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Columbus on class ring demeans Native Americans (1)

(Editor's note: The Tech received a copy of this letter addressed to Aileen W. Lee, president, and other members of the Class of 1992 Council)

We, the members of the MIT Native American Student Association and the members of the MIT chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, are writing this letter to protest the commemoration of Christopher Columbus on the 1992 class ring, more commonly known as the Brass Rat. 1992 will be the 500th anniversary of Columbus coming to America, and the members of NASA and AISES do not see this event as something to be celebrated. One half of all Native Americans at MIT are in the Class of 1992, and although the honoring of Columbus might be trivial to some people, it is extremely offensive and demeaning to us. It is yet another sign of the ignorance of the majority of people in this country toward the plight of the aboriginal people

To say that Columbus discovered America implies that the 75 million Native Americans in the western hemisphere were either unaware of their own existence, or that their history is unimportant. The aboriginal peoples of the Americas were here thousands and thousands of years before Columbus was ever born, and to imply that Columbus "discovered" their native homeland is insulting.

Columbus began a holocaust that drove Native American tribes to the edge of extinction and beyond. Before 1492, when the "New World" was opened to immigrants from the East, there were over 5 million natives in the United States alone. By the late 1800s, that number had dropped to 250,000. Today, there are slightly over one million Native Americans left in this country, half of which live on reservations where poverty, teenage suicide and alcoholism are 100 percent higher than the national averages.

The indigenous peoples of this country, whose laws and customs set the standards for the American Constitution -- a model for governments throughout Eastern Europe today, did not themselves gain US citizenship until 1924. Our grandmothers and grandfathers, whose ancestors had lived on this continent for millennia, were not born citizens of the United States.

Another example of the ignorance of many people in this country is seen in the names of sports teams such as the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, and the Washington Redskins. It is appalling that such blatant racism goes ignored. Many people claim that such names honor Native Americans. To be stereotyped, dehumanized and cartooned is not an honor. Names such as the Washington Negroes, Jews or WASPS would be unheard of, yet the Redskins is seen as socially acceptable, even "honorable." To Native Americans, there is no name more derogatory for their people.

Ignorance is what allows racist names for sports teams to continue, and we believe that it is what lies behind the honoring of Columbus on the Brass Rat. Many members of the Ring Committee were probably unaware of how offensive and demeaning the commemoration of "the 500th Anniversary of the founding of America" would be to some people. It was however, their duty as representatives of the Class of 1992 to solicit the opinions of members of all ethnicities seen at MIT. It is inexcusable that the Native Americans -- the first peoples of this country -- were ignored. We suggest the 1992 class ring be altered to remove the symbols of the "discovery of the New World."

Columbus began a cultural genocide that continues to this day. We do not see him as someone to be honored.

Stefanie Lawson '92->

President->

Native American->

Student Association->

Frederick Jay Benett '90->

President->

American Indian Science->

and Engineering Society->

and others->

(This letter received the support of Office of Minority Education Director Judy Jackson Pitts and Coordinator of Minority Admissions Eduardo Grado; the Black Student Union; and the presidents of the Association of Puerto Ricans and the MIT chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.)