The “mascot issue” is a completely tiresome topic. I feel like I have reiterated, time and time again, the need to change the name and change the mascot. It baffles me that people continue to not get it, ignore the situation, or, worse, continue to wear gear with Chief Wahoo and “Indians” on it. When you do that, you’re saying “it’s okay – it doesn’t affect me.” And sure, it might not affect you to the gross intensity that it affects the people targeted by the racism, but it should still affect you. You should still be a human being, therefore you should be appalled by inequality. And if you’re white (or part white) and you feel attacked by issues of racism, then turning a blind eye is only perpetuating the colonized attitude that it’s “not an issue”, perpetuating how the non-indigenous opinion is still considered the only valuable one.
Tomorrow, thousands plan to gather for the Opening Day of the Cleveland MLB team. Dozens – maybe hundreds, who knows? – are also planning to gather in protest of the continued mascot issue. But it’s not just an issue about a picture and a name; it’s about the symbolism, the racism it perpetuates, and, in my opinion, the most important thing: the health of our youth. I could spend a lot of time reiterating the history of the hundreds upon hundreds of indigenous nations who have been victims of genocide and broken treaties, but I don’t want that to be my focus today. I shouldn’t have to go through that history every time to make my point. The takeaway from the historical point-of-view is: The US government has a dark history of genocide, the indigenous nations have been continually marginalized, and to this day we are lumped together as a singular dying race, represented by inaccurate, disrespectful, and even blasphemous symbolism. Today, I want to focus on the most common counterpoints to our cause that folks ignorant of the reality tend to use as justification for their actions.
THE HONOR ARGUMENT: It’s honorable. We are honoring your people. We are honoring Sockalexis. You should be proud.
There’s nothing honorable in being dehumanized, especially when you say “stop” and you’re being blamed for speaking out. “Our people” are the Dine, the Anishinaabe,…names that you probably don’t even know. That’s because “our people” are hundreds of peoples, with our own languages, with our own names for who we are. The tribal names you give us are often not even what we call ourselves, and many of them have dark origins. The point is, you can’t honor something you don’t understand. And, if you really want to honor something, don’t make a caricature of it, perpetuate a racial slur as being “okay”, and encourage fans to grotesquely stereotype and misrepresent who an “Indian” is. Especially don’t do it to make disgusting amounts of money off of a sport and off of alcohol. Honor the truth, and respect it. Respect the peoples and their rights. When they say, “That offends me”, realize they’re hurt and that the only way to fix it is to listen. THAT is the way to respect. Telling us what should make us proud is NOT. That is YOU being prideful, or, at the very least, incredibly misguided. What honor can we feel when people dress up and “play Indian”, then stand in shock when they meet a “real Indian” and ask to take a picture? Like we’re a dying or mythological being that they can’t believe exists in the modern world? Furthermore, the Sockalexis story is a cover-up and not true. What IS true about the origins of the baseball team name (and mascot) is they were founded in a time when racism was widely accepted as the “norm”. When the newspaper could publish things like this to put a smile on the faces of Cleveland fans:
THE CLEVELAND PRESS
January 18, 1915
Now that the Naps have been re-nicknamed the Indians, we hope they will become very Indian-like and wake up. A series of real indian war dances is what the Cleveland fans want next season. Let’s hope the team will be equal to the task, even if not equal to winning a pennant. The spiders are to remain the Spiders and, with spidery Jack Knight at their head, ought to show better than they did last season. The Cleveland ball club was anxious to get a nickname that couldn’t be converted into a joke. Indians delighted Vice President Barnard. “They won’t be able to poke fun at the Indians,” said Barney. Oh, no, but wait until they begin to lose and see how soon the fans will dub them the “squaws”.
NOTE: “Squaw” is an offensive term for Native American women. It basically lumps all Native women together as being heathen whores, and yet – to this day – “squaw” is used for place names, and I have even been called it myself. In 2015.
To read the complete documentation of the name selection in newspaper history, check out the collection put together by the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance: http://committeeof500yearsofdignityandresistance.com/history.html
The origins aren’t honorable, and as I’ll continue to explain – the names and mascots are still not honor. And, furthermore, we don’t need a sports team to teach us how to respect and honor ourselves and each other. That idea is simply atrocious.
On the left is Robert Roche, confronting a baseball fan in Cleveland in the exact stereotypical, blasphemous dress that perpetuates these images. Ironically, a comic on the right seems to foresee this exact standoff – yet it was drawn over 10 years before the picture was taken. It’s a large, non-indigenous man guzzling beer, wearing a chicken feather headdress and random paint, “Go Savages” and “Kill Em” on his stomach, telling the completely “normally” dressed Native in front of him that he is honoring Natives. Ahem…
THE REPRIORITIZE ARGUMENT: Don’t you have bigger things to worry about?
We don’t need people who aren’t even taught proper American history to tell us what our problems are. We live it every day. What we also live every day is feeling invisible. A lot of people, in my experience, like to chalk up our arguments for sovereignty as some kind of “racist” movement. That just demonstrates how ignorant they are on the diversity of our communities and why they exist. Race is a western concept. Biology is a western concept. In fact, if there’s any “race” viewpoint at all that is broadly accepted across our hundreds of different indigenous peoples in North America, it’s the idea of “mitakuye oyasin” – or “we are all related”. We are all of the “Five Fingered Clan”. Indigenous peoples understand their places in the planet and in the ecosystem, so that’s why we are the first to defend the land. Indigenous peoples respect their resources. They are stewards of the land, having only 20% of its surface area but hosting 80% of the world’s biodiversity. They’re not “hippies” and “animal lovers”, as often stereotyped – indigenous peoples haven’t lost touch with the reality of Mother Nature having the last say. Our creation stories tell us our lands are sacred to us the same way lands like Israel and Mecca have religious importance to others, yet our lands continue to be exploited and our voices are ignored. Our stories don’t tell us “Indian”, “Asian”, “European”, “African”. They tell us the origin of our people, our nation, our tribe. But I digress.
My point is, indigenous peoples have a much different view on where we all come from and who we are, so calling us racist for standing up for our rights to be sovereign nations – essentially making tribal lands our own countries – is perpetuating the issue. It perpetuates how we are lumped together. Once we lose our identities as individual peoples with our own stories, histories, cultures, and beliefs, we are stripped down to simple “Indians” with that “heathen-like” indigenous way. We are forced to adapt western views on who we are, including blood quantum rules that perpetuate and transpose the western concepts of race and identity on our cultures. In other words, the new majority is telling us who is and who isn’t allowed to be us. Why is all of this important? Because when we look at the outside world telling us who we are, we see imagery like mascots and old western films, pieces filled with blatant disregard for our humanity. If we exist, we only exist on the mystical reservation. We aren’t seen as doctors and engineers and teachers passing you by on the street every day.
We are often mislabeled as other races, or tested when we identify by our nations. I often get this test – like some kind of checklist. Are you enrolled? What’s your blood quantum? Oh, you do have high cheekbones. Oh, but your eyes aren’t black – you can’t be more than, what, a quarter? I don’t need other people weighing in on my “Indianness”. Many of us have these internal struggles already, feeling like we aren’t enough for our people – or that we’re too different to be accepted by those who aren’t part of our culture. It’s hard enough trying to live in a competitive world and have the career you want while still being culturally active. It shouldn’t be that way, but you find yourself making a lot of choices. Youth, in particular, make choices on whether or not to “leave home” – and often times it ends up being for good. This is called the “brain drain”, and nations are working endlessly to defeat it.
Those who are aware of the realities of reservation life – especially amongst those groups who have been forced to “remove” – know that many of these communities are toxic environments for the youth. They ask questions like “Why don’t you just leave?” I was asked this once by a person whose father came from Poland. I said, “If Germany invaded Poland and called it New Germany, and the Polish were forced to speak German and become German and destroy all things that made them culturally Polish, would the answer be for them to just leave? To just get over it?” I don’t like throwing other groups of peoples under the bus to make my points, but I thought that example offered relevant perspective as to why youth don’t leave, or don’t want to leave. But the reality of conditions on many reservations makes it incredibly hard to survive. The youth are our future, so we are well aware of how much protection we have to give them. That is why it matters to us how they view themselves. In a country that already has and continues to marginalize their peoples, where they live in poverty with high rates of suicide and substance abuse, etc., any negative opinion of who they are from the “outside” world is of course only going to worsen the situation. Thus, when the image of the dying brave is plastered as a singular identity for all of these youth in a world that already challenges them, of course it will negatively impact them. And negatively is an understatement.
Consider how many organizations (including the American Psychological Association) have joined the anti-mascot cause in solidarity to the harmful effects on Native youth and community. And, rather than me reiterate all of the facts, take the time to read this thorough documentation on why the mascot issue is an enormous microcosm of all Native suffering and maybe you’ll realize why so many Nations have released official statements against these mascots: http://www.changethemascot.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/DrFriedmanReport.pdf
THE OVERREACTION ARGUMENT: Why now? Why can’t you just get over it already?
The Cleveland name has been in place for 100 years now. Indigenous peoples weren’t even considered US Citizens until 1924, after its use. Boarding schools for assimilation were still in operation throughout the 1900s. The Termination Era from about the 1930s through the 1960s caused many of our parents to lose recognition of their tribal citizenships. Remember, our nations are sovereign nations. This country was founded on that promise, despite the hundreds of treaties the US government has broken to carry out its genocide and assimilation. As the Civil Rights for blacks came underway, Natives slowly began getting a voice in the public as well. Religious freedom and rights started to become written law in the 1970s, but even to this day we are still fighting for religious freedom. In 2015. In our homelands. The question is not WHY NOW, but WHY STILL? We can’t get over who we are. And the only peoples who have ever “given up” in our indigenous histories are the ones who have been exterminated completely and therefore can no longer stand up. Asking these peoples to “get over it” is asking them to erase who they are, what they believe, and everything that makes up a person – especially after all of the hardships their ancestors have gone through and they continue to live through in order to provide this free country to Americans. We have been continuing to not “get over it” since 1492, and that’s why (most of us) are still here. In case you thought we really did all die out.
THE OTHER MASCOTS ARGUMENT: What about the Fighting Irish? The Pirates? The Vikings? The Fighting Sioux? The high school teams?
Mascots are chosen to show aggression. Mascots are generally vicious animals or creatures, or sometimes dishonorable professions. So, in the example of Pirates or Vikings, or Raiders, – those are all professions with a clearly aggressive, ruthless reputation. There are also the Cowboys – an American profession and icon. The Fighting Irish uses a leprechaun and was created by Notre Dame, a school founded by Catholic Irish – so maybe there are some offended leprechauns in Ireland. As for the Fighting Sioux, it’s not endorsed by the many groups that make the Siouan people – no need to go into the past and present hardships of the various peoples the name and logo stereotypes. The fact that the R-word is used at all completely flabbergasts me, and I remember being lied to as a kid that No, it doesn’t mean us, it’s a nickname for a football – the mascot’s just coincidence. But perhaps the argument that really pisses me off is when people make an argument for not being “too politically correct” and end up proving my dehumanization point – and still don’t get it! Recently, someone asked me what we’re going to do if we change the R-word to The Worms – then all the activists are going to cry that we’re squishing the little wormies?
Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that saying, “Stop calling me a racial slur and dehumanizing me!” equated me to a worm being thrown underfoot. THANKS FOR PROVING MY POINT.
At that point, I was done trying to make my point. There are some people that are just too stuck in their ways to realize when they’re wrong, when they’re disrespectful. They can’t swallow their pride and admit to their mistakes. Kind of like elderly people who still can’t accept black folks as equals. They’ve been trained to accept inequality.
The truth is, we shouldn’t need to be saying, “well what about this? Well what about that?” Look at the issue for what it is. If one thing is right or one thing is wrong, then it will be addressed in its own time, using the same principles of respect. Once you understand the issues at hand, it will no longer seem like a senseless battle for political correctness.
Trust me – I do not like making people dislike me for my opinions, and I am certainly not one to stand up and cause a raucous. But, when it comes to this issue, and when it comes to our food system and our water problems, these are things we cannot ignore. These are all issues that revolve around respect, and I was taught that respect is one of the highest things to have. I’m not sure what’s happening in these last few decades that people seem to be losing that mentality, but respect to me is the highest form of honor. If we cannot respect culture and human rights, just as if we cannot respect the planet and our dependency on its resources, then how will we ever coexist? How will we ever survive? Rather than preferring to assimilate cultures and ideas, we should be respecting their diversities and their inherent rights to exist. Regardless of your background, your religion, your experiences – respect should be a common language. I speak out against racism, homophobia, and other forms of human mistreatment just like I speak out against the exploitation of this planet. Educate yourself, swallow your pride, and start respecting our differences – and change the name.