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Damage Control at Dartmouth

Damage Control at Dartmouth
Anti-American Indian incidents at the Ivy League college create unease for Native students.
By Mark Anthony Rolo

American Indian students at Dartmouth College may be enjoying their winter break more than other students after experiencing a semester marred by what many say was an onslaught of racist attacks against the school’s Native community.

Prior to the homecoming game against the College of the Holy Cross, one fraternity sold T-shirts featuring Holy Cross’ mascot performing a sex act on an American Indian representing Dartmouth. On Columbus Day, a Native drumming group’s performance was crashed by fraternity pledges. And on Dec. 29, the Dartmouth hockey team hosts the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux, whose nickname has angered American Indians because the National Collegiate Athletic Association has deemed it “hostile and abusive.”

One incident caught the attention of the national media and led to an anti-hate rally attended by more than 500 faculty, students and administrators. In the Nov. 28 issue of the independent, conservative student paper, The Dartmouth Review, a caricature of an American Indian warrior waving a scalp appeared on the cover alongside the headline “The Natives Are Getting Restless.” A week later, the paper called the cover a mistake, adding that the image distracted readers from the point of the article, which charged American Indian leaders with overplaying the race card throughout the fall term.

Dartmouth boasts that it has one of the best Native American studies programs in the country. Stanford University has modeled its program after Dartmouth’s. The college leads all Ivy League schools with 160 American Indian students enrolled, making up 3 percent of its total student body. That percentage is also considerably higher than those found at most non-tribal higher education institutions nationwide.

The incidents at Dartmouth this semester have some American Indian students on campus wondering why they are being targeted, especially since the institution was founded specifically to education American Indians. But according to Heid Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe and a 1986 Dartmouth graduate, the college has struggled against anti-Native sentiment since it abolished its American Indian mascot in the 1970s. With each generation of students, there remains a core group who resent the loss of the mascot. In the past, The Dartmouth Review has resurrected the mascot to use on their Web site and on T-shirts.

“There’s always been a feeling of intimidation that began in the ’70s, when the school started to recruit women and minorities,” says Erdrich. “We always had to fight against some White conservative frat boys. We’d go to a party and someone would start passing around condoms with the Indian Head, or there would be beer cups with the Indian symbol drawn on them.”

Erdrich, who is a professor of English at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., is in constant touch with Dartmouth’s American Indian community. As the chair of the Native American Alumni Committee, she is concerned about the continued atmosphere of hostility towards Native students. “We make certain to support our students by giving them an experience in a broader community context so they won’t feel isolated,” Erdrich says.

Samuel Kohn, a sophomore and member of the Crow tribe, believes there is a fringe group of students who are bent on pushing the limits of what is acceptable and tolerable, and that has made for a sense of unease on the campus. “I believe that Dartmouth’s environment is not necessarily hostile to Native students alone, but a campus which has demonstrated itself as unwelcoming for all minority students,” he says.

According to Erdrich, a big part of the solution will be in how Dartmouth addresses the question of whether the anti-Native incidents are violations of the student conduct code. “The school needs to make the policies clearer. They must give more support to Native students, and it may mean a change in the student conduct rules,”
she says.

In a campuswide e-mail to students last month, Dartmouth President James Wright exhorted students to help build a more welcoming and inclusive community. The school has also apologized for hosting the University of North Dakota hockey team, and is in the process of convening a task force to review Dartmouth’s policies on competing with schools that use American Indian mascots.

But Kohn is not convinced that the Dartmouth administration is doing all it can to stem the tide of hostility. While he applauds Wright’s calls for greater acceptance, he says he realizes it does not represent true reconciliation.

“These actions are simply steps in the right direction, and do not constitute a lasting solution,” he says. “I definitely believe that more can be done, and hopefully this
is in the process of being done.”

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