The national Black Lives Matter protests during the spring and summer of 2020 led to discussions of institutional racism, sparking a crucial conversation about whether or not it is ethical for buildings and institutions to be named after slaveholders, Confederate figures or other known racists. Public school districts across the country have voted toward renaming their schools named after past presidents, but much of this change is small-scale and slow-moving, and most racist namesakes still remain. Lewis & Clark is no exception to this conversation, as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark themselves were slave owners and contributed to the colonization of Indigenous lands.
On Oct. 12, the official LC Instagram (@lewisandclarkcollege) posted about the land on which LC is located, in recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day. In the post, European colonizers were referred to as “newcomers,” which was met with criticism from many LC students. To them, this felt like an attempt to romanticize Lewis and Clark’s history of colonization during their expedition in the early 19th century, in which they “discovered” the newly-acquired land through the Louisiana Purchase. People took to the comments section to express their dissatisfaction with the post and suggest that LC’s name should be changed.
In a similar vein, ASLC posted an Instagram story this past summer asking for suggestions for a name change for the college. Some student suggestions were posted, and many suggested a return to “Albany College” or drew inspiration from the neighboring Tryon Creek State Natural Area with “Tryon College.” Other suggestions were along the lines of “Sacagawea College” or “Multnomah College.” I immediately took issue with the latter two names, not because of the people they are named after, but because of our lack of authority to use such names.
According to LC’s Common Data Set, over 63% of LC undergraduate students are white, earning LC the unofficial classification as a predominantly white institution. Only seven American Indian or Alaska Native, non-Hispanic students attended the school during the 2019-20 academic year. For this reason, we have absolutely no right to name our school after Indigenous peoples or lands. Names such as “Sacagawea College” or “Multnomah College” would be inappropriate, as they would only misrepresent Sacagawea and the Multnomah people. The Multnomah people no longer exist as a distinct tribe and many reside in the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde southwest of Portland and the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon. However, it would still feel as though LC were taking advantage of a cultural name with very few ties to the school. It would become obvious that the college only adopted such a name to appear more diverse or equality-focused, when that may not be an accurate reflection of the school. If LC were to have a larger focus on bringing in more Indigenous students and students of color, perhaps such a name would be more appropriate, but the demographics reflect that this is unfortunately not the case.
Where can we find a middle ground? LC has had the same name for almost 80 years. Reverting back to “Albany College” might seem easy and simple, but LC’s campus is nowhere near Albany, Oregon. Regardless of what the name could be changed to, this is an issue LC will not be able to easily resolve, at least not within the next several years. Widespread approval by administrators and trustees would be needed, and rebranding all merchandise and signage would be a significant financial burden on a school that has been struggling financially for years. Additionally, LC already has little name recognition, and changing the name would make fundraising and recruiting new students more difficult. However, if students feel passionate about it, it needs to be taken further than Instagram comments and story suggestions. Contacting LC administrators is often the simplest place to start, in order to get the conversation moving.
ASLC’s post over the summer was only a conversation starter, and according to them, LC is not actively considering a name change. By no means do I intend to defend LC’s current name, nor do I think we should ignore the history of Lewis and Clark by keeping the name. However, if the objective is to avoid a controversial name, an Indigenous namesake at a school with the demographics LC has could be as much of an issue as a racist one. Quickly choosing an Indigenous name to appear more diverse and appease unhappy students would be a weak solution, and would possibly become problematic in the future. This should be a discussion retained over the coming years, though the perfect solution is not yet apparent. Despite the necessary conversations 2020 has brought forth, it is extremely likely that by the time we graduate, our degrees will still read “Lewis & Clark College.”
This article presents opinions held by the author, not those of The Pioneer Log and its editorial board.