If you don’t know anything about this story, take a moment and look carefully at the seal for the village of Whitesboro, NY.
I didn’t have the opportunity to do that myself, because my initial encounter with the image was via an article about it with a loaded title that left no room for interpretation. The controversy interests me because of the opposite interpretations of this image, and the insistence on the absolute correctness of each interpretation from the opposing standpoints.
[Before I launch into that, I want to share a sort of personal struggle I’m having, which in some ways is a good thing. I find I don’t fit or belong into any group or structure. I’m not a scientific rationalist, nor a spiritualist. I’m not on the far left, the far right, or in the milquetoast middle. I’m neither nationalistic nor anti-American. I don’t have any idols. There’s nobody I’d rather be, but I wouldn’t want anyone else to have to be me. I’m an American, but I’m an expat whose lived 20% of my life in Asia (for about half in rural Chinese cities where I was one of only a handful of foreigners). There’s no person or religion or belief structure that I see as true. There’s no guru that I don’t have reservations about. Most my views are probably politically correct, but I object to political correctness as a set of conclusions that sidestep individual thought, and there’s a strong tendency to stifle debate. I’m an artist, but not a part of any artistic movement. Nobody really does what I do, and I neither belong with digital artists nor with painters. I don’t belong with traditional artists nor the avant garde. I see no place to turn for authoritative truth. And the more I come to understand, the less I feel I am understood. This is part of why I find hard-line stances on the seal peculiar and annoying.]
When I look at this image I don’t have a set conclusion, while other people do. I first saw it in an article published by the online art magazine, Hyperallergic. The title was, “A Village Named Whitesboro Votes to Keep Its Insanely Racist Seal.” Insanely racist! What I then saw was a white colonist killing a Native Indian. This would be on a par with someone having a lynching as the logo of their village. For many the case was closed, but I wanted to know more. And at this point I should probably acknowledge, to myself at least, that I tend to look for the holes in the plot. I am not inclined to fortify a scenario, but rather to unravel it a bit. I was suspicious of such a strong interpretation. Insanely racist?! No hyperbole intended?
I quickly discovered, reading the article, that according to the Mayor of Whitesboro, the seal depicts a “friendly” wrestling match. Reading other articles I learned that it is specifically the founder of the village, Hugh White, who is engaged in a legendary match with an Oneida chief, and he had been adopted into the Oneida tribe because of the respect he earned. The town is named after the founder, and not a policy of white supremacy. Significantly, Hyperallergic’s click-bait title implies something very different, and the body of the article conveniently mentions none of those salient details, which are essential to investigating the story with any honesty, objectivity, or equanimity.
So those are the two diametrically opposed views: it’s a friendly wrestling match, or it represents the colonialists killing the Native Indians. Below is the original design of the seal from the 1800’s, which some argue is more graphic and depicts “a white man strangling an Indian”. Another angle is that he’s pushing him in a wrestling match, the goal of which is to flip the other person off balance, which is why the Indian appears to be falling. Have a look for yourself.
I believe one of the best ways to be open-minded about an issue is to try to sincerely argue for each side. When I was an English teacher at a public university in China, I taught my students to do this. After teaching them the biography of Muhammad Ali – from sharing a recording and gap fill exercise of his early poetry, to his refusal to fight in Vietnam against brown-skinned people, to his ultimate battle with Parkinson’s disease – we had a debate on whether or not boxing should be banned. Midway through the debate I asked the students to switch sides and argue the other case. Some of them were remarkably good at this, and could argue both sides with conviction. So, here I’ll attempt to argue both sides of this debate, starting with the case against the seal. Note that they don’t represent my own conclusions – how could they when they are opposite? – but just my attempt to represent each side.
- The Seal is Racist!
The seal obviously depicts a white colonist choking a Native Indian. The idea that there were “friendly” wrestling matches is not at all convincing, especially when we look at the earlier seal in which the white man’s hand is clutching the Indian’s throat. We also know that the logo was changed in 1977 because Whitesboro was sued by a Native American group, and the hands were moved further down to the tops of the shoulders so it would look more like wrestling and less like killing. Even in the revised version what we see is a white supremacist depiction of whites conquering an inferior race.
Even if we were to accept that the image depicts a wrestling match, and an ostensible bonding between colonists and Indians, why choose something that substantiates the stereotype that Indians are violent (but can be beaten at their own game by whites if they choose to do so)? And if the colonists were so friendly with the Indians, why is the town over 97% white and less than 0.03% Native American? Why not show the supposed wrestlers at equal advantage so there is no victor or defeated, or even show the Indian as the winner? Better yet, why not choose a different image altogether?
Residents of Whitesboro had the opportunity to choose a new logo, but overwhelmingly refused to do so, and this is at very least, blindly insensitive. Knowing full well that the Native Indian community, and other activists found the image demeaning, hurtful, or upholding a white nationalist paradigm, they insisted on keeping it. This predominantly white community is hopelessly out of touch, and living in a dream of a white supremacist colonial past. This resistance to acknowledging painful history, including the white near genocide of Native Americans, and the history of colonization, is emblematic of a stubbornly conservative, delusional, and defunct remnant of white supremacy.
If the people of Whitesboro want to keep this symbol, than they can proudly wear the symbol of their own obsolete racist culture.
2. The Seal Celebrates Friendship Between the Colonists and the Oneida.
First, the seal definitely depicts a wrestling match, as both men have their hands on each other’s shoulders. This kind of wrestling was popular with the Oneida Indians at the time. According to Oneida Nation Council Turtle Clan representative Clint Hill, the Oneidas typically had positive relationships with nearby settlers, and “Indian wrestling,” in which opponents placed their feet together and tried to throw the other person using only one arm, is still a common game among friends. “With the so-called Indian wrestling, you just knocked the person off balance,” he said. “We used to do it all the time as kids.”
Not only did the Indians practice this wrestling style, but the image depicts the founder of Whitesboro, Hugh White, wrestling an Oneida chief. When White arrived in the area he was the first white, and thus he tried to establish positive relations. When some Indians challenged him to a wrestling match, he decided it would be better to lose than to refuse to participate. He won through a lucky trip, and thus gained the respect of the Oneidas, which helped to build positive relations. Do people really think the seal depicts Hugh White, or the Whitesboro colonists, as crazed Indian killers? That’s absolutely ridiculous.
The reason White is depicted as winning the match is because if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have earned their respect. The image is not at all intended to be racist, but rather to celebrate bonding between cultures and overcoming differences.
The seal symbolizes friendship and mutual respect between colonists in Whitesboro and the Oneida, and is a part of Whitesboro history. The citizens like the story, see it as a part of their own culture and heritage, and thus don’t want to change it just because it appears at first glance to be something other than what it is. Instead of forcing them to change their seal, why not be a little more open-minded and not force a sinister interpretation on it, and on them. Not all contact between colonists and Natives was negative, so why erase the bit of good relations the village people honor as part of their own history?
I hope I hit the basic arguments and tenor of each side. Admittedly it was hard for me to put forth either position without it seeming a bit of a caricature. At its worse, the first tries to use outrage, morality, and feeling to make its case; while the second a somewhat glib common sense appeal to everything being rather rosy and benevolent. Each represents a paradigm with certain fixed beliefs, and both are resistant to compromise. From my humble perspective there are some elements from each side that are difficult to brush away. It is also possible that there is no reconciliation of the two disparate views into one flawless greater perspective, but rather that both positions coexist without definitive answers.
Because the small village of Whitesboro (with just over 3,000 inhabitants) considers itself a historic town, largely built on the sort of legend surrounding its founder, it seems quite likely the seal really does depict their founder in a wrestling match that is supposed to be friendly – it is an illustration of the story. Nevertheless, there are people who insist it is NOT a wrestling match, including the co-founder of Hyperallergic, who wrote in the comments section, “They are not wrestling. Give us all a break.” Here we have outright denial of the most plausible explanation. I find that sort of conviction, in defiance of both the historical accounts, the most plausible story (if they aren’t wrestling, what were they doing, and why would an ostensible murder be the logo of their village?), and even the imagery itself (which really looks more like Indian wrestling than choking), a bit shocking. To maintain that the seal doesn’t depict a wrestling match, you have to deny that it shows the village’s founder, or illustrates the story of the event. Instead you have to insist it’s just a depiction of a white man savagely strangling an Indian. That’s rather stubborn and intellectually dishonest.
It also can’t be disregarded or argued against that people, and especially Native Americans, have found, and continue to find the image offensive. Whatever the intended historical context, there is another historical context in which the Indians were nearly wiped out, their land taken, and then they were sequestered in woefully inadequate reservations. The people of Whitesboro should not be so oblivious that they can’t recognize this, or so stubborn that they can’t change the seal to some other option, while still retaining their own history.
Even if the image shows two men wrestling, and this is supposed to be friendly, the story may be fantastical and white-wash a starker reality, and from today’s vantage it looks ever so much like a white man throttling an Indian. The people of Whitesboro could show their avowed historical friendship with the Indians by honoring their wishes out of kindness. That would seem in the spirit of the ostensible original story.
On the other end of the spectrum, the social justice warriors could give “white” people a little more benefit of doubt before throwing stones, such as blithely smearing a whole community with “insane racism”, and show a portion of the tolerance they are demanding from the dominant culture. The seal is not “insanely racist”, but rather misguided, even if well intended, and in its present incarnation insensitive to the point of being offensive. Labeling it “insanely racist” and insisting the men aren’t wrestling, but we are witnessing some sort of assault or murder, serves to demonize and scapegoat whites as incapable of anything other than colonizing, subjugating, and exploiting (the goal is to overcome the seemingly natural inclination to a demonizing, othering mindset, not to simply readjust the target). Articles like the one in Hyperallergic seek to sensationalize the topic, for instance by implying the name of the village signifies white supremacy rather than just the name of the founder.
That’s my working take on it. I like to admit that I could be wrong, which is basically inevitable on some level because all maps of reality are not the actual terrain, and each story is going to privilege one perspective or another. Ones own views can fluctuate within a day or hour, and a shift in perspective can happen suddenly, and then you are able to occupy a different vantage, and sometimes not be able to retrieve your former conviction (which is why people say things like, “what was I thinking?!). Others, like the guy at Hyperallergic, or the probable loons on the other end of the spectrum – say on Fox News or Infowars – who will come to opine on this, have complete faith in their own agendas and narratives – that the view out their window is the only view. [Note that I just discovered I was wrong about Fox News, and they had a surprisingly reasonable take on it.]
Finally, I marvel that people are so sure of what happened hundreds of years ago, so insistent on their single-minded interpretations and agendas, so intolerant of other views, and so quick to censor any dissent. While I admire their convictions in the gossamer of thoughts and snippets of half logic floating in their consciousnesses, I do not think it’s admirable. Regardless of political leaning, a bit of humility, and a respect for reality – which does not bow to our superimposition of this or that narrative on it – is more progressive than rigid foregone conclusions ultimately serving selfish self-interest (such as when campaigning for a cause shades into lobbying for personal benefit or aggrandizement).
I should probably mention that the fellow at Hyperallergic banned me and maligned me for questioning the objectivity of the article [he also banned someone else for defending me], which is a rather drastic and adolescent measure from my perspective, as I was trying to be a voice of reason. The seal is just one good example of a story that people take polar opposite sides on, in which case neither can be completely right without the other being completely wrong, and they both believe they are completely right. I’m sure you can think of religious examples, or issues to do with police, terrorism, free speech, and so on. I suppose we humans cling to beliefs, and once we’ve suctioned on to one, we defend it tenaciously even if there are some glaring flaws in our narrative. I imagine Hermit crabs scuttling desperately to any shell. I may have reached a place where I find all shells ultimately inhospitable. Some say that is a good thing, but I think I keep hoping to find one that’s commodious enough to accommodate everything I want to put in it, and prohibits nothing I can think of.