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Native American Students Fight to Remove Colonial Imagery from University of New Mexico

Jennifer Marley (holding megaphone) speaks at a #nodapl solidarity rally in Albuquerque last Thursday. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
Kiva Club Secretary Jennifer Marley (holding megaphone) speaks at a #NoDAPL solidarity rally in Albuquerque last Thursday. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

ALBUQUERQUE — Students and activists at the University of New Mexico (UNM) have renewed an almost 50-year-old effort to abolish colonial imagery on campus, beginning with the school’s official seal. Initiated in April 2016, #AbolishtheRacistSeal — led by the Kiva Club, a student group, and the Red Nation, an activist group — calls for the removal of images that celebrate European conquest of the Americas or otherwise represent ongoing violence against Native Americans. The campaign includes a list of 11 demands to improve Native visibility and viability on campus, while the Kiva Club and Red Nation are also focusing on colonial celebrations elsewhere in the state, such as the annual Santa Fe Fiestas, which took place last weekend.

“The UNM seal directly normalizes and celebrates the violent double conquest of New Mexico,” writes Kiva Club Secretary Jennifer Marley, who is a major in Native American Studies at UNM, via email. “The material equivalent might be found in the celebration of the Santa Fe Fiestas entrada, where a reenactment of the conquest of New Mexico is played out publicly (men dressed as conquistadores ride in on horseback).”

The University of New Mexico seal (image via Wikipedia)
The University of New Mexico seal (image via Wikipedia)

Adopted in 1969, the UNM seal is not ubiquitous on campus, but it is the “most formal symbol” of the university, reserved for diplomas, certificates, and other legal or official documents. It depicts a frontiersman and a conquistador flanking a stylized UNM acronym. The former holds a rifle; the latter, a sword. Their backs are turned to the letters as they stare off in either direction. Above the acronym sits a roadrunner, ostensibly derived from Zia Pueblo mythological iconography, and a banner inscribed with the words “lux hominum vita” (“light the life of man”) hangs below.

Looked at together, the frontiersman and the conquistador clearly appear to be guarding “UNM.” They represent two separate and opposed colonial enterprises that, the seal would suggest, have united against the indigenous people who once occupied the land on which UNM sits — land originally held by the Sandia Pueblo and offered to the university as a grant from the US government. The roadrunner does not soften this impression. In fact, by assuming that all New Mexican Natives can be represented by an icon specific to a particular group, it continues the colonial tradition of erasing indigenous people by conflating multiple tribes, nations, and pueblos into a single category. It further dehumanizes Puebloans by relegating them to nature and myth, thereby clearing the way for Euro-Americans to declare themselves the rightful — indeed, the natural — inheritors of the land.

Four murals in the university’s main library, which have also become a target of #AbolishTheRacistSeal, reinforce this theme of European primacy. Moving from left to right in the long hall of the library’s west wing, the first one depicts indigenous craftspeople; the second, Hispanic laborers; the third, white scientists and a baby; and the fourth shows a white man standing between a Hispano and a Native man, with a pristine, uniform landscape behind them. The white man holds the others’ hands, and he is the only one facing viewers. This colonial narrative suggests a racialized chronology: from the traditional past of indigenous people to Hispano settlement, to the progress of the white man. In the end, the murals tell us, white people brought peace and cooperation to the region by civilizing it.

“All who hold positions of power in the state — from UNM administration to politicians, educators and law enforcement — are beholden to the revisionist history that is still hailed as the dominant narrative,” Marley writes. “It conveniently erases the implications of the double conquest suffered by the indigenous peoples of New Mexico, while silencing ongoing Native resistance efforts.”

The first in a sequence of controversial murals in the University of New Mexico's main library, showing indigenous craftspeople
The first in a sequence of controversial murals in the University of New Mexico’s main library, depicting indigenous craftspeople
The second mural, showing Hispanic laborers
The second mural, showing Hispanic laborers

If the seal and murals seem like specks of dirt on a landscape of violence that has come increasingly into focus over the last couple of years, then think of the Dakota Access Pipeline as an object lesson in the mutual constitution of aesthetics and colonial power. State governments, in collusion with Energy Transfer Partners, have deployed the legal apparatus of eminent domain to appropriate Native land on the premise that a private corporation (financed by Wall Street) knows its value better than the people who live on it. This logic that indigenous people don’t appreciate or are incapable of cultivating their land has always driven settlement in the US: Andrew Jackson used it to justify genocide, and, as Sherene Razack shows in the introduction to her edited collection Race, Space, and the Law, officials continue to use it in their assertion that land rights are predicated not on possession but on labor, specifically the ability to withdraw natural resources. The denial of Native rights begins with the representation of Native people as absent, mythical, and inept. We can see this aesthetic of insignificance played out in mainstream media’s hesitancy to cover the pipeline protests (aka #NoDAPL), while the Bundy family’s armed standoff made front pages.

Thus, while Native students at UNM have described the seal as a painful reminder of historical loss, they more pointedly reject it as a literal rubber stamp for ongoing violence against Native people, as well as a humiliating attempt to vindicate the force of Western “civilization” through their very own academic accomplishments. Building on this, the #AbolishtheRacistSeal movement focuses not just on the seal but on an entire platform for change on campus. During a speak-out at the university’s administrative offices and a subsequent board of regents meeting, back in April and May, students read from a prepared statement that included a list of 11 demands. The Red Nation and the Kiva Club call for, among other things, more Native faculty, tuition waivers for students from federally recognized tribes, a council of tribal leaders at the board of regents level, and repatriation of their ancestors’ remains and sacred items from, say, the university’s own Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. The abolition of racist imagery and cultural appropriation shows up right in the middle, as demand number six: “Symbolic violence translates into material violence, reinforcing an atmosphere that can make Native students feel unsafe and isolated in their homelands,” says the statement At the speak-out, Leoyla Cowboy, a Red Nation organizer and undergraduate who works in the library, expressed her anger and humiliation at having to pass the murals several times a day. With a daughter who is also an undergrad at UNM, Cowboy said she would not stand to have either of them graduate with a seal that commemorates colonial violence defiling their accomplishments.

The third library mural, showing white scientists and a baby
The third library mural, showing white scientists and a baby
The final mural, which suggests that white people brought peace and cooperation to the region by civilizing it
The final mural, which suggests that white people brought peace and cooperation to the region by civilizing it

While working on the campaign, the Kiva Club discovered that past members had demonstrated against the seal and its previous incarnations, which also featured the frontiersman and the conquistador, as early as the 1960s; at that time, organizers had put together a similar list of demands, though they were not met. In response to the current campaign, the university’s Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) created a presentation showing that, in 1991, Irene Blea, director of Hispanic Student Services, objected to the seal’s exclusion of women and Native Americans in favor of European men holding military arms. OEI has given the presentation at a series of public forums that began in May to generate dialogue on the seal. The second forum appeared to double in size from the first, to around 100 people, and at both, public opinion came out so strongly against the seal that organizers actually made several requests to hear from “the other side.” Though dissenting opinions have been few and far between at the forums, they have been all-too-well represented in letters to the student paper, The Daily Lobo, and The Albuquerque Journal. These range from dismissive to condescending, with the occasional attempt to compare the all-consuming, structural violence of colonialism with ephemeral conflicts between tribes.

The university is in the midst of implementing a new branding campaign that bills students as “Individuals Together,” so it’s unlikely that it will ignore the activists’ call all together — particularly at a time when universities across the country are beginning to address their own ignominious pasts. Indeed, the Office of Equity and Inclusion’s presentation outlines related recent events, such as the case of a Yale janitor who was fired for destroying a stained glass window that showed slaves picking cotton, but then was hired back by the university. However, as the list of demands demonstrates, the Kiva Club and the Red Nation understand that colonial violence doesn’t end by simply removing or replacing offensive symbols and objects. Many of them are also participating in and learning from the #NoDAPL movement, and soon enough they’ll be doing more of that work against Native dispossession at home, as fracking operations push closer to ancestral sites in New Mexico and a pipeline proposal for Navajo Nation land remains in review.

The final faculty and student forum on the UNM seal will take place September 20, 12–1:30pm, in the Student Union Building, SUB Ballroom C (1 University of New Mexico, Albuquerque). The final alumni forum on the seal will place September 28, 5:30–7pm, in the Bobo Room at Hodgin Hall (1889 Central Ave NE, Albuquerque).

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