April 19, 2012

Tipi "housing solution" cartoon

Part of a letter sent by University of Massachusetts students to Amherst College in western Massachusetts.

Liberal Uneducation: Amherst College Publication Taken to Task for Housing Cartoon Depicting TipisRecently, your school news journal, The Indicator (Volume XXXIII, Issue 2, page 19), ran a cartoon depicting the “Lord Jeff approved” housing solution in the form of tipis. We find this incredibly insensitive, and ultimately, racist. Let us be clear, the person who drew the cartoon (Tricia Lipton), the editors who approved it (Nadirah Porter-Kasbati and Laurence Pevsner), and the student body, faculty, and staff of Amherst College who subsequently read it and perhaps even laughed are not necessarily racists. They have, however, participated in racist behavior, unintentionally or not.

Our complaint requires contextualization. Lord Jeff, your school mascot, and the man for whom Amherst College and the community that hosts it are named, acts as a constant reminder of the horrific deeds enacted against indigenous people in New England. And whereas there may be some dispute as to whether the idea of giving smallpox-infected items to Native people actually originated with Lord Jeff, there is no such doubt that he clearly approved and ordered “Measures to be taken as would Bring about the Total Extirpation [extermination] of those Indian Nations” (British Manuscript Project, U.S. Library of Congress, microfilm reel 34/38, Item 244).Thus, your steadfast approval of Lord Jeff as your mascot perpetuates the presence of genocide jokes on your campus and cries of “Let’s massacre them!” at your sporting events. Our knowledge of this is both firsthand and through correspondence with many of your current students and alumnae.
Comment:  For starters, the cartoon is stereotypical, since there were no tipis in western Massachusetts. It plays on an all-too-common Plains stereotype.

Also, the message is unclear. Why would tipis be a solution and not, say, tents?

The problem is exacerbated by the "Lord Jeff approved" caption. Apparently "Lord Jeff" is the college mascot, so this isn't a direct reference to genocide advocate Lord Jeffrey Amherst. But still...why would Lord Jeff or anyone approve this solution? Again, what's the message?

The cartoonist may have thought something innocent like, "Tipis would make effective temporary shelters for our crowded campus." But to me this cartoon has a negative vibe. It's as if Lord Jeff is saying, "If we can't find a modern solution to this housing crisis, let's find a primitive solution. Let's live out in nature with the deer and the antelope like the savages I wanted to exterminate."

As usual, let's consider the alternative. Suppose the solution was to consult with Native students about traditional shelters that were inexpensive, comfortable, and energy-efficient. Suppose the students got on their computers and designed something that blended traditional designs and materials with modern housing requirements. "Lord Jeff" could give the students a housing award to make up for wanting to kill them centuries ago.

As my counterexample shows, the actual cartoon seems negative. It isn't praising Indians for their innovative housing solutions. It's criticizing them for being stuck in the past. If "Lord Jeff" couldn't wipe out the Indians, at least he left them poor and miserable, huddled in their tipis on reservations.

At least that's how I read it. And if a cartoon is open to this much interpretation, it fails by definition. The message of a cartoon like this one should be clear and compelling.

For more on Indians and smallpox, see UND Foes Chant "Smallpox Blankets!" and Wipeout Jokes About Savages and Smallpox.

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