Last Friday, Harvard students crossed the river and enjoyed Harvard football’s first home game of the year, with our Crimson beating Brown University handily. Ahead of the game, Harvard Athletics’ Assistant Director of Multimedia and Production posted a video on Instagram to get students and fans excited for the game. The video is indeed exciting – featuring close-up video of the players, fast cuts between shots, and footage from Harvard football’s history, but underneath the images plays a soundtrack that is ill-fitting at best.
Almost the entirety of the 50-second video uses the track “Electric Pow Wow Drum” by A Tribe Called Red, a soundtrack that gradually intensifies with traditional drumming. Given Harvard’s own history with Native American nations, this is extremely inappropriate, and the video should be taken down immediately.
Harvard’s disrespect for Native Americans and their nations goes back to a few years after the founding of the College, when in 1655, the Indian College was established. This initiative was borne out of financial necessity and cooperation with local churches, in a deal that meant increased revenue for the College if it would admit and house Natives in an effort to anglicize and assimilate them. Through this, Harvard played an active role in the colonization of Native Americans that would lead to land grabs, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Natives, and the social death of entire tribes.
Despite the existence of the Indian College, some might say that Harvard’s role in Native colonization is greatly overstated. If it is, those same people would have to turn a blind eye to the symbol the College used to represent itself – the Pilgrim.
The Pilgrim, an icon associated with the genocide of millions of Native Americans, was used as both a noun and an adjective associated with the school, and its official mascot, John Harvard, is still depicted in Harvard Yard wearing the traditional dress of an English pilgrim. Remnants of this term still exist through the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, a Harvard-affiliated non-profit health services company which dates back to 1969. Harvard is not alone in this respect: Dartmouth had an Indian as its mascot until 1969.
The school’s transgressions on this topic are not limited to extracurricular matters. Nineteenth and 20th century archaeologists like Alfred V. Kidder were sent out on Harvard’s behalf to seize Native artifacts and even to bring back burial remains, such as the Pueblo bodies Harvard kept in its possession until the 1990s. Today’s guidelines would never allow for such expeditions, of course, but the study of archaeology on our campus is still taught by a cadre of professors that includes only a handful of Native American scholars.
Progress on this issue has been slow, to say the least. Though some might tout that the University has made strides to hire tenure-track Native faculty members in recent decades, we cannot ignore that the endowment still has investments tied to indigenous genocide in Brazil and burial site destruction in Australia.
We live on stolen Wampanoag land and it is incumbent on each and every one of us to acknowledge and recognize this. This is not done when we appropriate indigenous art to promote our school or our athletics department. In light of this school’s history, it’s insensitive and unbelievable that a member of its staff would post a video that appropriates Native culture for the promotion of something as trivial as football.
The video is even more unseemly when you consider the intentions and activism of the musical artists behind the song. A Tribe Called Red, a First Nations electronic group that seeks to dispel the idea that Natives are remnants of the past by adding traditional drumming to modern electronic music, has itself asked its fans not to appropriate Native culture and art when they attend their shows and has backed civil rights lawsuits that challenge instances of appropriation. This staff member’s use of this song is an open act of appropriation, disrespecting Native culture and the artists themselves. The video, which includes images of Spartan warriors and fighter jets, perpetuates what A Tribe Called Red is fighting against: the view and stereotype of Native Americans as bloodthirsty, war-like fighters.
Perhaps Harvard is unaware of this video. If so, we hope Harvard encourages its employee to take down the video and to replace the background music with something more respectful and appropriate. Harvard must also more closely monitor how its image is portrayed to the outside world. This incident demonstrates the need Harvard has to better educate its students, faculty and staff on our troubled past, because though this particular instance might seem small to some, it can deeply affect and perpetuate insecurities and issues of identity within Harvard’s Native community.
Patrick C. Barham Quesada ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. James L. Walkingstick ’21 is a Social Anthropology concentrator in Pforzheimer House.