A photo from the Eastern Virginia Medical School’s 1984 yearbook sparked outrage earlier this month after Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam confirmed he was one of the individuals in a photoshowing one person dressed in blackface and another in the KKK’s signature white hood and robes.
Northam apologized for “the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.”
The controversy of this photo sparked a debate that was well articulated by a USA Today opinion article, Is it worth reviewing old yearbooks for racism? Our readers debate.
One reader responded with a letter to the editor saying, “The search was no doubt successful, but why was it done in the first place? The only reason I can think of is to stir up racial tensions. Why?”
Another wrote, “Ignoring our racist past and “letting it rest” does nothing to improve the hate that is continuing to this day.”
I have to agree with the latter point. Yearbook’s provide a unique and unfiltered view into the not-so-distant past of institutions of higher education. It made me wonder, what unfiltered views into the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s (UNO) past could a yearbook provide?
The Gateway office is home to yearbooks from nearly every year they were produced. They are also immortalized through UNO’s digital commons.
Perusing through yearbooks, the most blatant issue I saw was a disrespect for Native American culture. A disrespect immediately obvious in the university’s mascot, the Indians, which was depicted on many of the yearbooks as a stereotyped caricature.
According to the digital commons, the UNO yearbook was known as the Gateway from 1915-1927; then changed names to the Omahan from 1928-1929; then changed names to the Tomahawk from 1936-1970; then changed names to Breakaway from 1971-1972, before ending as the Maverick from 1973-1975.
Between the years 1936 and 1970, the university really leaned into their mascot, the Indians. The above photo from the 1965 yearbook depicts the Omaha University female marching squad, the “Indiannes,” wearing feathers and what appears to be a take on traditional Native American clothing.
Another photo in the yearbook depicts the “Ma-ie Day princess” in a costume again meant to resemble traditional Native American clothing.
Creating a caricature of Native people and using that rendition as a logo, mascot or symbol doesn’t honor the people and culture, it is harmful.
Some may argue that these yearbooks are outdated and that looking back fifty years isn’t an accurate representation of today. UNO no longer rallies behind the Indians. Today, it’s the Mavericks. That doesn’t mean the past should be forgotten or ignored. This is an institution of higher education; the past should be a tool for learning.