Welcome to Harvard, where we show extreme insensitivity toward members of our community in the name of humor! Tonight, members of the Harvard Lampoon, a student-run humor magazine that’s been around since 1876, will be playing a game of basketball against the Harlem Globetrotters. The name the hilarious Lampoon-ites have chosen for their team? The Lampoon Indians.
The screenshot above is an email sent out to members of the undergrad community on Saturday, advertising tonight’s game. We all know how I feel about the use of Indian Mascots in any capacity, and to some, this might seem like a minor battle and not worth it. But this event is taking place a block away from where I am sitting this very moment, and this, to me, is just another instance demonstrating how marginalized Native students are at Harvard.
My guess is the Lampoon chose the “Indians” to “honor” Harvard’s past. Little known fact, but way back in the day, Harvard had an “Indian College” that was built for the express purpose of educating (and christianizing) young men from the local Native communities. It was also built cause the university was in a whole lotta financial trouble, and they knew that if they built the Indian College they could get cash money from the local missionary societies that so badly wanted to “save” the local “savages.” True story. In the 1650 founding charter of the University, it even states the purpose of the university is “the education of the English & Indian Youth of this Country in knowledge: and godliness.”
Today, in 2012, there is a solid Native community at Harvard and a Native program that supports students, but Native people still nearly invisible on campus and in the classroom. There are repeated instances of ignorance towards Natives at Harvard, some of which I’ve chronicled on the blog. I wrote about the Harvard chapter of Sigma Chi’s “Conquistabros and Navajos” party, which to their credit, they apologized for, and my “Open Letter to Pocahotties and Indian Warriors this Halloween” was inspired by a conversation with Harvard undergrads. I’ve also shared some of my experiences in the classroom and the cafeteria. I have come to realize just how accepted and normalized these instances are in this community–as they are in most of the US and Canada–and that’s simply unacceptable.
So back to the Lampoon. This is actually the second time they’ve donned the “Lampoon Indians” name, the first was in October 2011, when they played the Boston Bruins in a game of dodgeball (and got their asses kicked). In two minutes of perusing the Harvard Lampoon website, I found a couple of instances of outright disrespect towards Native people, which doesn’t help their case if they decide to stick to the argument of “honoring” Native people. Remember friends, lighten up, cause these are supposed to be funny.
Instance #1: A piece entitled “A Guide for the Freshmen of This College, 1670 by JBO, ’10.” Please direct your attention to rule number 4, emphasis mine:
4. No freshman shall wear his hat in the College yard except when it rains, snows, or hails, or if he be on horseback and hath both hands full with corn, sow feed, or the like, or if he be whipping of his Indian.
OMG SO MANY LULZ!!!!
Instance #2: This whole story. I don’t really get it. Though I’m just a dumb Indian, so what do I know? But I know the punchline is that they “kicked the crap” out of a “Cherokee Priest.” Again, LOL!
This is where we get into a supposed conundrum-of-sorts. But where do we draw the line with humor? It’s satire, it’s supposed to be subversive and borderline offensive! Lighten up, it’s just a joke! No one is safe from the jabs of the Lampoon, they’re equal opportunity humorists! But the thing is, they’re not. At least on their website, no other racial or ethnic group is mentioned in such a “satirical” way in their published stories. Just Indians.
So what does this have to do with the Lampoon calling themselves “Indians” tonight? It establishes a pattern. A pattern of “jokes” that I don’t find funny.
So here’s the letter I’ll be sending them, along with a link to this post. The letter is admittedly not my most impassioned or well-reasoned, but I’m tired guys. It makes me so sad that this is how my fellow community members perceive me. If you’re in the area tonight at 5pm, feel free to come by the game and tell them what you think.
Dear members of the Harvard Lampoon,
It has come to my attention that you have decided to use the team name “Lampoon Indians” tonight as you take on the Harlem Globetrotters. As a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and more importantly, a member of the Harvard community, I am respectfully asking you to change the name of your team for this evening.
I do not find the use of “Indian” as a mascot to be honoring of my culture or my community, in fact, I find the equating of my culture with animals or mythical creatures to be downright insulting. I have no idea if you plan to “dress up” as Indians or use any type of Native imagery to represent your team tonight, but the name in itself is bad enough.
I write a blog called Native Appropriations, where I examine representations of Native peoples in mass media and pop culture. I’ve written about the mascot issue many times, but most recently have covered the “Fighting Sioux” controversy here and here. I would encourage you to read those posts if you are still unsure of where you stand on the issue, or this post, written by a non-Native, which takes my arguments even further. I don’t feel the need to re-argue those points here. The bottom line is that the use of Indian mascots stereotypes, demeans, and marginalizes Indigenous peoples, and has real effects on the psychological well being of Native students and community members.
To me, this is not an issue of humor or history, it is an issue of basic human decency. I will give you the benefit of the doubt, and trust that you didn’t mean to be offensive, but the intent of your choice and actions doesn’t negate the impact these instances have on the well being of Native people in the Harvard community and beyond. I trust you’ll make the right choice and change your team name for this evening. There are any number of names you can take that would give a nod to your Harvard roots while being actually funny, without marginalizing an entire race of people in the US.
I have also posted this letter on my blog, with more background information about the Lampoon and other instances of disrespect towards Natives on Harvard campus.
UPDATE 4/2: They apologized, and didn’t even use the Indians name! I’m so used to my posts going off into the abyss or responses of anger/defensiveness, I stared at the email for a good minute or so before it sunk in. I seriously applaud their reaction , and we’re going to set up a time to meet soon so we can chat more. It’s a pretty great and all-too-rare feeling when things actually work out, isn’t it? Their email is below:
Hi Adrienne,Per your request, we decided not to use the team name Lampoon Indians. You were right: it wasn’t us at our funniest. You were also right in that we did not mean to insult anyone. I apologize for any offense we caused you or any Native-American members of the Harvard community.
I would love the chance to talk to you more in depth about this. If you would like to have a dialogue, please feel free to call me at xxxxxx. Again, our apologies.
Native Appropriations: The Fighting Sioux Are Back: My Passionate Plea against Indian Mascots
Native Appropriations: Indian Mascots Part 2: The Science
Harvard Lampoon: History/About
Harvard Lampoon: A Guide for the Freshmen of This College, 1670 by JBO, ’10
Harvard Lampoon: Pet Cemetery by CAS ’12