CMASS Community Building Day: The Blanket

CMASS Community Building Day: The Blanket

A Discussion about Indigenous Peoples and Diversity

By: Nicole Dotzenrod

On Friday,  November 20, 2015 a group of University of Massachusetts Amherst students and community members gathered in Wilder Hall for what they thought would be an ordinary presentation about indigenous peoples and diversity while seated on traditional Native rugs. Engaged with the presentation, students became alarmed when event facilitators began slowly removing the blankets with no explanation, forcing them to move places. The activity was meant to symbolize the plight of indigenous populations whose land has been historically chipped away.

This Community Building Day came in the wake of a recent controversy at Amherst College, where students and faculty pushed to remove their unofficial mascot Lord Jeffrey Amherst from the college. Amherst faculty unanimously voted to remove “Lord Jeff” as the school’s unofficial mascot because of his role in giving smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans over 200 years ago.

Following the blanket activity facilitated by Joyce Vincent, Associate Director for Cultural Enrichment,  the participants  took turns going around the circle sharing their thoughts about the activity. Many people described the experience of the blankets being taken away as symbolic of the way white leaders took and continue to take away indigenous lands. For many, the blanket was representative of the native land and the activity served as a visualization of the displacement of native peoples.

Some people described the activity as triggering an internal struggle of theirs when they realized they did not resist their “oppressors” when they took their rights from them. They expressed frustration with themselves for not saying anything when the blankets were removed, sitting complacent to the unfairness.

The group unanimously agreed that the displacement of indigenous populations is far from over. This is an ongoing issue worldwide, and should not be ignored. One member of the circle shared her experience as an indigenous person whose land was taken from her people to pave the way for railroads and oil. 

For some members of the circle, moving from place to place, especially country to country, sometimes led to feelings of cultural loss. The shift in location sometimes caused issues of identity. For example, one person said her move from Vietnam to America made her feel that a part of her old culture was lost. The group discussed the fluidity of culture, and whether an “authentic” cultural identity truly exists.