why “blackface” is a problem,… but only black?

When kids dress up for Halloween, sure, they’ll paint their faces to become an animal, wear a mask, or add appendages like tails or antennae that they don’t have.  They’re dressing like other species.  When kids dress up to be human-like characters, say from a movie or cartoon, or even a celebrity, they adopt the clothes and accessories necessary to be recognized as that character or person.  They are already a human being, so they can alter things that are socially acceptable to alter: clothing, hairstyle/wigs, jewelry, etc.

NOT their racial identity.

I’m sure I don’t have to go through the history of the United States to explain why the color of someone’s skin has been used to single them out or embrace them with open arms as an equal.  Racial tension still exists in this country and throughout the world.  Furthermore, light-skinned Americans are shoveling over dollars to go to tanning beds or laying out on beaches weekly to risk cancer for darker skin.  On the other side of the world, like in India, women are paying to bleach their skin to a Caucasian white.  Skin color still equates to social status, no matter how jumbled the message is getting.

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Above: In the United States, L’Oreal sells the tan Caucasian look; in India, the same company pushes the appeal for Asian women to look “white”.

Skin tones have historically been a way to segregate people, and, as a result, they can be ways to unite people who struggle the same struggles.  However, civilized society should strive to move away from these racial stereotypes and identifiers and instead focus on the individual and his/her identity.  Identity shouldn’t come with a Behr’s color palette.

Ever since I was a little girl, I used to argue with older generations that skin color wasn’t black, white, yellow, brown, and red (if those are even accurate groupings anyway).  I would always argue that skin color is a spectrum, and even certain colors don’t mix the same way those on an artist’s palette mix. Genetics can come with surprises.  But when we see the world in very restrictive color palettes and racial labels, ones that don’t take into account ethnicity, social-economic statuses, citizenship, and actual culture, we are once again emphasizing an outdated viewpoint on identity.

So, back to Halloween: The skin color of a Trick-or-Treater shouldn’t have to be an identifier for what “costume” he or she is choosing.  Part of that is because race is not a costume.  Also, at what point do we decide “Oh, that character is like, half a shade darker than me – I need make-up!”  Sure, Avatar Blue is one thing because that’s not “human”.  But should a person have to paint his or herself black to be Obama?  On the flip-side, should a white person feel he or she can’t dress as Obama because he or she isn’t black?  (HELLO, Obama is ALSO white…Why can’t we see that part of him too?)  And, finally, does that mean a woman cannot dress as a Obama without a sex change? ————– No, I don’t think it’s any different.  “Race” is something you can’t change, something society (include police forces) currently identifies by a visual assessment.  Likewise, sex is predominantly identified biologically.

So about Blackface.

What is it?  Well, what it sounds like.  “Blackface” is when a non-black/lighter-skinned person paints his or herself dark (and possibly with stereotypical “black features” like large red or pink lips) to pretend to be…”black”.  There is no concrete date for the origin of “blackface”, but it was notorious for its use in theater starting in the 19th century.  Ah, yes, the Jim Crow era, the times when blacks were gaining more and more rights (albeit snail-slow) as human beings.  Slavery, lynching, segregation…and, in theater, blacks were the center stage.  Except, not actual blacks.

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Blackface in theater was an excellent way for white people to mock blacks for black stereotypes.  Imagine all the dehumanizing things white society could have possibly done or said to black people during these eras and you can imagine the foul things that showed up in white-ruled comedy.  However, to make this work effortlessly, white people were hired to paint themselves as black people.  Otherwise, how could we identify the “less-than-human” as he or she fell victim to the splendid white cracks at these oppressed racial categories?

Knowing the history of blackface and the atrocities that accompanied it will probably help you understand why it was once a horrible practice.  However, the foundation that “blackface” was built on still exists.  Just because we would like to view our society as “free” does not mean “blackface” is a freedom of speech.  It is founded in literally the same segregation principles as in decades and centuries before, and it is a means of segregation.  While wearing “blackface”, or being racist, or demonstrating in the KKK may not be illegal, because of freedom of speech, that does not mean they belong in civilized society.

Can you understand why dress up as a shot Trayvon Martin – in blackface – is so many levels of wrong, racist, and disrespectful?  Because this totally happened:

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Maybe, just MAYBE if racial segregation by skin color hadn’t been a historical and systematic way of trampling other people to get ahead, then just MAYBE “blackface” and whatever-else-face wouldn’t be wrong.  But skin color has been and continues to be too connected to social status, so painting your face as another “race” IS wrong.

EXCEPT.

Except
except
except
except
except
except….

If you’re a sports fan.  #TELLMEWHY

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Or if you don’t even have that excuse, but call yourself a…”hipster”???  (Below: seen at Bonaroo)

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“Red” stands for blood.  “Red” stands for the “pelts” of slaughtered indigenous peoples, peoples who were labeled as merely “Indian”, and “pelts” that gave white colonists cash rewards from the government.

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This is wrong because it is REDFACE.  This is even more wrong because  of its historical context (“pelts” = GENOCIDE).

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Tell me why this is “socially acceptable”?

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Do me a favor, and if you ever see, call it out.  The only way it should be “tolerated” (I say that LOOSELY) is if the person flat out admits to being an informed racist…

a response to a Biloxi resident.

Today is a hectic day for me, but I’m taking a couple hours out of my afternoon to address some pressing issues.  I feel it’s my duty to reply in a timely matter when certain wrongs have been done to people I care about.  I would like to think my writing is a way to expose truth that might not otherwise be exposed, and to present truth in a written, passive form that might not otherwise be heard in a heated moment of hostility.  Today, I am also sitting outside at a Panera, wondering why no one but I, and the smoker on his smoking breaks, choose to take advantage of a nice day in the city.  Folks are too comfortable with their climate control around here…but I digress.


I am writing this piece to expose the kinds of hateful messages Deloria Lane Many Grey Horses-Violich must deal with as she raises her chid and raises awareness to the mascot issue which affects all children.  I will first type out this message for you to read, then I will take the time to reply to each piece.  Keep in mind that this began an open dialogue between Deloria, her cousin Jacqueline Keeler, her father Chief Phil Lane Jr., and several other Natives – myself included.  I doubt any tidbit I will say today will provide new information to that dialogue; however, the Biloxi resident was persistent in ignoring nearly every point we made.  I thought perhaps it didn’t sink in enough; so I’m going to spend too much of my already-busy day spelling it out further for her sake, and perhaps for the sake of others:

“If the Native American headdress is so sacred then why can you purchase them at reservations located throughout the country as well as online?  Why would Native Americans sell something that is so sacred to them as a souvenir to tourists?
[Several links included to Red Path, Red Eagle, Crazy Crow]

“When European settlers first arrived in the geographical area now known as Biloxi, MS in 1699 it was inhabited by the Biloxi Tribe.  Our city, rivers, streets, etc. were named based on the history and existence of the Biloxi Indians who resided here when Europeans first arrived.
“When a school, sports team, company, etc. chooses a mascot they seek out a symbol that reflects their beliefs and conveys a message about their organization, product, people, etc.  Biloxi High School chose the Biloxi Indian based on the history of the Biloxi Indian Tribe who resided here but also because it represents strength, honor, spirit, bravery and character.  I fail to see how this could be viewed as an insult.  I do not know of any organization who has chosen a mascot for negative qualities…do you?
“In my opinion Deloria Many Grey Horses is not speaking ton behalf of Native Americans but looking for a way to promote her own opinions and interest.  Biloxi High School is not mocking the Native Americans, they are honoring them.  They obviously do not view Native Americans as a negative symbol or they would not have chosen them as their mascot.  If she finds it so offensive then maybe she is the one holding on to negative stereotypes…why else would she view our mascot as a symbol anything else?
“The Tunica-Biloxi Indian tribe from which we chose our mascot does not have a problem with it.  They do not find it offensive and actually presented Biloxi High School with a headdress.  If Deloria Many Grey Horses wants to make a difference then maybe she should first start with inner change and ask herself why she finds our mascot so offensive or views it as a negative symbol.  She should also ask Native Americans why they are selling headdresses to Non-Native Americans…maybe then can enlighten her on their beliefs and motives.
“I would also like to ask Deloria Many Grey Horses if she is 100% Native American?  Has she researched her own lineage?  How can she be sure by looking at another human being that they are not of Native American descent?  She may be very surprised to discover that not all people of Native American descent have dark hair, skin or eyes.
“In addition, some of the information in your article is not accurate.  Graduating from Berkeley I would think your research skills would be better.”

Yup.  A human being actually said those things.  But if you are amongst the few who aren’t appalled by this message, I will now break it…all…down….((sigh))

1. If the Native American headdress is so sacred then why can you purchase them at reservations located throughout the country as well as online?  Why would Native Americans sell something that is so sacred to them as a souvenir to tourists?
[Several links included to Red Path, Red Eagle, Crazy Crow]

First of all, headdresses cannot be sold to non-Native Americans.  They cannot even be sold to Native Americans if they not enrolled, or if they are enrolled in State-Recognized Tribes.  They have to be enrolled in Federally-Recognized tribes.  That is because headdresses, real ones, are made of Eagle Feathers.  Well, I shouldn’t generalized.  The Northern Plains headdresses we are talking about are exactly as I just described.  Other styles, such as my own peoples’, would probably not be called “headdresses” to the unfamiliarized.  That is because the Northern Plains headdress has become a stereotype to Native peoples through Wild West movies during the 1900s.  And, indeed, there was a period when many tribes were adopting from one another – especially as they were forced onto the same Reserves or, in the case of the Biloxi, united with other tribes for numbers and their own survival.  However, we are fortunate enough to live in a time where things have been changing.  We have been given back many rights that were taken from us, including Civil Rights and religious freedom (since  as recent as my parents’ teenage years).  So our younger generations are reviving our traditions, and we are shedding light and finding our voices to dissolve the remaining issues in our society that stereotype us and inhibit our growth.

However, because most people do not realize (on account of the stereotypes) the vast cultural differences of “Indians” (from the northern coast of Canada to the southern tip of Chile), they are silly enough to purchase these fake items.  These symbol are sacred, the headdress is sacred, but these replicas are merely sold out of desperation. Our Native artists are not protected by the Indian Arts and Craft Law that inhibits items to be sold as “authentic” if they were not in fact indigenous-made.  That is a new law.  It is exactly as old as I am, started in 1990.  This gives Natives an edge to make profit off of their own skills.  Sadly, due to the real-life struggles still faced on Reservations and in urban Indian communities, many artists see more profit and opportunity in appropriating their own culture.  These select few are trying to survive in a world that wants them dead and gone.  Their acts do not speak for all of the people.  Just keep that in mind, and please refrain from purchasing non-Native-made dreamcatchers, moccasins, or anything else.  And please do not purchase fake headdresses.  There are real indigenous children who cannot inherit eagle feathers on account of the Eagle Feather and enrollment laws in place by their tribe(s), so you shouldn’t expect to have any either.  Using the fake headdresses at Biloxi is no different, especially as you’ve demonstrated there is no education in place to teach the children what they’re wearing.  If there was, they’d realize how wrong it is and then it would cease to continue.

2. When European settlers first arrived in the geographical area now known as Biloxi, MS in 1699 it was inhabited by the Biloxi Tribe.  Our city, rivers, streets, etc. were named based on the history and existence of the Biloxi Indians who resided here when Europeans first arrived.

First of all, it was not inhabited by the Biloxi Tribe.  It was inhabited by the Tanêks who were later referred to as the Biloxi.  Much like the Navajo call themselves the Dine’ in their own language.

In terms of named places, I look at Google Maps and I see “Big Lake”, “Big Ridge”,… I’m guessing you guys figured out how to name those without the help of any tribe.  I also see countless streets named with European surnames.  Well, you don’t mean Irish Hill Drive.  Or Switzer or Carter or Orleans or Pass or Bay or Popps Ferry or Washington or Commerce or Strawberry or Georgia or Jim Byrd or Hudson Krohn or 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th,… Biloxi River?  Well the town is called Biloxi, too.  But no one even knows where that name came from.  It certainly was not a Tanêks word.  Oh!  Look, there’s even a Little Big Lake.  Naw, I doubt that was a Tanêks idea, either.  Deer Island?  Nope.  Sorry, I must be missing something.

So back to the origin of Biloxi… Fort Bilocci is where we get the name Biloxi.  Some seem to think it is a Choctaw word.  I don’t know.  And quite frankly, I don’t really care.  Even the historical society of Biloxi seems to have no history to support its naming.  And the Biloxi people were forced to leave in order to survive, all of them recorded as having left by no later than the 1770s.  Before the Revolutionary War in the Colonies.  Before the Louisiana Purchase.  Before Mississippi was in the Union.  The Tanêks then integrated with a number of other tribes and took the English name Tunica-Biloxi Indians.  Sorry, just none of this adds up.

3. When a school, sports team, company, etc. chooses a mascot they seek out a symbol that reflects their beliefs and conveys a message about their organization, product, people, etc.

Right, they do.  Because there is symbolism behind what they choose.  However, when a human being is chosen as a mascot – specifically an entire race of people who identify instead by their own nations – is used by non-Natives to sell their product or promote their image, this is not out of honor.  Do you really think these mascots, chosen in times when Natives weren’t even allowed to be American citizens, were really honoring anything?  No, they were chosen because Natives were considered non-human.  Boarding schools, some of which closed within my lifetime, were set in place by the government to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” – stripping them of all their clothes, language, religion, anything that made them “Indian”.  Children taken from home and assimilated.  The government did this.  In its very motto, the program clearly parallels a dead Indian to a saved man.  Just in case you still didn’t get it, Indian =/= Man.  Indian=Animal.  Indian=Savage.  Indian=Your Mascot, based on these beliefs.  These mascots were chosen because they were savage, uncontrollable animals, noted for their resilience to assimilation.  WE are proud of our resilience to assimilation, but THEY were not.  THEY tried to beat it out of our ancestors.  To THEM, we were worthless farm animals to be tamed and broken.  No different than the way they treated our black cousins.  THAT is why this HAS TO STOP.

4. Biloxi High School chose the Biloxi Indian based on the history of the Biloxi Indian Tribe who resided here but also because it represents strength, honor, spirit, bravery and character.

There is no evidence of why they chose this.  If you think that name represents those things, then you believe in the Indian stereotype.  The Tanêks simply left.  They wanted nothing to do with the British.  I am not speaking ill of them when I say their leaving in no way earns them the right to be stereotyped as the resilient “savage”.  They were resilient, absolutely, but not in a way you comprehend.  You don’t recognize their struggle for federal recognition because, as you demonstrated in your dialogue with us, you know nothing about Indian Affairs, Tribal Law, or our histories.  You just pretend like you do, but you’re reiterating the same stereotyping lies that we have had to shoot down time and time again.  When will it end??

Furthermore, your school was the Yellow Jackets in the 1920s.  Then they – for whatever reason – decided to be the “R*dsk*ns”.  OH, hell no.  They went from that racial slur – with the same imagery and symbols – to the “Indians”.  The town name was Biloxi.  They were then of course the “Biloxi Indians”.  No school that chooses a racial slur turns into the Indians in that era of history for anything close to honor.  Do some research!!  How can I know more than you when I don’t even live there??

5.  I fail to see how this could be viewed as an insult.  I do not know of any organization who has chosen a mascot for negative qualities…do you?

Clearly you fail to see it.  I can’t say I know of anyone who chose a mascot for “negative qualities” in the sense that you mean, but I know plenty of anyones who have chosen them for the wrong reasons.  Your school included.

6. In my opinion Deloria Many Grey Horses is not speaking ton behalf of Native Americans but looking for a way to promote her own opinions and interest.

This daughter of a Chief and mother of an indigenous child is sacrificing her own reputation on behalf of everyone’s child, yours included.  Her views absolutely represent The People.  Not just the indigenous peoples.  She is protected all of our children from being taught prejudices, from being put in the same position you are now in.  If this had been resolved when you were a child, you would not have been taught this prejudice as being “normal”.  Deloria stands up for the people who cannot stand up for themselves, or who risk being assaulted, killed, racially discriminated, raped, or a number of other things that are so prevalent in our communities, especially when we choose to voice an unpopular opinion and defend our rights to our own humanity.  She is working to eliminate these damaging stereotypes and to give a better life for people. All things are related, they all affect each other.  By promoting positive imagery, we can promote safer environments, more welcoming homes for our indigenous cousins, more prosperous communities – and then maybe some day the economies in these communities will be prosperous enough that folks, like those selling the fake headdresses, will no longer need to appropriate their own cultures to make a living.  They will instead be respected for their craftsmanship and their identities.  Do not speak ill of my indigenous family.

7. Biloxi High School is not mocking the Native Americans, they are honoring them.  They obviously do not view Native Americans as a negative symbol or they would not have chosen them as their mascot.

In your opinion, this mascot is not a mockery.  That says absolutely nothing about why it was chosen, and it most certainly was chosen in a racist era.  It continues to be a racist era.  We have made so much progress, but clearly not in every department.  Honor also requires those being honored to feel honored.  By stealing symbols from other cultures, and not listening to living citizens of those cultures when they tell you they’re not honored and please stop, that is not honoring.  Not even close.  That is insolence.  They obviously do not understand the wrongness in their continued use of a stereotype and sacred symbols, or else they would have voluntarily made the change already.  You are not providing them with an educational environment to end teaching that prejudice because you are perpetuating it.  Because you believe in the prejudices and the stereotypes yourself.  That is why talking to you is like talking to a brick wall.

8. If she finds it so offensive then maybe she is the one holding on to negative stereotypes…why else would she view our mascot as a symbol anything else?

There is no “holding on” to a negative stereotype.  There is only living through the terrible impacts of these negative stereotypes being perpetuated in the world around us, every day, and being taught to the generations who will grow up and teach them yet again to their youth.  Because no one is telling them it’s wrong.  That is why Deloria, and every other person in these #NotYourMascot movement…and the dozens and counting of organizations opposed to Native mascots…are standing up and saying it’s been way. too. long.  As for why she views the mascot in the way she does,………I’m sorry, but are you capable of reading?  Of Google?  Do you know who Amanda Blackhorse is?  Do you realize this isn’t just about Biloxi?  It’s about every single Native stereotype/mascot EVERYWHERE.

9. The Tunica-Biloxi Indian tribe from which we chose our mascot does not have a problem with it.  They do not find it offensive and actually presented Biloxi High School with a headdress.

First of all, no one has established that’s why you chose the mascot.  You were the Biloxi R*dsk*ns before you were the Biloxi Indians.  In the same time when n*gger was totally cool to say, too.  Nice.

Second of all, the tribe has not said they’re okay with it.  They have not yet said anything in the matter.  Do not speak for a Nation.  What audacity.  Ironically, this same woman later quotes a letter written by a tribal member.  Yes, she quotes the whole letter and says LISTEN TO WHAT THIS MAN IS SAYING.  Oh, but we have!  Holy cow, woman!  His letter was written to the local media, asking for this nonsense to END, for his people to stop being made into a MASCOT.  He was saying STOP.  An enrolled member of the Tunica-Biloxi tribe!  Has said stop!  Has pointed out that politics get in the way of becoming directly involved in such matter.  Has stated that just because they have been silent does not mean they have consented!  Much like a lack of “stop” does not constitute rape!  So stop raping his culture!  Stop desecrating the Northern Plains sacred symbols, as members of those tribes have repeatedly begged of you!

10. If Deloria Many Grey Horses wants to make a difference then maybe she should first start with inner change and ask herself why she finds our mascot so offensive or views it as a negative symbol.  She should also ask Native Americans why they are selling headdresses to Non-Native Americans…maybe then can enlighten her on their beliefs and motives.

Deloria is making a difference.  You wouldn’t be interested in recognizing it though, because you are afraid of her success.  Because you know Biloxi is next, and you have lost your senses over it.  As have many alumni (see my last post).  That is all I have to add to this comment as I’ve explained this all already.

11.  I would also like to ask Deloria Many Grey Horses if she is 100% Native American?  Has she researched her own lineage?  How can she be sure by looking at another human being that they are not of Native American descent?  She may be very surprised to discover that not all people of Native American descent have dark hair, skin or eyes.

It is not your business the heritage of a person.  You said your husband is Irish, but what percentage?  What, do we weight the value of our opinions based on blood now? As I’ve asked before, are we dogs?  Do you only want purebreds?

You really think this woman needs to research her lineage?  Her father, a chief, wears a 120-year-old headdress and attends indigenous campaigns all across the world.  He, Deloria, Jackie… they have their own Wikipedia pages.  Yeah, I know Wikipedia isn’t some symbol of one’s worth…but I would guess that, based on your lack of research in other areas, Wikipedia might be something your more capable of using than Google.  Just saying.

I can’t even take this part seriously.  “She may be very surprised…”  Oh, yes because she has never seen another Native person in her life.  Woman, you may be surprised that not all Natives look like Chief Wahoo, or like your silly school mascot and symbols.  YOU are the one promoting stereotypes and here you are, defending Native DIVERSITY.  I’m just going to say…you’re a hypocrite…and there’s no need to discuss this part further.  (P.S. WHAT AUDACITY.)

12. In addition, some of the information in your article is not accurate.  Graduating from Berkeley I would think your research skills would be better.

I have not seen anything of Deloria’s that is inaccurate.  However, I have seen nothing of yours that is.  You are clearly incapable of research, so you are not one to talk.  Furthermore, you seem to not address that many Tunica-Biloxi members have stated on social media that the Northern Plains headdress replicated by the school is not in fact one of their symbols.  It is a symbol of the people you are attacking in this conversation.  Based on a conversation with an enrolled member, I have come to understand that there is only one headdress, that it was worn by his great-grandfather and grandfather, and there is a story behind how it was obtained.  In other words, it is not representative of Biloxi culture in any way.  But I won’t have the audacity to make those claims on my own, because I am Shawnee.

Oh, wait, you figured out she went to Berkeley.  However did you manage to research that?  I guess you did get one thing right!  Whoo!

And to leave you with one more thing…. In the woman’s defense, she did claim this was a “copied and pasted” quote from someone on Facebook who was banned from a group, and that it was not her own.  Either way, she thought it was important enough to keep it in the conversation:

 

I’ll let you decide for yourself what kind of people we are dealing with, and whether they understand the implications of their “honor” for the “Biloxi Indians” or not.

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.

 

4 Reasons Why Overseas Volunteer Projects are a Waste of Time

indian-reservation-squalor-shanty-hut-hovels-poor-poverty1-1

Shanties on a US reservation, no better than houses I’ve seen in rural India or West Africa and unfathomably worse than donated facilities at the Nuevo Paraiso mission project in Honduras.

It seems like, growing up, the cool thing for kids to do who went to my fancy private school was to be sent off by their parents on some overseas volunteer project in a third-world country.  I never did anything like this until college, mostly because my mom always shot the idea down.  I never fully understood her reasons until I went on a trip of my own and began reevaluating such overseas volunteer projects.  I decided that I agree with my mom.  The only people these trips really benefit are the travelers themselves, giving them something to put on their resumes.  And although the benefits operate on a case-by-case basis, it is my experience and observations that suggest how these projects are often just a waste of time.  I will outline my reasons below:

1. GIVING OUT FISH.
My family strongly believes in the motto: “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man how to fish, he eats for life.”  I’ve grown up knowing that expression and beginning to see the truth behind it.  Although my parents use that approach in their political views and anti-welfare standpoints, I see how this fish comparison directly relates to volunteer projects.  It’s easy to give a monetary donation and let someone else handle what happens to the money.  That’s obviously no way to help an impoverished community.  But too often we are still transfixed on materialistic things to improve an entire village.  Why save up money to go build a building?  Most of these communities have all the resources they need to build a building that suits their needs.  Why not lend a physical hand instead?  Why not teach and do less of handing these people supplies and new, shiny things?  Give them all of these donations and the only thing they’ll think is “Wow, Americans have nice, fancy things.  When I grow up, I want to get out of here and go somewhere where these things can be handed to me.”  Not only does handing out fish not allow these people to fix themselves, it encourages them to seek out where they can be handed more fish and prevents them from fixing their old mistakes.  Indirectly, it could also cause communities to disband and lose culture as the younger generations with more potential greedily seek out a life outside of their community for shiny things they don’t need.  And I’m not just making up a hypothesis; it is a serious issue I learned about while on some community projects this summer in rural India.

2. BROKEN THINGS THAT STAY BROKEN.
When I signed up for Engineers Without Borders, I though, Gee, this is cool – I get funded to travel to a really unique place and practice both my French and engineering skills!  The experience helped land me a job and gave me some real world perspective on what life is like in West Africa.  But my trip to Cameroon benefitted myself more than it did the community.  We spent endless weeks organizing, building, delivering, preparing, teaching,…all to end up with empty wallets and a failed system.  We visited a nearby project similar to ours: a solar panel-powered well system installed by the University of Delaware.  What did we find?  An empty water tank at the top of a hill next to a school.  Why was there no water pumping up here?  We found the lower pump where a few kids were squeezing out the only drops they could get.  Why was there not even water at the taps with the greatest hydraulic head?  My colleague found the answer: the solar panels were coated in weeks worth of red, Cameroonian mountain dust.  No one had been cleaning the panels, despite clear instruction from the volunteers to do so.  Back at our own project, we even set up a committee dedicated to clean the panels once a week.  You would think that a quick cleanse isn’t much to ask from a slower paced, rural community, but even our village had to provide an incentive by offering weekly pay to the volunteer.  When I returned to the States and shared my story with my friends, my best friend gave me a link to a video that discussed exactly how EWB projects are inevitable failures.  There is no water coming out a year later.  All of this money and time, and for what?  Why is this happening?  The answer is multi-faceted, having its roots in my fish theory.  Plus, things that break in these rural communities often stay broken.  Why?  Well, what resources are there to fix them?  To fix these projects that are not the standard way of life?  What motive is there to gather the information and to find a way to bring back something that these villages have survived for thousands of years without?  And that brings me to my third point…

3. DON’T FIX WHAT’S NOT BROKEN.
Why are Americans so in love with themselves that they think their way of life is the solution to the planet’s suffering?  The wasteful, materialistic American way of life is not only greedy and corrupt, but it could easily be contributing indirectly to the suffering of these remote areas.  The environmental impacts of our decisions in the States causes a global reaction that can directly impact the weather conditions and water cycles of these victimized areas.  Still, they thrive the way they have known to thrive for thousands of years.  Throughout history, ancient civilizations have survived and thrived without the assistance of outsiders.  In fact, if anything, these outsiders have obliterated these civilizations before ever significantly impacting them in a positive fashion.  For example, think about the situations in America.  All of the tribal peoples who have lost their identity and land.  All because we think the way we live is the right way?  The sophisticated way?  Go to West Africa and you will see a collage of old and new.  People living in huts who have cell phones.  Why is that?  Well, they want to take advantage of the best of both worlds the best that they can.  But, at the same time, not everyone wants to jeopardize their old ways of life.  It’s what they know.  It’s their comfort zones.  It’s how they have evolved to believe they should live.  I’ve had countless political arguments with sheltered people and friends who felt that invading countries and transforming their governments was the correct solution to everything, but is it really?  Is our government system really the answer?  Is it our business to decide that for anyone but ourselves?  How do we know that we’re right?  I’ve seen first hand how these “less fortunate” people actually believe we’re the unfortunate ones, leading stressful lives and answering to people we hardly know, not understanding anymore what living is or how to appreciate life.  But it’s not just how their systems aren’t broken but how we try to fix them and break them to pieces.  How we strip people of culture.  Perhaps the worst offender of such things is religious cleansing.  I am absolutely opposed to mission trips and anything that operates in another community by the “light of God”.  Can’t people do good things for the sake of life, living, and kindness?  Why is religion attached to any good notion when religion is in fact the cause of so much evil?  So much war?  I see people going to Africa every year on “mission trips”, and all I can think is I hope you feel good about yourself when you shove Bibles down these poor peoples’ throats and rob them of any cultural identity they used to have.  Why not teach them how to read and write?  So they can buy books and learn the newest herbal medicinal discoveries or how to fix their water issues naturally and without the use of energy and pumps?  This religious debacle leads me to my last reason…

4. HELP YOURSELF BEFORE YOU HELP OTHERS.
Even airlines tell you this before your plane leaves the runway.  While we are so transfixed with being the heroes to people in communities that will never remember our names once we have parted, why don’t we take a look at our own country?  And I don’t mean just soup kitchens and giving handouts to homeless people who continue to drink away their handouts.  I mean the thing that I’m most passionate about: poverty on the reservations.  It’s not because I’m biased because my grandfather is Indian and it’s my focus of work.  It’s because I strongly believe America is responsible for the situation it’s created.  You can’t invade a territory, take over completely from peoples who you don’t even acknowledge as people, set up a system familiar only to the invaders and only at the advantage of said invaders, and then expect the natives to thrive.  That’s just it; they weren’t expected to thrive.  They weren’t considered people, they were murdered without consequences, and they weren’t even accounted for on the census rolls until tribal counts were created.  By that time, most of the less powerful tribes were wiped out or assimilated to a different culture anyway.  The territorial borders kept pushing back, tribes were hit with European clothes, weapons, alcohol, and Bibles, all in an effort to strip them of their identity if not kill them off altogether.  The answer to this problem, when peaceful terms were supposedly going to be met, was to shove these peoples onto a hodge-podge of lousy land parcels called “reservations”.  That was no solution, but everyone seemed to “roll with it” until the Dawes Act sparked up in the late 1800s and unconstitutionally revoked the rights of thousands of American people – American Indian people.  What efforts have been made since to right these wrongs?  A similar wronging was in the African-American slave industry around the same time.  That dispute divided our whole nation until it was resolved and, although we still have racial issues, the States made an enormous effort to right its wrongs.  Can you say that about the native people to whom this land really belonged?  Whose voices aren’t being heard despite their protests?  As an example, Gilmour Academy near my university (and where several of my friends went) sends students annually to Honduras on a mission trip.  Ignoring the fact that it’s a mission, can we ask ourselves why these people are spending thousands of dollars for the glory of assisting (handing fish) to people in a remote, foreign village that will likely stay broken?  One that maybe wasn’t all that “broken” to begin with?  One that actually used to be full of native peoples that were conquered by the Spaniards?  But we’re continuing to perpetuate that wrong as a right by influencing our western ways on the rural populations?  And if the reason of choosing that location is solely based on the poverty level in Honduras being under 50%, have we stopped to consider that a few of the largest Indian reservations in the US with a majority of the native population is in fact exceeding that level of poverty?  Within our own borders?  Okay, so South Dakota or the desert in Utah maybe isn’t as “cool” as Honduras to visit…but is it a volunteer trip or a vacation?  Spend your money wisely.  Don’t blow $1000 on airfare to fix a problem that doesn’t concern you.  10 students’ airfare to go to Honduras could send multitudes more in a workforce to address the issues in our own country.

So there you have it, my rant for the day: how overseas volunteer projects don’t teach a village anything life-changing, how they have a tendency to be short-lived, how they aim to fix things that may not be considered a problem internally, and how they take our attention away from our own neighbors suffering.  I’m sure there are plenty of people who think differently but, until I see some serious changes within our own country and in these overseas projects to be more economical and sustainable, I see no reason to advocate my opinions in anyone else’s favor.