NASA Responds to StuGov Dorm Games Poster

When first writing to Student Government, in regards to the poster in Shane Lounge advertising the Dorm Games, NASA was unsure what the response would be. After learning that Student Government was willing to cooperate with us in addressing the issue, we were hopeful that this might become an opportunity for widespread acknowledgement and discussion of the role of colonialism in the everyday. In order to clarify our understanding of colonialism and why it was necessary to address this poster, we have reproduced sections of the correspondence between NASA and Student Government, outlining the ways in which this poster reproduces colonial discourse, some of the consequences of that discourse, and what type of response we thought was appropriate. We hope that this statement along with Student Government’s message will encourage open discussion of the global colonial experience.

It should be noted that by colonialism we are referring to continuing systems of settler-colonialism within the borders of the United States in particular. By settler-colonialism we refer to the means by which indigenous lands were/are invaded for the express purpose of occupying, settling, and establishing a non-aboriginal community. While this historical process creates the physical reality we live in today, it is accompanied by simultaneous institutional and ideological processes that subvert indigenous sovereignty, knowledge systems, and histories, thereby silencing indigenous voices, breaking apart indigenous communities, and necessarily erasing indigenous existence in order to secure settler prosperity.

The Dorm Games poster recreates a history for the College, outlining fictional origins of the different dormitories and their corresponding “tribes.” NASA first wrote to Student Government because this history, by reproducing the narrative of settler-colonialism, reflects and propagates those same damaging ideological processes of colonialism.

It begins by explaining that Swarthmore was an ancient civilization. The first people to live here discovered a desolate patch of virgin land which they transformed into a city.

Although the U.S empire is founded upon the notion that this continent was uninhabited at the time of “Discovery,” there were in fact millions of people and hundreds of nations who had existed here for millennia. This campus and the surrounding territory belongs to the Lenape, a people who still live here and whom the College has at least symbolically recognized as the original inhabitants of these lands. Swarthmore College on the other hand is an institution that exists in and belongs exclusively to the modern era on land which was stolen from an indigenous people. The fantastical history of this poster is imaginative and entertaining, but recreating a fictional, ancestral tie to settled land is a regularly employed tool to justify the continued occupation and further theft of indigenous lands.

The poster continues narrating how successive waves of settlers, wanting to share their love and knowledge, established colonies in the surrounding unoccupied territory. These people brought with them skills and crafts and as their society grew, they cultivated the wasteland.

Settlers not only viewed indigenous lands as unoccupied, but uncultivated as well. Because American lands were thought to be untamed wilderness, European powers felt justified in taking lands which they perceived to be unused. And because civilization was, to the European mind, based on specific forms of lands use, indigenous peoples were viewed and portrayed as savages. These two notions have worked together for five centuries to deny indigenous land claims and the right to self-governance.

Nearing its conclusion the document states that for 250 years the empire of Swarthmore carried on in peace.

Swarthmore was founded in 1864–150 years ago–and has, at multiple times, experienced periods of unrest. However, retrospectively declaring eras as peaceful and prosperous is a powerful and often used method of destroying history that might recount abuses of power and authority. For example, one can look to the retelling of the stories of Columbus and the First Thanksgiving. Within Swarthmore’s own history the rhetoric of peace has not only been used to wipe out institutional memory, but to silence voices and movements that sought systematic change. See the work by Dr. Alison Dorsey’s class Black Liberation 1969.

Lastly, in a direct address to the reader, the poster declares that as the ancient civilization of Swarthmore begins to fail, it becomes the destiny of the newly arrived Swarthmoreans to claim their birthright and establish a new empire.

As the United States massacred indigenous peoples, abrogated treaties, mandated assimilation, it regularly justified its actions in the inevitable decline and extinction of indigenous peoples. This reasoning, of a Manifest Destiny to spread over the lands as wilderness and savagery gave way to civilization, informed legal and social policy which cleared indigenous lands for settlement and destroyed indigenous communities. It is an old ideological construction that can be traced from a papal bull issued by Pope Nicholas V hundreds of years earlier, which itself was a descendant of the Crusades. This doctrine employed words like destiny and birthright to sanction genocide.

On its own, no one is likely to ever believe that this poster is an accurate history of the College. We did not write to Student Government out of fear that someone will take it as such, but because this poster belongs to the well-established American tradition of fictionalizing and glorifying colonization. This tradition continues to perpetuate a very real system of inequality that denies indigenous peoples basic human rights. This document in itself is no more damaging than any of the other fictionalizations of American history. But it does expressly reproduce the values and assumptions of settler-colonialism while erasing the actual history of violence and oppression upon which it is founded. The members of NASA agree that this document, and the events of which it is a part were most likely created with the best of intentions. We however believe that because this poster fictionalized a history which obscures the existence of indigenous peoples and propagates a myth that has done untold damage to millions of people, Student Government, representing the entirety of the student body, has a responsibility to acknowledge and disrupt the processes of colonization implicated in that document.

In the days following our first message Student Government worked with NASA to create a response that we thought would be both an honest acknowledgment of what had happened and an illustrative example of how to redress processes of colonization on the daily. We would have preferred, however, that Student Government not apologize for having offended us, because we were not offended. The reality of colonialism is its pervasiveness. It forms our legal and social structures, which in conjunction with a diversity of media, invade and colonize the mind. It is a complex system that perpetuates violence on an ideological level among all peoples, colonizer and colonized alike. There is no one who can claim to be free from harboring colonizing thought. And so it was not surprising to see that this poster also reproduced colonial narratives. Nor were its sentiments especially offensive. We are subject to more aggressive, harmful, and subtle colonial influences everyday. But beyond redressing offense, the importance of talking about colonization is to stop its perpetuation. That is why we first wrote to Student Government and why we are writing this piece now. As the heirs and objects of colonization, we all have a collective responsibility to discover colonizing thought and practices, expose them, and put them in the grave.

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    At first I was a bit puzzled at NASA’s stakes in earthly colonialism, until I understood there is more than one meaning to a simple acronym 😉 – However: “massacred indigenous peoples” – the US did also “massacre” the souls of many Indian children who were taken from their families and/or not allowed to grow up in their indigenous cultures, just because white supremacists (yes, I know, this word now has a new connotation – but nevertheless is true of a lot of the “founding fathers” as well as signatories of the constitution!) deemed their own beliefs and heritage to be “superior”. And we may wonder, if e.g. the California drought is not also a consequence of such hubris!

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    Christopher Densmore says:

    Since I’m not a student, I haven’t presumed to post on the Gazette list. However, I’ve been following this thread with great interest. Friends (Quakers) had a long engagement with Native Americans, including Swarthmore College folks such as Edward Parrish, Benjamin Hallowell, and Lucretia Mott. That engagement has been the subject of considerable scholarly interest over time. I’ve posted below excerpts from a couple of documents concerning John Parrish, the great uncle of Swarthmore College’s first President, Edward Parrish, who was one of those Quakers who were present as observers at the Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794, the Treaty that still forms the basis for the relation of the Seneca Nation and the United States. Many of the issues of colonialism, land tenure, violence, cultural integrity and cross-cultural discussions are documented in these records. Swarthmore students are certainly welcome to use these and other records held by Friends Historical Library their research.

    The Will of John Parrish, 1807

    I do give also into the hands of John Biddle and John Morton Jr. two of the [Philadelphia] Yearly Meeting’s Committee for Indian Affairs for the use and improvement of the Indian natives in a civilized life to be applied as the Committee may judge most expedient for the benefit of those poor suffering people by the produce of the soil of their lands Friends and others have greatly increased their wealth so as to enable man of them to leave great estates to their offspring.

    [Will of John Parrish (1729-1807). John was the great uncle of Edward Parrish (1822-1872), founding President of Swarthmore College. The will also include a bequest for “the African and their descendants” ]

    William Savery and John Parrish at the Treaty of Canandaigua, 1794

    After dinner, John Parrish and myself rode to view the Farmer’s Brother’s encampment, which contained about five hundred Indians. They are located by the side of a brook, in the woods ; having built about seventy or eighty huts, by far the most commodious and ingeniously made of any that I have seen; the principal materials are bark and boughs of trees, so nicely put together as to keep the family dry and warm. The women as well as the men, appeared to be mostly employed. In this camp, there are a large number of pretty children, who, in all the activity and buoyancy of health, were diverting themselves according to their fancy. The vast number of deer they have killed, hang round their huts inside and out, to dry, together with the rations of beef which they draw daily, give the appearance of plenty to supply the few wants to which they are subjected. The ease and cheerfulness of every countenance, and the delightfulness of the afternoon, which these inhabitants of the woods seemed to enjoy with a relish far superior to those who are pent up in crowded and populous cities, all combined to make this the most pleasant visit I have paid to Indians; and induced me to believe, that before they became acquainted with white people and were infected with their vices, they must have been as happy a people as any in the world. In returning to our quarters we passed by the Indian council, where Red Jacket was displaying his oratory to his brother chiefs, on the subject of colonel Pickering’s proposals.

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    Dr. Necessitor says:

    You use words like “taken” and “stolen” but “conquered” is more correct. Just as American indigenous warrior cultures waged war against each other and conquered territory, so did European warrior cultures wage war and conquer Native American tribes and the Incan and Mayan “Empires”. Europeans were simply better at the same “game” native tribes had played for thousands of years. So how is it wrong when everyone played by the same rules? And to be clear, I’m being brief but not flippant. I’d really like to know why it’s okay for people of the same race to war against and conquer each other but it’s not okay for a different race to do the same.

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      Sage Wagner '15 NASA member says:

      Dear Dr. Necessitor thank you for taking interest in the debate,

      It is not okay for people of the same race to conquer each other anymore than it is okay for people of different races to conquer each other. However Native tribes did not conquer each other even though they did war, and in modern times Native people in the U.S. do not conduct war with each other while the settler-colonial narrative is still going strong. For these reasons we do not discuss historical intertribal affairs in this article because it seems to us irrelevant. The stolen land the article refers to were not always taken under circumstances of war, however I do not believe the use the military force during war justifies the taking of indigenous land. Many Native nations signed treaties that traded Native land in return for protection, medicine, and peace with foreign settlers. The fact remains that Natives held up their side of the bargain, but the other party did not always. This is why we critique colonial narrative, as it is a tool used to justify this injustice, and often invades the common narrative without notice. Political figure Daniel Inouye once wrote “too few Americans know that the Indian nations ceded millions of acres of lands to the United States or that while the terms of the treaties naturally varied, the promises and commitments made by the United States were typically made in perpetuity.” (foreword to Documents of American Indian Diplomacy: Treaties, Agreements, and Conventions 1775-1979) The U.S. a government descended from European settlers is honor bound by its own word to provide for Natives in return for land taken.

      Suggesting that it was okay for Europeans to treat Natives the way they did because it was all a “game” and Europeans were “simply better” at this game has a distinct tone of inherent European superiority and Native inferiority and is racist. It also suggests that Natives deserved what happened/is happening to them because they were simply not as good as Europeans at this “game” and is in itself a colonial narrative that trivializes, perpetuates, and justifies historical and modern violence and animosity towards Native Americans. I do not say this to demonize you but only so that you and everyone who agreed with your opinion may examine your feelings towards Native people and maybe one day not regard Natives as inferior and deserving of violence.

      Natives have experience extreme maltreatment, but I wonder if Natives are a conquered peoples? Does a conquered person sit next to you in class with the same rights and freedom as you? Does a conquered person put you in a position where you must insist to them that they are conquered? Does a conquered person wonder if they are conquered?

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      Daniel Orr ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      Could you explain what indigenous warrior cultures are?
      What I think you’re talking about is the popular image of Native warrior societies that developed in the mid to late 19th century, when the United States was engaged in military warfare with Plains Indians. The warrior, while important to many indigenous peoples, came to represent all of Native culture because U.S expansion increasingly limited U.S – Indian relations to the battlefield. This image was then reproduced as the only representation of Natives in popular media, especially the Western. This idea that Native societies revolved around a culture of warfare not only has questionable applicability to Plains Indians, but certainly could not be taken to include the thousands of distinct indigenous peoples and cultures throughout the Americas.
      But also, I think the crucial thing we have to remember when discussing the difference between inter-indigenous military relationships and colonial-indigenous relations, is that the territorial warfare that characterized indigenous interactions is in no way comparable to the genocide which forms the basis of colonial conquest.

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        Sage Wagner '15 NASA member says:

        Daniel has a very good point that I overlooked, the “savage indian” is an invented colonial narrative trope that served White expansionism and that we still know.

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      In retrospect... says:

      Because the moral ground upon which Western Society judges things nowadays is much higher. This is a moral asymmetry of using the standards of today to judge the mistakes of the past, which is not wrong, but definitely creates new grounds upon which to analyze historical situations. What was once acceptable 500 years ago is now scrutinized by applying a moralistic framework to it – the fairness in the application of which is another debate. In this sense, yes, wars and colonialism were societally acceptable at one point in history, but as we continue living in a world shaped by the consequences of western dominance, scholars bring up the ethical fairness by which the ‘rules of the game’ are played. Judging the past is one thing, but allowing consequences of the injustices that we see today reproduced through our society and social systems is another.

      One point I do want to emphasize is the different spheres of influence that power and morality live in. We have to set up how we’re examining what type of events through which kinds of lense to understand the implications and impacts that it would have. I’m no historian, but I can see there’s quite some confusing of subjects and perspectives here.

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        Sage Wagner '15 NASA member says:

        to in retrospect,

        If you want to analyze the actions of Europeans in their treatment of Native peoples in through the lense of their historical morality I suggest you start with Bartolome de Las Casas. Las Casas was a Spanish priest most active in the early 1500’s who traveled with Spanish settlers to the Americas. He is most well known for his criticism of the Spanish treatment of the Natives.

        Some excerpts from his writing “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies” that I’ve come across in the American Holocaust by David E. Stannard includes the following:

        “The Spanish treated the Indians with such rigor and inhumanity that they seemed the very ministers of Hell . . .”

        “They would cut an Indian’s hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin . . . and place bets on the slicing off of heads or the cutting of bodies in half with one blow . . . [One] cruel captain traveled over many leagues, capturing all the Indians he could find. Since the Indians would not tell him who their new lord was, he cut off the hands of some and threw the other to the dogs, and thus they were torn to pieces.”

        “As the Spanish went with their war dogs hunting down Indian men and women, it happened that a sick Indian woman who could not escape from the dogs, sought to avoid being torn apart by them, in this fashion: she took a chord and tied her year-old child to her leg, and then she hanged herself from a beam. But the dogs came and tore the child apart; before the creature expired, however, a friar baptized it.”

        You may also be interested in these excerpts from the Las Casas’s “History of the Indies” I’ve found in Howard Zinn’s a People’s History of the United States:

        “The Admiral . . . was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians . . .”

        “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature . . .”

        “Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgable eyewitness can hardly believe it . . .”

        It seems some things are not acceptable, even 500 years ago, including colonialism. If you don’t believe an modern Indian’s opinions, perhaps Las Casas’s is an old White perspective you can get behind?

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      Sage Wagner '15 NASA member says:

      Dear Ron Paul thank you for your question,

      NASA does not want to change Dorm Games poster to be politically correct, only to point out that the story is created using cliches picked directly from that of the colonial settler narrative. Why does NASA care about this pervasive narrative? It is because it is a “regularly employed tool to justify the continued occupation and further theft of indigenous lands.” It also contributes to the erasure of Native peoples, a ethnic group that many do not think exists anymore. NASA also believes that the “Student Government, representing the entirety of the student body, has a responsibility to acknowledge and disrupt the processes of colonization implicated in that document.” And we are thankful the Student Government helped us bring attention to the issue.

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      Daniel Orr ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      The majority of this article is spent explaining how the ways we talk and the stories we tell have real consequences in peoples’ lives. That’s why even fictional stories have to be created with attention given to the assumptions they make and values they reproduce.

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      david says:

      Since when have white writers been so unimaginative that the only way they can create alternate realities is by recreating colonialist narratives? Oh right, since forever.

      But whatever, keep being “edgy” and “politically incorrect” if that’s the only way you can entertain yourself.

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        ron paul says:

        lol I wonder what sort of weird world you live in where something so innocuous as a fictional “colonialist narrative” gets you genuinely upset. Do you actually get this annoyed about trivial things or is it faux outrage? I hear the latter is very popular nowadays among the youth.

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    Maurice G. Eldridge '61 says:

    I appreciate that NASA has taken the responsibility to point out the issues it does so clearly in its editorial. It is confirmation of our national failure to teach America’s colonial history honestly, fully, and willingly. It is of course a global phenomenon but we here in the U.S. should begin with acknowledging the history of exploitation and violence that is our history starting with the days of European colonial “settlement”. I do hope this dialogue opens up here as NASA urges and in time in our educational system nation-wide. Maurice

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