “surplus” lands to settlers on the cheap. Indigenous peoples also became a lamentable footnote in the U.S. popular imaginary, as their population reached their lowest numbers. “With the ‘dead Indian,’” Dunbar-Ortiz observes, “the ‘American Century’ was born.” (161)

“The American Century” also served to continue the process of conquest of Indigenous peoples. A large number of Indigenous peoples served in the military during World War I, even though many were not U.S. citizens. In recognition of their service, citizenship was granted through the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. Many Indigenous peoples, however, protested citizenship because they had not asked for it. As part of the New Deal, perhaps the most dramatic transformations took place. The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act ended allotment and allowed for tribal governments to become politically organized around a U.S.-based constitutional model. Overwhelming numbers of Indigenous peoples also served in World War II, only to return from service to be met with 1950s termination and relocation policies that promised to end federal recognition of tribes and relocate them off their reservations. Much of the Indigenous resistance to these federal policies fueled the resistance to come in the following decades.

The long history of Indigenous anti-colonial resistance, or the “culture of resistance,” from Tecumseh to Crazy Horse, remained (and still remains) in the hearts and minds of many. The post-World War II formation of the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Youth Council, and the American Indian Movement (among many other organizations) pointed to a new generation of social movements, some of which also broke onto the world stage at the United Nations. In fact, much of the twenty-point program of the 1972 “Trail of Broken Treaties” nation-wide march to Washington, D. C. served as a framework for the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But many of the achievements of the international struggle came with consequences; the 1973 73-day standoff at Wounded Knee resulted in a violent FBI crackdown. Nonetheless, the vibrant international culture of Indigenous peoples still exists and thrives today.

With these insights in mind, Dunbar-Ortiz closes the book by looking to the future. Weighing heavily on the moment in which she writes, the U.S.’s endless “war on terror” is, in many ways, a re-fashioning of the “Indian Wars” or the creation of new Indians of empire’s frontiers. Challenges to U.S. empire must then come with the understanding and appreciation of Indigenous existence and resistance, deeply embedded within this particular history. She argues that any social movement that intends to disrupt settler colonialism and empire must account for Indigenous peoples: “Indigenous peoples offer possibilities for life after empire.” (235)

But An Indigenous Peoples’ History is not another litany of white guilt. Dunbar-Ortiz invokes the late Lenape scholar Jack Forbes when she argues that although living settlers are not responsible for their ancestors’ acts of genocide, “they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past. Assuming this responsibility provides a means of survival and liberation.” (235)

This is a book that should be shared among the Indigenous and non-Indigenous reading public as well as read and taught in college and high school classes. It will serve as a reference point for many scholars and activists to come.