Lott: Break with Tradition
By Roger Lott, Contributing Columnist
Published on Tuesday, January 25, 2011
While listening to a ’62 reminisce over Christmas dinner about the spirited traditions and rustic lifestyle he had known at Dartmouth, I couldn’t help but share in some of his nostalgia. It was saddening to appreciate that while Dartmouth has made great strides, it has also thrown away much of what made it special.
In 1993, Dartmouth ended a more than century-old tradition in which graduating seniors would smash long clay pipes on the stump of the old pine tree in the BEMA. The custom, based on the smokers’ habit of breaking off part of the pipe’s stem after it had become befouled through use, symbolized students’ “clean break” from the College. However, Native American students complained that the tradition was disrespectful of Native American rituals involving sacred pipes, and in ’93 mugs were substituted, only to later be done away with after seniors incurred minor injuries from clay shards.
The demise of the pipe-breaking tradition is a reflection of a broader over-vigilance for anything potentially offensive to Native Americans, and the undebatable nature of Dartmouth’s Indian mascot propagates a false notion that all indigenous peoples are offended by it and similar symbols. In fact, nothing is further from the truth. A 2004 Annenberg Policy poll found that 91 percent of Native Americans believe the name of the Washington Redskins is acceptable. In 1984, The Dartmouth Review hired Gallup to conduct a nationwide survey and found that 125 Native American chiefs supported the Dartmouth Indian while only 11 opposed it. One Seneca chief said that while the Indian was sometimes used badly, “Those were exceptions ... I was sorry to see the universities do away with it.” An Oklahoma Indian leader explained, “The Indian symbol is a reminder of our existence and endurance.”
The Dartmouth Indian inspired far more enthusiasm than the politically correct “Big Green” ever has. George Potts ’60 recalls on his blog the “awe and pride” he felt when “the Dartmouth Indian, in full war paint and battle regalia, rode a pinto bareback onto Memorial Field.” However, many at Dartmouth seem to think “stereotyping” any human group is inherently denigrating to it. Tell that to Penn’s “Fighting” Quakers or the Florida Seminoles, who officially endorse a Florida State University Seminole mascot.
The College’s excessive concern about causing offense is also manifested in its 1964 decision to cover the five main stained glass windows in Rollins Chapel after some took issue with the portrayal of Christian figures. It is a reflection of misplaced sensibilities that Dartmouth should choose to cover up beautiful relics out of shame for the College’s religious origins. Today, cursing and ostentatious sexuality are not found problematic while visible religious displays are highly taboo. The College seems to practice a double standard, however — apparently there was no problem with the Orozco Murals’ very prominent depiction of Christ or the use of a motto taken directly from the Bible. In 2006, the College finally unboarded the windows, although they are still frequently covered on non-Christian religious events.
The College does not stop at banning traditions it deems offensive — it has also forbidden a number of supposedly dangerous traditions. Despite good intentions, the College acts like a micro-managing parent when it tells young adults they have to stay 50 feet from the bonfire or can’t swim in the Connecticut River. Touching a giant flame or attempting to jump over a line of kegs while wearing ice skates (the banned Keg Jump) is certainly not without danger, but if students are going to be treated as adults they must be allowed to independently assess risks as long as they aren’t putting others in harm’s way.
For the administration to inform students about dangers is fine, but it emasculates the campus culture when it prevents young adults from making their own choices. The most thrilling traditions tend to have at least an element of the risqué, but the college would rather just keep things safe and boring so it doesn’t have to worry about liability. It’s difficult to cultivate a dynamic school spirit with a draconian administration that’s constantly going after anything with the potential to be physically or mentally hurtful. A good balance has to be found, and when students can’t smash pipes without causing an uproar or go swimming in a river without getting in trouble for risking their lives, there’s good reason to suspect that the administration has gone too far to one extreme.