I truly love my university, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and I have ever since my first visit here in the early 1970s, through my residential doctoral program and the earning of my degree, and to this very day as I have returned as an educator in my semi-retirement.
I love the campus and most structures old and new, the bright, passionate, inquisitive students, the world-class faculty, the ahead-of-the-curve research, the demographic and intellectual diversity, and, of course, the duck-rich pond that quiets my soul each time I take respite by its gentle shores.
Though I declare unequivocal admiration for our institution, I am troubled, nonetheless, by some longstanding issues that I cannot seem to reconcile revolving on a name, symbols, and a motto.
What's In a Name?
"What's in a name?," the Bard asked in his timeless classic "Romeo and Juliet." "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Yes, and while this holds true for Romeo Montague and for roses, the town in which we find our great university could, in fact, find a much sweeter smelling namesake to honor!
The town took its name from Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the Commander-in-Chief of British forces between 1758 and 1763 during the French & Indian War. For Amherst's victorious service in appropriating Canada for the British realm, King George III rewarded Amherst with 20,000 acres of confiscated Indian land in New York State.
Amherst's brutal military methods against indigenous populations included callous germ warfare, tactics forever branded in the annals of shame and infamy. For example, referring to an uprising against British forces led by Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa nation, who fought with the French, historian Carl Waldman (1985) wrote: "Captain Simeon Ecuyer had bought time by sending smallpox-infected blankets and handkerchiefs to the Indians surrounding the fort -- an early example of biological warfare -- which started an epidemic among them. Amherst himself had encouraged this tactic in a letter to Ecuyer" (p. 108).
In addition, Amherst, on another occasion in a letter to Colonel Henry Bouquet, wrote: "Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them" (in Parkman, 1886, p. 39). Amherst continued in a postscript to Bouquet in a letter dated July 16, 1763 referring to his Indian enemies: "..to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race."
Amherst's letters also discussed the use of dogs to hunt Indians, the so-called "Spaniard's Method," but, alas, he was not able to implement this plan due to a shortage of hounds.
On the other hand, though he opposed the French as well during the war, Sir Jeff had no apparent inhumane disregard for the French, but rather saw them as his "worthy" enemy. "It was the Indians who drove him mad. It was they against whom he was looking for 'an occasion, to extirpate them root and branch'" (Long, 1938, p. 187).
How ironic that the great seal of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst profiles the image of an Indian. Maybe I am missing something, but this so-called "honoring," taking "pride" in, and "respecting" Native Americans by the cultural descendants of Lord Jeffrey Amherst and others who engaged in forced evacuations, deculturalization, and genocide of First Nations people strikes me as hypocrisy at best.
Symbolic, but Wait a Minute!
The brave Minutemen, members of that valiant colonial militia ready at a moment's notice to fight the British before and during the Revolutionary War of Independence, served as the vanguard of our burgeoning nation. While all due respect and honor need be granted to this early troop of citizen soldiers, I question whether the symbol of "Sam the Minuteman" as the university's mascot and our sports team athletes, known as Minutemen and Minutewomen, as well as the motto on our university's great seal, which reads Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem ("By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty") are appropriate symbols and words to represent an institution of higher learning. Both the Minuteman symbol and the motto seem better suited to the United States Department of Defense than to a great university.
After a long absence from the campus, upon my recent return, I was frankly quite startled to witness the relatively new addition of a large statue of Sam the Minuteman, holding high his elongated-barreled musket on central campus. Even before contemporary incidents of high profile gun-related violence have surfaced, I have long felt uneasy and have questioned the appropriateness of militiamen, guns, and "swords" serving as the literal and symbolic face of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I am uncomfortable with the messages these weapons send.
Higher Level of Inquiry
While I have ruminated on these questions for many years, and I have reached my own conclusions on what steps I would like to see the university sanction, I hesitate here to offer any proposals. Within this current era of colleges and universities reexamining their mascots and mottos and the ways in which they represent themselves to the larger society, my intent here is merely to raise concerns and questions to a higher level of public inquiry, something I have attempted to do on numerous issues most of my life.
I have had the privilege for many years as a student and later as an educator to read and discuss ideas with engaged and motivated students and committed professors, and by so doing, I have been able to make better sense of life around me. It is in that spirit that I now raise these questions.
Long, J. C. (1933). Lord Jeffrey Amherst: A Soldier of the king. NY: Macmillan.
Parkman, F. (1886). The conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War after the conquest of Canada. Boston: Little, Brown.
Waldman, C. (1985). Atlas of the North American Indian NY: Facts on File.