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Ernest House and Tom Stritikus: Caricatures of Natives do not fit with our values

The clocktower is one the most distinguishing features of the Fort Lewis College campus.

When visitors and students walk through it, they are greeted by images that stand in stark contrast to who we want to be as institution: whitewashed pictures of the Native American experience in governmental boarding schools.

Last fall, we created the FLC History Reconciliation Committee to examine how aspects of our mission stood in contrast with our genesis as an institution. FLC began as a government Indian boarding school – characterized by forced assimilation, linguistic and cultural genocide, and intergenerational trauma for Native American and Alaska Native communities. Despite this troubling history, today, FLC plays an important role in tribal nation-building as students from any federally recognized tribe can attend FLC on a tuition waiver.

How to reconcile these polar extremes?

Given the history of boarding schools and their lasting negative impact on Indigenous people, we had to ask ourselves a troubling question: Why is our institution displaying photos from the FLC boarding school-era portraying Native American students in Western dress with forced smiles without any acknowledgment of the suffering that was inflicted?

This was one of the many hard questions taken on by the Reconciliation Committee. Through thoughtful and emotional listening sessions and meetings, the answer became clear: FLC must remove the clocktower panels because they are inconsistent with our goal of an institution striving for equity and supportive of Indigenous students, faculty and staff. We heard loudly and clearly that the images at the clocktower did not ring true for our students and their families. This fall, we will hold a ceremony with our Indigenous students, local tribal leaders and elders, and community members, to remove the panels.

As the new chairman of the Board of Trustees and the new president, we could have simply removed the panels a year ago. But had we done this without input, we would have missed the opportunity to reconcile. The authenticity and depth with which our community took on the conversation was an important time of learning for all. Native American students explained how their parents could not speak with their grandparents and relatives because of language loss; Indigenous community members spoke of how aspects of their culture were denigrated and devalued at the hands of boarding school personnel; and, non-Native American students built an appreciation of what it means to be a Native American student at a college that started as a boarding school.

It is time for this type of reconciliation to extend beyond our campus. In Durango, a current debate is raging about the role of the “Chief” sign outside the Toh-Atin Gallery. We are aware that the gallery has a storied history in promoting, preserving and selling Native American art. Unfortunately, the sign is a mascot that dehumanizes and inaccurately characterizes Native American people. In many ways, the sign is diametrically opposed to the stated aims and objectives of the gallery. We believe the current discussion is an opportunity to ask important questions, as we did at FLC, that are central to the future of our Durango community:

How does relegating the Indigenous experience to a stagnant cartoon existence prevent our broader community from examining, respecting and valuing the larger contributions of Native American people? How might the sign reinforce stereotypes of Native Americans as historic figures rather than the chemists, business leaders and teachers we educate at FLC?How might the sign create an unwelcome environment for many current and prospective faculty, students and staff and other people of color in our community?Some might ask the role of FLC in entering the discussion. We believe our position as educators merits posing these questions because they align with our mission to advance diversity, equity and inclusion for our communities and beyond.

As chairman of the board and president, we believe such caricatures of Native Americans are inconsistent with FLC values and do not convey respectful and humane messaging about the kind of community we want to create. It is time for the “Chief” to come down.

Whatever action is taken or not taken by private property owners should not overshadow the important questions that must be asked and answered about continued racial inequality and disparities. And we do not condone vandalism.

While the discussion might make us uncomfortable, the growth that comes from asking and answering such questions are an important part of the reconciliation needed to best support Indigenous students and build a stronger community.

Ernest House Jr. is the chairman of the Fort Lewis College Board of Trustees and a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Tom Stritikus is president of FLC. Their views do not necessarily represent the view of the Board of Trustees.

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