On Monday night, students, faculty, staff and administrators met in the Red Room to discuss the possibility of changing the College’s mascot, Lord Jeff, in order to distance the College from Lord Jeffery Amherst’s genocidal legacy. The meeting — which was organized by Risalat Khan ’13, a Senator in the Association of Amherst Students (AAS), included a historical presentation by Michael Kelly, Head of Archives and Special Collections and a town hall–discussion between attendees.
Khan decided to organize the meeting in response to longstanding concerns about the mascot’s connections to Lord Jeffery Amherst’s genocidal statements and actions towards Native Americans during his time as the commander-in-chief of the British Army in North America.
“This has been something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. To be honest, when I was a freshman, I heard about Lord Jeff and I was sort of disturbed by the celebration of him as the mascot, which I feel is different from naming ourselves Amherst after the town. We are representing ourselves with a figure actively associated with a dark part of history. In my senior year, I asked myself what I wanted to do with my senior year, and I knew that I had to bring up the issue of the mascot,” Khan said.
While the precise extent and nature of Lord Jeffery Amherst’s connection to genocide is unclear — the efficacy and historical accuracy of the infamous smallpox blanket incident has been questioned — it is undeniable that Lord Jeffery Amherst promoted genocide against Native Americans both in word and in deed, according to Kelly. In several letters written during the Pontiac uprising in 1763, Lord Jeffery Amherst mentioned wanting to “Bring about the Total Extirpation of those Indian Nations,” calling Native Americans an “execrable race” and aiming to “put a most Effectual Stop to their very Being.”
However, it is clear, Kelly said, that Lord Jeffery Amherst never had any direct connection with the College. In fact, there is no record of Lord Jeff ever being officially chosen as the College’s mascot.
“The historical connection between the College and Lord Jeffery Amherst is zero. The town was named for him, specifically — the town actually petitioned to be named in his honor. The College was just named because it was founded in Amherst, and so it’s Amherst College. If you search the Amherst College website, there’s very few mentions of Lord Jeff, and as Suzanne Coffey mentioned at the meeting, he’s not on the uniforms — they’ve always just had an ‘A’ on them. I don’t think the mascot was ever voted on by the trustees or the students or the faculty. I don’t know that there are any records of it ever being considered,” Kelly said.
According to Kelly, the first mention of Lord Jeffery Amherst as a part of College traditions did not occur until 1906, when James Shelley Hamilton, a member of the Glee Club and the Class of 1906, wrote a song called “Lord Jeffery Amherst,” which includes the line “to the Frenchmen and the Indians he didn’t do a thing.” However, Kelly said, it is unlikely that anyone at the College knew about Lord Jeffery Amherst’s connection with genocide.
“They knew he was involved in the French and Indian War, but Hamilton admits that he did no research on Lord Jeff before writing the song. He cites a poem in the Amherst Literary Monthly of February 1903 as his inspiration, which has a biographical sketch attached to it, and the sketch only mentions that ‘he was not successful’ during the Pontiac uprising,” Kelly said.
Nevertheless, Kelly said that he felt that it was time for the College to find a mascot with more positive associations.
“We have the opportunity to change this. One-hundred ten years ago some students just like you guys, sitting around and deciding to write a song for the College, and it turned into this. I think this is a moment too, where students can decide who we want to be going forward. Just because of this accident of history, we don’t have to stick with this. If we want the College to be some place that’s inclusive and open, and something that we can be proud of, I think we need to just sit down and do it right this time,” Kelly said.
Several students echoed Kelly’s sentiments. Danielle Trevino ’14, who is Native American, said that she thought is was inappropriate for the College to be represented by a “symbol of oppression” like Lord Jeff.
“Some people believe that drawing a parallel between Jeffrey Amherst and Adolf Hitler is going too far, but for me and many other Native people, Amherst is our Hitler. Amherst referred to Native Americans as an ‘execrable race’ and wanted to exterminate us as if we were vermin,” Trevino said. “Knowing that he acted on that desire via biological warfare, how can that not be understood as genocide?”
However, other students, such as Adam Medoff ’13, a member of the College’s baseball team, felt that the issue was more complex and that there was value in maintaining the College’s traditions.
“I think that there hasn’t been enough discussion about what it means to Amherst to change it. I definitely understand the argument, but I don’t think enough has been said about the traditions of this school and how they’re being lost. We’re one of the oldest schools in the country, but I don’t think anyone knows our fight song. There’s not much that makes Amherst unique except for the fact that we’re a great liberal arts college and maybe our open curriculum,” Medoff said.
Participants at the meeting also considered the impact of Lord Jeff on the College’s efforts to recruit students from a diverse background. Several students mentioned that they had had hesitations about coming to the College after finding out about the mascot, and Dean of Admissions Katie Fretwell said that although she had never faced any direct questions about the mascot she felt that it did not capture the full diversity of the College.
“I struggle with the conflicting nature of the College’s interest in sustaining traditions, as a proud and old institution as ours is wont to have, and the fact that our current mascot may symbolize genocide to many, a value to which the College is most distinctly opposed. Many see our commitment to the development of a learning environment where difference is examined and celebrated being thwarted by our having Lord Jeff be the icon behind whom we rally in pride. I am also uncomfortable with the practice of female athletes being called by a male name,” Fretwell said.
Across their disagreements about the suitability of the College’s mascot, many attendees of the meeting agreed that the College needed to work to build a stronger community that is both inclusive of all its members and in touch with its traditions.
“This issue is a manifestation of the fact that this institution has transformed in a lot of significant ways. I have seen it, the very sudden change in the demographics of our student body that is increasingly international, increasingly diverse in terms of socio-economics, ethnicity and race. We have precedents with the College going through these kinds of changes. Certainly with going co-educational, people had concerns that ‘this won’t be the Amherst that I knew,’ but I think hopefully we can all agree that the decision to go co-educational strengthened this institution, and that we look back on this as a positive change in this college,” said Robert Hayashi, Assistant Professor of English and American Studies, who spoke in favor of changing the mascot at the meeting. “The challenge of difference is one way in which we could use more intentional structures in terms of enabling students, faculty, administrators and staff to have productive, generative and honest conversations about difference that are targeted towards moving forward with a collective desire to do so. I do think there is a need for that and this is another manifestation of that.”
Medoff agreed, saying that he thought the primary goal of the discussion should be to build a stronger Amherst College community.
“I think that conversation is a good conversation to have. I just think there needs to be more discussions about clinging onto our traditions just because there are so few of them, and that’s a shame for a school that’s been around for so long. I definitely don’t think it’s a black and white issue; many opinions should be heard. We should do something that the entire Amherst community supports, from the people who are here to the people who have been here; all voices should be heard,” Medoff said.