Redface and What Vassar Forgets About Class Trees

“No better symbol for a college than a tree! Matthew Vassar must have thought of this when he planted his trees, and when he said that a college must be a living entity, having capacities of growth and adaptability. And when a college, like a tree, is planted by the river of the water of life, whatsoever it doeth shall prosper.”
—Henry Noble MacCracken

Content warning: This work contains language and images that some may find deeply disturbing.

What Do Trees Mean at Vassar?

Trees are important at Vassar, not just ecologically, but socially. This is marked by the quotes of past Vassar Presidents, 2 distributed informational pamphlets about the “Vassar College Arboretum,” and urban legends spread by students. One of the first experiences many people have with Vassar is the myth of Vassar being “banned” from the Guinness book of World Records due in part because of one of its trees which is commonly spread by tour guides. Vassar trees house various swaying hammocks, are climbed by brave students, and frame social media posts of the College and its picturesque campus on and off of Vassar’s official pages.

Less well known is that trees were once the center of “the most momentous and sacred ceremony in the life of a class” 3 at Vassar. Though Vassar’s campus was built on a virtually treeless plot of land, that has changed as every single Vassar class has either planted or adopted a tree since 1868. From its emergence, there was a ceremony which marked the selection of an existing tree or planting of a new one, and although some semblance of a ceremony often still occurs to mark this, what was widely known as the “Tree Ceremony” has nowhere near the ongoing impact that it once had. Even in the years of its prominence, it was elusive and ever-changing, full of varied intricately planned activities, with festivities including costumes, skits, songs, dances, and more, all to commemorate a class and the tree of their selection. Today, these tree ceremonies take a very different form. They are not intricately planned, widely communicated, or incredibly consistent, but they are still there. Just last year, in April, a tree ceremony was planned for the class of 2025 as an opening ceremony to Founder’s Day weekend, with communicated “hopes of bringing back some of the mystery and excitements fostered by tree planting’s past” 4 according to the Miscellany news. Recently, the class of 2026 has received emails requesting votes for what kind of tree they want to “leave a mark” with, as the tree is a “living testament” to the class. 

The Problem With Vassar Tree Ceremonies

Clearly some of the excitement for this tradition is once more finding a place on campus, but exactly how much of this excitement do we want to renew? Though the Tree Ceremony is essential to Vassar’s composition, the historic identity of the celebration must be noted, so not to mythicize or ignore its harmful past and what it reflects on the institution as a whole. Regalia of the celebration often included “Indian costumes” and redface as a primary part of its celebration. “Enlightened” students, and even professors, at the elite Vassar College, on multiple occasions, at one of the most important yearly campus events, dressed up as Native Americans. None of the articles that recount the history of the Tree Ceremony even mention this aspect. This is not to say that Tree Ceremonies should not exist, but more to point out that Vassar is an institution that is built both physically on indigenous land and culturally on appropriated indigenous practices, whether it be out of mockery or out of supposed reverence. The social formation of these Tree Ceremonies are complicated by the frankly racist practices that were normalized in them. They reflect larger realities of the existence of minorities at the time and point directly to broadly accepted stereotypes. The use of corrupted Native American imagery as a performance in such a context allowed for an environment in which Native American identities could be mythicized. Allowing for these performances to go unacknowledged creates room for Indigenous identities to continue to be ignored in the narratives we tell and further buries the history of problematic attitudes that are still prevalent.

Early Ceremony History

Vassar’s class of 1867 chose to plant ivy at their “Class Day Celebration” but it died soon after its installation. This sparked the tradition of the Vassar Class Tree Ceremonies, as the class of 1868 made plans to plant a white swamp oak tree in front of Main building, instead of replacing the ivy. They planned a simple ceremony to commemorate the planting of this tree. This ceremony occurred in the evening of June 23, 1868, which wound up being the day of Matthew Vassar’s death, cementing the Tree Ceremony as a tradition which would go on to permeate through Vassar’s History. The silver spade which was used by Matthew Vassar to lay the first cornerstone of the College was used to break the land and would soon become an integral part of the ceremonial proceedings, as it would be formally passed on from the senior class planting their tree, to the junior class. This spade is still used to break the ground and plant class trees. The next year, the class of 1869 began the tradition of the senior class burying its records in the ground by the tree which soon became an integral part of the ceremony.

In 1877, the nature of the tree ceremony changed, as the class of 1879 began the tradition of the sophomore class’ new-found responsibility for the ceremony. The tree this class planted died in 1879 and the class “cremated” its tree and even put the ashes into an urn which was buried in the ground with the class’ records and a newly selected tree at the end of the year. The celebration shifted once more by 1884 because as opposed to being public, for all of Vassar’s student body as it once was, the Ceremony became closed off and reserved only for the Sophomore Class. This secrecy sparked a curiosity in freshmen, which added an unexpected theatricality to its nature. As freshmen continuously tried to infiltrate the ceremony, sophomores created increasingly elaborate ceremonies, in hopes of fooling the freshmen. The rites became more and more complex, as costumes were added, deceptive mock tree ceremonies were held, and doves were carried and set free. “The class of 1902 transformed themselves into ‘fire-lit Amazons’ with ‘flashing swords and gleaming helmets’ dancing around their tree at 4 a.m. The faculty tried to apply the brakes, ordering the next class of sophomores to post a notice of the time and place of their upcoming ceremonies 24 hours in advance. They ‘complied’ by putting up their notices ‘for several hours each night until they had a total of 24’”. 5 The ceremonies continued on in this rebelliously secretive manner, with students using this same method of secrecy and costuming themselves in various fashions, as animals, fairies, ghosts, skeletons, and more, until things changed once more.

In 1908, Vassar’s faculty changed the rules, making it so that the time and place of the ceremony had to be posted on public bulletin boards for at least 24 hours consecutively before the ceremony occurred. The class of 1909 was also the last class to bury its records at the base of their tree. This is probably to some degree because having to bury the records and bouquets of 250 girls became too large of an undertaking. With this change came a complete change in the attitude of the Class Tree Ceremony. There began to be what was said to be “‘A new sense of sacredness to the rites, [as] grotesque performances gave way to aesthetic and symbolic ceremonies’”. 6 The Poughkeepsie New Yorker describes the ceremonies as being “pretty arty,” with the example of the 1911 Ceremony including girls dressed in white and performing as the “veiled figures” of “Egyptian Sun Worshipers.” There is also a detailed description of the deeply symbolic 1913 ceremony with the girls dancing beneath their tree, joyously, “‘as maidens in rosy garments and garlands.’ However, the Spirit of the Tree waved them away with his sword until the class ‘had learned self control and peace through suffering’”. Once they “learned” this lesson of peace in the performance, “‘the Spirit of the Tree received the Class and became one with it’”. 7 Here, there began to be clear a sort of spiritual intention behind the ceremony. It is also seen how the students saw this ceremony as a part of their identity. The class was supposed to become one with the tree they were planting. They saw the tree as an important part of their class’ identity, as for the early years of the ceremony, there were even large monuments placed at the bases of the trees, noting which class the tree belonged to. This was another thing which had begun to change about the ceremony though, as Vassar’s administration thought that the campus was beginning to look too much like a graveyard.

Use of Redface in Tree Ceremonies: 1914

In 1914, the Class Tree Ceremony was also a very spiritual and symbolic “arty” one. If any sign was given by the “Egyptian sun worshippers” for what was coming, here it is. Vassar girls dressed as “Indians,” did a spear dance, and then burned their spears. They sat in a circle around a campfire and “chanted slowly until their chief arose to repeat the invocation for ‘happy birds, plenty of corn, rain on thirsty fields, and the rainbow, promise of peace.’ The spirit of the tree appeared and danced before them, calling forth the symbols of their prayer”. 8 They dressed up as representations of these “gifts” and came forward in a choreographed dance. The ceremony ended with all of the girls in the production coming forward to sing a song to the pine tree that was theirs. They walked away triumphantly, holding blazing torches and bright balloons and singing a marching song.

The ceremonies again changed in nature to some degree by 1918, as the amount of money and energy which could be given to such lavish ceremonial affairs were not possible anymore with the entrance of the US into World War I. Though, it is said that the same kind of attitude behind the ceremonies remained. The way that this pre-war era of performance was described, even when not given the explicit detail of redface being included, is important to note though because it can help to give some context as to what attitudes were like or how performances were done. In seeing the descriptions of that 1914 ceremony which included redface, there are some interesting phrases used to characterize the performance in its retellings. The girls are described as being dressed as Native Americans, but this is not given any majorly negative characteristics. It is seen in the same way that putting on any costume is, yet it is not quite the same as the iteration of the ceremony where they would dress as ghosts or fairies. This was part of the iteration of the ceremony that was taken the most seriously or that saw the ceremony as most foundational to a class’ identity. It was probably thought of to some degree as being respectful or even honoring of Native American culture. In 1917, The Vassarion yearbook said this: “Tree ceremonies are the symbolic expression of class unity. They take their origin in tree worship which was the oldest means of bringing people together. The tree stands for the class itself. The chain which binds the seal to the tree has a link for every member of the class.” 9 It was a spiritual occasion, which creates a kind of implied reverence, yet there are many problems with how they displayed this. It is clear that they saw Native Americans as a monolithic group that was “connected to the earth,” so they portrayed that. They treated costuming themselves as a singular version of this extremely broad set of various, still living, groups of people, as just the same as dressing up as Ancient Egyptians or Druids, or even as bluebirds, husks of corn or tree gods. 

Redface as Cultural Annihilation

This all might not seem to be a huge problem in and of itself, but let’s detour away from the tree ceremonies specifically and talk about the shift in Indigenous stereotypes in the US which began a few years after this Ceremony. Stereotypes about Native American cemented themselves in part through silent comedy, in forms like caricature and slapstick, in order to “assert the dominance of the white protagonist over the racialized other”. 10 A comedic short from 1922 called “The Paleface” is a clear example of this, as Native Americans are depicted as being foolish and gullible, stupidly worshiping a white man who survives a fire because of a makeshift asbestos suit. The indigenous people are seen as unguided and religiously inferior. They are also depicted as “bloodthirsty savages,” as the tribe is cheated out of their land by a group of oil sharks who also kill the tribe’s messenger. The Natives go on to seek revenge and plot to kill the first white man that they see, even if it is someone unrelated to those who caused them harm. In the story though, redface is used by a white man who dresses up as a Native American, which is supposed to be seen as him putting on a hilarious disguise, even though he is disrespectful, cutting off the braids of a member of the tribe who he accidentally knocks unconscious, in order to complete his costume. This is a symbol of the cultural annihilation caused by redface. The annihilation of Native American culture is important in Western representations of Native Americans, as “they ‘rely on the notion that Indian culture no longer exists’”. 11 This assumption can help to alleviate any possible guilt or criticism caused by using stereotypes. In fact, “Stereotypes utilized by ‘The Paleface’ subsequently proliferated and morphed into widely accepted conventions during the classical stage of stereotype development”. 12

Even though the 1914 Tree Ceremony and its use of Native American costuming did not explicitly include these kinds of stereotypes, they did reflect the attitudes which were the basis of a huge step toward further cementing incredibly harmful narratives about Native Americans. They reflected the cultural annihilation and mythicization of Native American culture. The narrative of the “no longer existent” Native American became culturally notable well before 1914, when in the early 19th Century, Thomas Jefferson asserted the idea that Native people “could and would assimilate into American Society [creating] policies to make assimilation a reality. [...] In Andrew Jackson’s America, however, many people believed that Indians were destined to die off– to vanish in the face of a superior race”. 13 Even if this was not explicitly stated in the performance of the Vassar students, it is to some extent implied by the lack of consideration of actual living Native people.

Use of Redface in Tree Ceremonies: 1929

Although it is difficult to track the exact practices of Class Tree Ceremonies at Vassar for various reasons, the 1929, class of 1931 ceremony is another very well documented example of the common use of redface in the tree ceremony, which also happens to incredibly clearly depict the obvious shift in stereotypes which attitudes of the 1914 ceremony, in part, opened up to. Even the title of the Miscellany News article from 1929, entitled “’31 As Indian Band Select Tribal Tree: Seniors Provide Sombre Setting for Strange Sophomoric Savagery,” describing the ceremony itself immediately displays a change in attitude. The use of the phrase “Strange Sophomoric Savagery” inherently applies the belief that Native Americans were unintelligent and dangerous. It is then described how the seniors came in “giggling and laughing in their caps and gowns” 14, which shows that this was all seen as a hilarious display and as something that was done primarily for enjoyment, but his kind of description only played into the very common, yet paradoxical “noble savage” stereotype attributed to Native Americans. In this Tree ceremony, “the Indians came, dancing in a circle around the tribal tree in a terrifying war dance”. 15 This kind of violent depiction of indigeneity is then directly challenged by the performers sitting around the tree and passing a “peace pipe” to each other. The Vassar student who played the “chief” of the “tribe” then discussed how important the tree was and what a link it was between each member of the class, making more of the “peaceful” and “connected” assertions about what their performance of Native Americanness meant.

The Noble Savage Stereotype

Much of the perception of this conflicted kind of Native American caricature comes from the idea of the “noble savage” stems from oral traditions, many taking root in the Old World, and being transferred or adapted to New World situations and people, but as more people interacted with Native Americans, the anecdotes surrounding them developed. There are many sources of these kinds of oral expressions. The idea of the Native American as a “noble savage” for example originated in “European conventions from high culture which predisposed whites toward a view of the Indian as ... an exotic and admirable creature, as ‘natural men’”. 16 This was clearly reflected in the telling of the Tree Ceremonies, with the way that the image of the connected and spiritual Native American was seen, smoking a peace pipe and worshiping the “god of spring”. Stories influenced by Indo-European narrative tradition and folk beliefs are also an important part of the image of Native Americans because oral tradition has an incredible amount of mobility and often becomes attached to new people, events, or situations. In oral tradition of this sort, “the Indian becomes the focus of the action, and it is he, no matter who the actor may have been in previous utterances, who is stupid, clever, tricky, and so forth”. 17

Oral expressions from historical encounters are another big part of what makes up the popular image of the Native American. Because there exist many stories of many different white people interacting with different Native Americans in history, even most stories that are perceived as “historical” often lean into anecdotes and folkloric tropes. This is because “the folk and popular mind is disposed to see formulas with which to interpret experience” 18 and because the interactions with native people are so broad that they make it impossible for a single framework of interpretation to exist. The tensions caused by this are made obvious in some of the most popular stories in the history of the US. There are common tales of Native Americans as “savage” and violent people, with prominent white figures like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone gaining heroic statuses through their constant battles and defeat of “Indians.” These tales are directly contested by popular stories of the “good Indian.” The likes of these include Squanto helping the pilgrims to grow corn and survive in the northeast or Sacagawea helping to guide Lewis and Clark. Figures like these are uniquely displayed as admirable because of their primitivism and their connection to the land. The “good Indian” is good because they help the white man and the “bad Indian” is bad because they are violent. This is the kind of reduction that indigeneity faces at the hands of the rhetoric that these kinds of common, fictionalized tales that are still clung to create.

Primitivism VS. Modernism and the Ownership of Identity

In Playing Indian, Philip Deloria discusses mimicry of indigenous people in the early 20th century as being specifically marked by a tension between primitivist and modernist ideology. To some degree, the kind of mimicry Vassar students partook in by attempting to recreate indigenous spirituality and ceremony was “primitivist Indian play.” at this time, “primitivists enjoyed contemplating the mystical power of ancient ceremonies, many of which (they hoped) allowed humans to create meaning by miming the natural world.” He says that these kinds of mimetic attempts were not shallow, but that “their archaic mimetic skills were powerful and allowed them to become something Other– animals, gods, natural forces”. 19 This was expressed specifically in the mimesis of “Indianness” with the idea that by mimicking it, one could make significant connections to the world.

Mimesis was even more important for modernists because these “moderns” used it as a way to underline the meaning of the “other.” By means of using one’s body to become the “other,” it reinforced a sense of difference. Deloria says that “recognizing that one is becoming other asserts a boundary line between one’s always-forming Self and an other that is most certainly not the Self. On the other hand, as a way of becoming Other, mimesis seems to insist that Self and Other are, in fact, the same”. 20 This creates another kind of tension in the use of redface, but it is incredibly important to note, because whether it be a primitivist or modern usage of “playing Indian,” it implies a kind of ownership over indigeneity. Even though primitivist intentions seem to a degree more respectful or aspirational, there is still an attitude which clearly shows that indigenous identity is something to gain from. It is a form of enrichment or of self-improvement, entirely co-opted by white people. In modernist terms, even though playing Indian is used as an overtly problematic act of asserting superiority or difference over the indigenous “other,” it still makes indigeneity into a point of ownership because of the idea of “becoming” that is necessary to it.

In all of the articles which describe the use of Redface by Vassar students, there are no descriptors of the girls “dressing up as” or “playing” Indian, but only assertions that they are “Indians” or that they become them. For example, “the Class of 1931 became a tribe of braves and squaws over dinnertime. Rooms were plundered for plumed pens. Indian prints and blankets and many good lipsticks were used up making crescents on foreheads”. 21 Here, it is obvious that there is a lot of effort put into the mimicry of the students. They used their “good lipsticks” and did work to costume themselves, yet it becomes clear that this work is the extent of the commitment that is needed in “becoming” something or someone else, thus furthering the minimization of indigenous identity the view of it as somehow transitive, to be taken ownership of. The rest of the article does not even acknowledge the fact that the “Indians” in the performance are girls dressed up in costume as Indians, but instead that they just are, without question, Native Americans.

Why does this all matter?

If there are to be efforts to re-institutionalize Class Tree Ceremonies as a part of Vassar’s culture, the entirety of their history must be made known and fully understood. These trees are not only a symbolic representation of the growth and development of Vassar’s individual classes over the years, but they also materially hold a lot of significance. Many of the trees have time capsules and records of classes buried at their roots, making them a tangible holder for what those classes wanted to be remembered. If the racist and problematic parts of these ceremonies were part of something posed to make a class a unified and memorable entity, then they must too be remembered as part of that entity. More so, if the events of these ceremonies acted as a minimization of Native Americans and their culture, then ignoring that they happened further minimizes the experiences of and mistreatments against indigenous peoples. Once more, Vassar is an institution which is both literally and figuratively built on the diminishing and desecration of Native Americans. These Tree Ceremonies are just a small part of that history, yet there is still a story to tell. If these costumed celebrations were a point of pride, what remained hidden? What else remains right under our noses? What other stories do we “forget” to tell? There is so much that goes unquestioned that deserves to be re-examined and this is just a single reminder of that. 

A black-and-white historical photo of Vassar students in native American outfits, standing outside and holding a large banner that says "1931" on it.
Class of 1931 Tree Ceremony. “’31 As Indian Band Select Tribal Tree Seniors Provide Sombre Setting for Strange Sophomoric Savagery.” The Vassar Miscellany News, 11 May 1929.
  1. Henry Noble MacCracken

  2. As shown above.

  3. Myers

  4. Adams

  5. “Class Trees”

  6. Myers

  7. Myers

  8. Miscellany News 1914

  9. 53 Vassarion

  10. Manning 306

  11. Smith

  12. Manning 309

  13. Deloria 103

  14. Miscellany News 1929

  15. Miscellany News 1929

  16. Green 43

  17. Green 44

  18. Green 44

  19. Deloria 117

  20. Deloria 120

  21. Miscellany 1929

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