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Native American students object to UNM seal

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

The official seal of the University of New Mexico featuring a Spanish conquistador and a frontiersman – a mark affixed on diplomas and used as a backdrop for UNM events for 46 years – has come under fire from Native American students who say it glorifies the violent European treatment of natives.

The protesters want the seal – whose roots can be traced to the university’s fourth president, Edward Dundas McQueen Gray, and was most recently updated in 1969 – relegated to the dustbin of history.

They have gone so far as to design a protest version with a conquistador and frontiersman standing atop a mountain of skulls and ribcages with the current seal in the background. Red capital letters superimposed on the image read, “What Indians?”

The Kiva Club, a Native American student group, and The Red Nation, a Native American advocacy group, say the current seal is offensive.

UNM President Bob Frank said many people are attached to the seal, given its long history, but that he’s open to hearing the students’ rationale for changing it.

“It’s a seal I have always known,” said Frank, who earned several degrees from UNM in the 1970s. “I certainly understand that people may have different points of view. If they want to talk about it, I am open to the conversation.”

The protest seal is the creation of Nick Estes, a doctoral student and a member of the Oceti Sakowin tribe in South Dakota. He and others say the current seal is emblematic of deeper-seated racism at UNM.

“I saw it, and I was like, ‘Is this really true?’ ” Estes said at a planning meeting of students and others looking to abolish the seal. “This is my interpretation of what that actually means. I actually couldn’t believe it. I didn’t actually think that this was a real thing that the University of New Mexico would be doing.”

The issue isn’t limited to UNM. Last year, there were protesters at Fiestas de Santa Fe, a historical re-enactment that features Don Diego de Vargas “peacefully” reclaiming the city of Santa Fe following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Protesters said the fiesta glazes over the violent history between colonists and Native Americans.

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An earlier version of the University of New Mexico’s official seal hangs in the Hodgin Hall Alumni Center. The idea for the seal came from UNM’s fourth president, who served from 1909-1912. (Marla Brose/Journal)

And in 1998, a statue in Alcalde of conquistador Juan de Oñate was the target of vandals who sawed off the statue’s right foot. Oñate may be most infamously known for the punishment he ordered after the battle of Acoma, which was for every man between the age of 12 and 25 to have a portion of his right foot amputated.

When the vandals removed the statue’s foot, they left a note saying, “We took the liberty of removing Oñate’s right foot on behalf of our brothers and sisters of Acoma Pueblo.”

Student petition

The students are circulating a petition to “minimize the dehumanization of Natives on campus.” As of Friday afternoon, a little more than 100 people had signed it, according to an online copy of the petition available on change.org.

“UNM has one of the highest populations of Native students in the Western Hemisphere currently,” the petition reads. “Its seal continues to make a mockery of its Native students and the surrounding Native community.”

They also want UNM administrators to build a Native American cultural center. And they said that at least one member of the Board of Regents should be Native American. That decision is up to Gov. Susana Martinez, who appoints regents to the board.

Greg Cajete has overseen the Native American studies program since 2001, and he said his students have often raised protests over the seal’s imagery.

Cajete, who hails from the northern New Mexico pueblo of Santa Clara, declined to take a position but said he believes it will remain an issue for future students.

“It warrants being looked into,” Cajete said. “What its resolution is going to be, that’s up to what people come up with. From my perspective, the University of New Mexico does need to reflect all of the cultures of New Mexico in a positive way.”

Up to the regents

The official seal is one of many images used to represent the state’s flagship university. But unlike the Lobo mascot used for athletics or the logo featuring Mesa Vista Hall, it requires a vote by the Board of Regents to change it.

The president’s office, the university’s office of the secretary and the Board of Regents use the seal on official documents. The seal is also stamped on students’ diplomas.

Estes said he and other indigenous students shouldn’t have a “racist” seal marking their academic achievements.

“To have this on my diploma is an insult of the highest order,” Estes said.

Conversation about the seal has spread to other student groups.

Cheyenne Trujillo, president of Chicano/a Studies Student Organization, said her group has discussed the seal and its history but hasn’t decided if it will support the petition.

Trujillo said the group is split between those who feel the seal is offensive and should be changed and those who feel that changing the seal would be ignoring New Mexico’s troubled history, an opinion Trujillo shares.

“Getting rid of the seal says it never happened,” Trujillo said.

Though the students haven’t filed an official complaint with the university, administrators have started to respond to their concerns.

Jozi de Leon, vice president for equity and inclusion, attended a meeting where the students discussed their problems with the seal. She said she will work with the students to get their message to other university officials.

De Leon said the university’s diversity council, a group of faculty, staff and students focused on diversity on campus, will support the students’ efforts in the future.

“This is a university,” de Leon said. “This is the place where we should be having this kind of dialogue. We should be open to listening to the concerns of the students.”

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