I remember reading that comment a couple of weeks ago on one of the Biloxi Facebook pages. A Biloxi alumnus and supporter of the continued use of BHS’s racist and stereotypical mascot/name was stereotyping and discriminating Deloria Many Grey Horses. This was in April, before I realized how involved I would be getting in indigenous human rights issues. But now I find the comment funny, because Deloria has not gotten the United Nations involved in this issue.
Several blog entries/articles I have been writing have recently gained the attention of a number of organizations. The Southeast Indigenous Peoples’ Center in particular asked me to write a supplementary document for the Permanent Forum in New York on April 30th. Roughly a week later, I found myself on a plane bound for Geneva. That’s where I am now, as a representative for indigenous youth, the US Human Rights Network, and the SIPC. On Monday, I will be sitting in the UN room with all of the media and delegates, the representatives at the podium to be addressed for the second time ever on their shortcomings in human rights issues. For the first time ever, delegates in the room have likely seen (or at least heard) about the complaints of “Native mascotry” in the US. And, if they attended one of the side events, it’s likely these spokespeople even have a copy of my one-pager with three pictures on the back page: one of the Cleveland Indians mascot, one of the Washington logo and name, and one of several Biloxi band members marching in Northern Plains-style headdresses.
Ironically, the comment I read on Facebook motivated me the most to travel to Geneva and address the U.N. It wasn’t just because someone was being snarky; it was because someone thought this is a joke, not worthy of the UN…or worse, that the UN is a joke.
But these issues are already being talked about, just in a different context – and in a different country.
For example, when I first arrived on Thursday, I was given a general pass. I sat in the gallery and listened to the review on Bulgaria. Most commentary was friendly and kind, suggesting that more be done but congratulating Bulgaria on its progress thus far. Until Russia stepped up to the microphone.
Russia was incredibly harsh regarding the way Bulgaria continues to mistreat Roma peoples (or maybe just the linguistics of Russian are so harsh that it translated as such). Russia accused Bulgaria of not providing enough care for children and called for funding to be cut to state groups who promote racism of the Roma peoples. And for those of you who don’t know, The “Romani” is the correct name for what you might call “gypsies”.
Next, Serbia adds to Russia’s opinions, concerned by the racism that exists in Bulgaria despite existing ethnic diversity.
Sierra Leone offered a different perspective, focusing on gender stereotypes and how to prosecute people for their hate crimes. The delegate also addressed her concern for victims of hate crime (“hate speech relief”), such as a need for women/domestic violence shelters in Bulgaria.
Slovakia called for more than just Bulgaria to work in unison, as part of a larger Roma integration strategy, especially in regards to children welfare.
All of these perspectives were interesting and I realized the Romani are, in many ways, like the indigenous peoples of certain parts of Europe. They don’t live a “standard” life, are stereotyped, and are viewed often as less than humans. It made me wonder what it would be like if the United States were finally scoured for all of their similar mistreatments of indigenous peoples protected by broken treaty rights.
Then, today, I visited two side events. The first was the International Indian Treaty Council, focusing on indigenous problems (but all of those discussed regarded the United States). The second was a more general discussion on American human rights deficiencies.
Andrea Carmen (Yaqui) discussed the US’s process of authorizing itself to dismiss treaties, and to declare it will make no more new ones. She argued this is how the US silences indigenous peoples, by ignoring them and putting them under plenary power with no legal basis. In later discussions, she brought these points up again in the case of the seizure of Hawai’i.
Chief Gary Harrison (Alaska) called for the decolonization of Alaska, proving that, by legal definition, the United States does not own Alaska. Alaska was “bought” from Russia, but Russia never conquered Alaska, therefore it was not Russia’s to own in the first place. He even explains how the process to vote for Alaskan statehood was completed by only settlers as it took five white people per Native to verify their “competence” in voting. He spoke out against mining in Alaska and how it causes problems in indigenous villages, such as pollution, rape, and murder. He defended their right to clean drinking water, and for salmon to live and spawn in clean waters, saying they have spent so much money cleaning up, yet mining companies want to return and re-pollute recently cleaned salmon streams.
Christina Snider spoke first about the concern of children welfare and having cultural households, then also about women’s rights and violence against indigenous women (and children).
Petuuche Gilbert (Acoma) focused on how the entire country was founded on the unethical idea of “manifest destiny”, stating that laws continue to be made in order to keep the land “in the hands of thieves”. This is his explanation to the continued land-grabs and exploitation. He also calls “domestic sovereignty” an “oxymoron”, saying “they made it up to control us, our land, our people.”
The floor was then open for discussion, and they took three questions. I ended up grabbing the third slot. My statement was (maybe not quite as eloquent because I was nervous! But this was the gist.): I am here to represent indigenous youth for several organizations. In indigenous youth populations, suicide rates are incredibly high, and substance abuse as well as the idea of “no hope” are also plaguing communities. Self-worth is low, because there is also a prevalence of disrespect from outside cultures. Through my personal experience and the experience of others, I have come to realize the significant of the mascot issue and how it perpetuates disrespect, lack of understanding, and this “no hope”/low self-worth experienced in such indigenous communities. What I want to know is, why can blackface be illegal and yet redface is okay [especially since it represents scalping, not skin color!]? Why haven’t these mascots been banned when the change would be so simple and have such a positive impact? A lack of education of our peoples also perpetuates the lack of respect, thereby perpetuating such discrimination and racism – people don’t even understand why it’s wrong.
I received a lot of nods from the board. They started with the questions in order, then returned to mine. Andrea Carmen stated that the UN permanent forum that was just held had a lot of input about the vastly disproportionate youth suicide rates in the indigenous populations of US and Canada, influenced directly by all these aspects of Reservation/urban Indian life that had been addressed in the side event. She also pointed out the connection between the history of child removal and residential schools, of disgracing what it is to be indigenous.
Christina Snider said that she is very involved at the National Congress of American Indians in the problems of cultural appropriation and the use of indigenous mascots. She argued it is indeed very intrinsically linked to the issues of youth, like high suicide rates, juvenile justice issues, and the “prison pipeline system”. She says, “Until we can respect ourselves as people, these issues will keep happening; until other people can respect us as not being pasted on their bumpers, painted on their faces, and worn on their heads at Coachella – how can we help ourselves if others cannot respect us as people? It’s all connected.”
Finally, as time was running out, Chief Gary Harrison added two key words: historic trauma. He shared that his father was murdered in front of his whole family and that the man who did it received one night in prison. He said, “When crimes are not rectified, this causes historic trauma.” Indeed, I remember reading articles about how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is experienced by many people living on US concentration camps (Reservations). Chief Harrison continues, saying the mining camps contribute to these feelings of “no hope”. He said that, when these camps come in, the men get the jobs, then the community members see all these people come in with money and they don’t have any money or any way to take care of themselves….”And you wonder why they’re committing suicide.”
After the meeting, Chief Gary Harrison approached me in the hallway and thanked me for bringing up that point. He elaborated more on the psychological aspect of the issue, of historic trauma/PTSD, and we discussed the lack of appropriate education in the American system regarding indigenous histories, affairs, etc. It was very encouraging to see an Elder acknowledge the complications of Native mascotry and how they’re not acceptable.
Later, we reconvened at the Graduate Institute for presentations by the US Human Rights Network. All sorts of issues were represented. We discussed indigenous issues, southeast Asian deportations, torture crimes by the US government (delivered by men in the US military, and also an attorney for victims of Guantanamo Bay), police violence, and even a transgender woman of color stood up, nearly in tears, explaining her life expectancy is 35 because she chooses to live as who she is and has no protection. The event was followed by a social with dozens of students.
Well, there’s a re-cap of the last day and a half.
So, to reiterate the original point I made in this post – yes, the mascot issue is now a prevalent discussion in the 2nd US review… And, yes, Biloxi was used as a prime example of racist mascotry in the public education system.