opinion

OPINION: Why did IU unveil a giant sloth named after a slave owner on MLK Day?



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Opinion writers Tom Sweeney, Evan Carnes and Abby Malala stare at the Megajeff recreation Jan. 20 in the Franklin Hall Commons. Megajeff was a Megalonyx jeffersonii, a type of giant ground sloth who roamed the Ohio River Valley during the last Ice Age. Sarah Zygmuntowski

Megajeff was a giant ground sloth who roamed the Ohio River Valley during the last Ice Age, but now its 10-foot-long cardboard ghost is the main occupant of the Franklin Hall Commons.

The story only gets more ridiculous from there.

Megajeff’s bones were discovered along the banks of the Ohio River near Henderson, Kentucky, and given to IU in 1860, according to the Indiana Geological and Water Survey. At that time, IU was the owner of the world's most complete fossil of Megajeff's species. That is, until the bones were discarded in a “great housecleaning” of Owen Hall in 1947, according to a placard placed next to the new display.

“Someone must have found a crate of old bones in a storeroom somewhere, thought it to be useless junk, and dumped it,” reads a quote attributed to William Wayne on the same placard.

It seems Megajeff was once so insignificant to IU that its remains were thrown away. Should we really care about Megajeff now?

The giant fossil recreation, made from laser-cut cardboard, was unveiled Monday as part of IU’s bicentennial celebrations. The cardboard skeleton now resides in Franklin Hall, the main building of IU's media school.

The timing of the unveiling adds to concerns about how IU Bicentennial programming took priority over Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which also occurred Monday, especially considering that Megajeff’s namesake, former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson, was a slave owner.

The ancient giant sloth was a member of the extinct species Megalonyx jeffersonii, named after Jefferson because he presented one of the first known fossils of the species to fellow members of the American Philosophical Society, a prominent scholarly organization, in 1797. He had received the bones from a settler who found them in present-day West Virginia.

Jefferson misclassified the species as a member of the cat family, inspiring him to choose the name “megalonyx,” which means “great claw” in Greek. Essentially, the namesake of Megajeff the giant sloth originally thought Megajeff was a giant cat. The blame is not to be placed on Megajeff, however, as it died long before its naming and obviously had no say in the matter.

A casual onlooker might think IU actually had all of the bones shown in the new display. However, only five of the 69 original Megajeff bones survived the “great housecleaning.” They are held at the Indiana State Museum.

The missing pieces were produced from 3D scans of other ground sloth bones owned by museums across the country, according to the new display.

In other words, Megajeff isn’t even Megajeff.

Even more confusingly, the bones on display are not all necessarily from the same species: Twentieth-century natural historians disagreed over whether different Megalonyx remains should be classified as the same species.

The decision to unveil Megajeff on Monday encapsulates a larger problem with how the IU chose to commemorate MLK Day: Bicentennial events got center stage while the university appeared to treat honoring Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy like more of an afterthought.

Jefferson’s own legacy as a slave owner only adds insult to injury.

The university canceled this year’s MLK Leadership Breakfast, an annual MLK Day event, in favor of a full day of bicentennial programming, including the Megajeff unveiling. IU “elected to combine” its Bicentennial and MLK Day celebrations, the vice president for diversity, equity and multicultural affairs, James Wimbush, said in a letter.

Viola Davis, the first black actor to receive top acting awards at the Academy Awards, Emmy Awards and Tony Awards, spoke at Assembly Hall in the afternoon, where she also received an honorary doctorate of fine arts. According to the event description, her speech was intended to celebrate both the IU Bicentennial and MLK Day.

Although IU has existed for 200 years, a black woman did not graduate until 1919. According to IU diversity documents, black students made up just 4.5% of the IU-Bloomington student body in fall 2019, a figure which decreased from 2018. It’s less than half the percentage of all Indiana residents who are black, Census Bureau data show.

IU allocating money to recreate a sloth named after a slave owner and unveil it for the bicentennial, rather than properly honoring King’s legacy, was a misstep. It’s not the sloth’s fault, but Megajeff’s return to campus was a mega disappointment.

Abby Malala (she/her or they/them) is a senior studying cinema studies. She wants to become a writer (and get paid for it) in the future.

Tom Sweeney (he/him) is a senior studying economics and mathematics. He plans to pursue graduate studies in
economics.

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