mascots: imagery, expectations, and modern human artifacts.

The Cleveland Indians logo is antiquated, morally wrong on many levels, and really only here today because native rights have been the slowest of any race in the States to begin, evolve, and finally build momentum.  People’s daily exposure to such logo imagery has allowed it to become a familiar part of life in Cleveland and sports all around.  Having that piece of nostalgia threatened to be removed from fans’ experiences blindsides them and makes them lose their common senses in arguments that truly just boil down to equality and cultural respect.  But I totally agree with them on one thing: It’s a logo, it’s a mascot – it shouldn’t matter.  Yet it does.

“I’m just getting so SICK of hearing about this mascot issue.”  Well, buddy, guess what….The Indians are getting sick of these centuries of marginalization!  You’re not the one standing on your ancestral soil being ridiculed and sidelined in life on a daily basis.  So get over yourself!

I have written many times how the mascot issue is a “microcosm” of a bigger problem.  I still stand by that, and I probably always will.  The way I see it, the mascots aren’t worth caring about – but only on a personal level.  As an individual Indian, a person shouldn’t let such imagery haunt him or herself and instead rise above it.  However, finding peace with oneself is only one realm of feeling happy and safe.  When you leave that realm and step out into a world that surrounds you with that imagery, with people who blindly support such imagery because they do not understand your culture or the culture of your fellow Indians, because they will not take the time to understand you… that is a different story.  You can respect yourself, but the outside world is demonstrating its lack of respect for you when it supports these images.  Of course, the claim is classic: IT IS HONORABLE.  NATIVE AMERICANS SUPPORT IT.  Well, I know a hell of a lot of Indians, I’ve sat through many a community discussion on this topic, and I personally agree that it is not okay.  And it all boils down to ignorance of American Indian history, policy, cultures, sensitivities,…  I believe any human with half a heart and a genuine understanding and knowledge of these topics would want to burn the imagery off of their favorite jerseys in a heartbeat.  If any fan doesn’t believe it, it means they are one of those few cruel souls who can’t rise above racism.  Anyone who wants to physically act in rage against Indians over it, well you might as well join the Klu Klux Klan because you are that low of a person.

Perhaps one of the things I find the most frustrating about Chief Wahoo as I live here in Cleveland is that so many people agree with me that the character doesn’t represent an “Indian” at all.  They use that argument to justify why I shouldn’t be offended by it.  Yet, these are the same people who, upon being introduced to me, look at me and say, “Oh, you do look Native American.”  I always want to pull out a picture of Chief Wahoo in that moment and ask, “Like this?  Do you even know what an Indian looks like?”  Well, we look like a hell of a lot of things, and none of them are that.

Ironically, I never really gave much thought about mascots before Cleveland.  Of course, I also was never exposed to them.  I always had a Wildcat as a mascot with the exception of two private schools I attended – one in Ohio and one in Pennsylvania – which had no mascot at all.  My school was predominately white with the second largest population being American Indian, at least in the years I was a student.  My professional sports teams were represented by career titles and animals.  I never even knew Cleveland’s baseball team existed, or paid enough attention to realize what Washington’s team was about.  In fact, in hindsight, I feel like an idiot.  I guess I knew Washington used the word it uses, I knew there was a generic Indian logo involved, but I legitimately went my entire childhood believing that the NFL would never use the R word as a name.  I thought the R word in the Washington team was some kind of football term for the leather used in a football.  I’m not even joking.  I thought it represented pigskin, not my ancestors.

My father is a steeler.  I can take pride in the Steelers representing our Steel City.  My father is also an Indian.  I cannot take pride in any of those teams represented all 566+ groups of our people in one offensive representation, or under one phrase akin to N*****.

Moving to a city, especially one like Cleveland with the logo it has,…that made me realize why the issue didn’t matter to me before.  Because before, I didn’t have it in context.  Before, I wasn’t experiencing it in my face.  When I finally made the move and came here for University, I had it spat at me – often literally.  I was degraded for wearing beaded jewelry.  I was denounced for admitting my heritage.  I was told hurtful things like “Oh, don’t cry a Trail of Tears over that”.  Once, on a bus to a track meet, I was handed a blanket because I was cold and someone joked, “Don’t take that!  It might have smallpox.”  My coach used to call me “Pokey” because Pocahontas was the only Indian he could liken me to.  Then I went to my first Indians game and experienced the racism firsthand.  Not being able to keep my mouth shut, I quickly became a victim of scalping jokes and racial slurs.  I vowed to never return.  Over the years at school, I’ve had my belongings vandalized and found insulting anonymous posts about me to a website that has since been shutdown.  Even in the workplace I’ve sat through a one-sided accusation of how life as a minority, woman engineer must be the easiest life when the government just hands me checks so why do I even work?  To all of these things, I have burst of anger but often just have nothing to say.  Even friends accused me daily of “still caring” about native rights when I wasn’t living on a Reservation.

And they’re right: I don’t even live on a Reservation.  My heart goes out to all those friends I have who do, all those friends that I haven’t made yet, all those people that deal with this on a regular basis who cannot hide their identity as well as I can, a mixed Indian living in an urban setting.  Being exposed finally to these injustices just makes me cringe on how it must feel to be a full-time Indian, to really be in the heart of this dilemma, not just someone like me who can avoid those baseball games, who can shut off the TV or sign out of social media, who can bit her tongue, turn a blind eye, let go of her culture and identity, and pretend to be someone she isn’t.

The imagery…the disrespect…the pressures to change yourself, as if something was wrong with you to begin with (which isn’t true).  I’ve come to realize that, no matter what my blood quantum, tribal status, or living conditions – I cannot just sit and be idle.  I am just too greatly disturbed by the amount of hatred I feel as an urban Indian, and I can never even begin to imagine how these feelings – in addition to the daily struggle that already exists – crush my friends and peers every day as they uphold their identities on the Reservations.  And yet the more I speak out about these issues, the more and more resentment I am faced with.  Every once in awhile I break through and am gracious for a conversation of curiosity and understanding.  However, this often turns in to the making of the human artifact: “Hey kids, come over here and meet this real Indian.  Yeah, she’s American Indian.”  And suddenly children are staring at me, some touching me, some shaking my hand – and I feel like I’m living in Ouidah, Benin or Batoula-Bafounda, Cameroon again where no child has seen a human being who isn’t black.  I become the modern human artifact.

Why am I so fascinating?  Because suddenly that logo has come to life and it’s not up to the expectations?  “You do look Indian”, justifying that I meet some standard expectation society has of my appearance?  One that isn’t the logo, yet is surely not informed either?  I hate these encounters, when I feel like an artifact.  I hate it because not only does it feel miserable but I sit there and think I am not a representative sample of all 566+ nations.  I am one single person with one unique heritage.

See, the mascot and logo issue delves a lot deeper than just the imagery and the sports.  It’s all interconnected, just like the planet.  It rebounds in places the general public cannot see and does not take the time to seek out.  And I am just one person, and this is just one perspective, I am fairly confident it is not a unique one.

And, no, I do not live in a tipi.

 

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