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Native American Culture and its Role at Springfield College

Logan Mullen
Managing Editor

Photo courtesy of Patrick Kenney.

In Connecticut, there are two prominent casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, which are owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and the Mohegan Tribe respectively.

Each baseball season, the Boston Red Sox play host to the Cleveland Indians, while less than two weeks ago, the Washington Redskins were in town playing the New England Patriots.

And in Western Massachusetts is the Mohawk Trail, a now tourist drive that was originally a trail that started as a Native American trade route, connecting Atlantic tribes to other tribes in Upstate New York and beyond.

Springfield College has its own history with Native American culture that has been limited and arguably stereotyped.

From the spring of 1967 up until 1998, the school mascot was the Chiefs. And upon digging through old yearbooks, one can find pictures of students donning Native American headdresses and referring to themselves as the “Hosaga Indians Club”.

This year — and this month especially — the campus has looked to broaden its awareness and understanding of Native American culture, which preceded Europeans and remains a pivotal part of American life today.

The celebration has been brought on largely due to the efforts of Interim Multicultural Affairs director Myra Smith and Vice President for Inclusion and Community Engagement Calvin Hill. A variety of events have been held on campus to heighten awareness of Native American heritage.

Most recently, Sherman Alexie, a renowned Native American author was the Arts and Humanities speaker series speaker, and David Sutherland, a documentary filmmaker, screened his film Kind Hearted Woman, which depicted an intense story of domestic abuse of a Native American woman, on campus.

“[Native Americans have] been marginalized for a lot of different reasons. And to understand the indigenous population’s contributions to the United States is absolutely critical,” said Hill.

As of 2013, there were roughly 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives living in the U.S. according to the census. That is 2 percent of the country’s population.

In terms of Springfield College, the student population is listed at 82 percent white according to the College Board. Native American is not specifically listed in the breakdown. And while a more homogenous population does not necessarily indicate a lack of cultural awareness, it does pave the way for members of the campus community to grow.

There is no shortage of faculty on campus with extensive knowledge of Native American heritage and its importance in modern American culture. Paul Thifault, an Assistant Professor of English, focuses on the portrayal of Native Americans in colonial and early U.S. literature in his scholarship.

“Exploring the richness and diversity of Native American cultures, past and present, helps many of our students to see past – and through – the two-dimensional representations of native people that still pervade U.S. popular culture,” said Thifault.

 As previously mentioned, the present mascot quandary is far from a stranger to Springfield College.

From 1993 through 1998, there was a struggle to get the mascot changed from the Chiefs. Men’s teams had been referred to as the Chiefs since the spring of 1967, when the name was decided upon by then-sports information director and a committee of students. The women’s teams remained the Maroons.

Laurel Davis-Delano, a professor of sociology, has poured extensive research into the matter of Native American nicknames and logos, and was also an active member of getting the nickname changed from the Chiefs in 1998.

“[Native American nicknames] reinforce stereotypes, [and] create a hostile environment for native people who have a problem with them,” said Davis-Delano. “But most importantly there’s research that’s not done by me, but done by some other people, that shows they have pretty significant psychological effects on native people.”

Davis-Delano cited a Stephanie Fryberg study that shows the ramifications of Native American logos, where some Native American youth were shown images of different Native Americans depicted on logos, while others were not. The results showed that the children showed the logos had lower self-esteem and more difficulty composing a holistic idea of their future self.

And the reality is, that despite the lack of emphasis placed on Native American culture in the United States, there is a wealth of information that can be tapped into and researched.

“I think it’s important to observe, acknowledge, and celebrate the vast number of Native American cultures and heritages every month,” said Associate Professor of English Justine Dymond in an email. “There are over 550 federally recognized Native American tribes, so, of course, there are a lot of distinct cultures to learn about.”

For Springfield College, there is nowhere to go but up in terms of cultural awareness for not just Native American culture, but all culture.

This year, the college celebrated Hispanic heritage in September and October and Native American Heritage month this November. National Women’s History Month and African-American History Month among others will be celebrated as well. Hill indicated that there would also be efforts to recognize and celebrate other marginalized populations. And with this, the programming and attempts to increase awareness will continue to grow.

“Right now we’re scratching the surface, but we’ve got unlimited potential,” said Hill.

And according to Thifault, who has studied and taught at a multitude of institutions of a variety of sizes and locations, Springfield College is headed in the right direction.

“Native American Heritage Month is more visible at Springfield College than at any of the other institutions of which I’ve been a part,” he said.

Though this is the first year within memory that the month is being officially celebrated, it is a step in the right direction for an institution that is aiming to take steps, leaps and bounds forward in diversity and inclusion. It has to start somewhere, and with each and every person these efforts reach, the school is making more and more progress.


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