A Washington Redskins fan watches the game during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers Monday, Aug. 19, 2013, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
The closest most non-American Indians have ever come to connecting emotionally with a Native culture was during a viewing of ”Pocahontas.”
I know, she’s a caricature and not a real Native American, but that’s exactly my point. American Indians have been so marginalized in our society that all we know of them mostly consists of racist stereotypes and animated Disney characters. And when someone says there’s something wrong with these images, we think, “What’s the problem.”
The same scratching of the head occurs when we think of the racial slur “Redskin.”
That’s the disconnect fueling the conundrum behind the Washington Redskins name change debate. For too long, American Indians have been viewed as voiceless relics of the past whose culture has been misappropriated so often that we do not see them as normal, everyday people. They’re viewed as mascots that entertain us during halftime on the football field or made-up cartoon characters on the big screen.
Outside of that, they really have no consciousnesses in our realities. That’s very sad and unacceptable.
Think about it: When was the last time you heard an American Indian speak about anything beyond our racist perceptions of their culture and society? And it’s not as if they’re not out there. They are. We just choose not to seek them out. So when issues like the Redskins name come about, we don’t see it as a problem.
Without question, I believe the name needs to change and the NFL team should distance itself from the antiqued, factually-baseless narrative that its use of the term ”Redskin” and its mascot honor American Indian traditions. This month, the National Congress Of American Indians published a 29-page report explaining why that’s simply not the case.
Even if the ownership changes the team’s name and logo, our efforts to treat Native culture with dignity and respect should not end there. As a nation, we truly have to take a deep, long look in the mirror and reflect on our country’s history of re-creating racist stereotypes of Native American people into a billion-dollar entertainment industry.
John Wayne, with his long career of being in films depicting historically inaccurate portrayals of Native Americans, had a big hand in this. But when someone pointed that out to him, he balked with arrogant indignation:
“I can’t imagine any Indian not realizing that over the past forty years I’ve done more to give them human dignity and a fine image on the screen than anyone else who has ever worked in pictures.” “Indians were part of our history,” he elaborated, “I have never shown the Indians on the screen as anything but courageous and with great human dignity.”
Courageous, huh? I guess Native people owe John Wayne a big ”Thank You” for protecting their dignity.
Washington Redskins owner Dan Synder‘s defense of the keeping the team’s name is no less self-righteous. And, of course, he had to pull the “my best friend is Native American card” in a written letter to season ticket holders:
As some of you may know, our team began 81 years ago — in 1932 — with the name “Boston Braves.” The following year, the franchise name was changed to the “Boston Redskins.” On that inaugural Redskins team, four players and our Head Coach were Native Americans. The name was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of honor.
Most American Indians, however, would disagree. University of Arizona professor Stephanie Fryberg and member of the Tulalip tribe conducted a 2008 study that found that mascots negatively impact the self-esteem of Indians but positively impacts Whites.
More specifically, the study revealed that when a White person wore a Cleveland Indian t-shirt, for example, he or she felt more empowered than if the wore a Fighting Irish t-shirt. Why would someone feel so empowered by such a dispowering image, you may ask?
“A lot of this is about playing Indian,” Fryberg explained to NewsOne in a phone interview. “We have a long history of romanticizing Native people. Cowboys and Indians. These organizations have been playing Indian for a very long time.”
And when you don’t want to play Indian, you pay for it. Ask University of Michigan professor Joseph Gone and member of the Gros Ventre tribal nation of Montana.
When he was a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign back in 1995, he was one of the first students to draw attention to the school’s mascot Chief Illiniwek, another racist depiction of Native Americans masquerading as a symbol of honor.
He along with several other students filed a lawsuit against the university with the U.S. Department of Education charging that the mascot was racist and violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance.
Not only did they lose that case, Gone’s fellow classmates were not to cool with them for complaining about it either.
“Given the campus climate, people who had dared to say that they didn’t agree with the mascot and demanded that the university change it would incur the wrath and ire of the other students who felt like they were being disloyal to the institution, which would get ugly at times whenever Indian people took a stance,” Gone told NewsOne.
The University of Illinois would eventually get rid of the mascot back in 2007 after years of sanctions levied by the NCAA, but it was not taken well by the mostly White students attending the institution. I was a graduate student on campus when the university “retired” Chief Illiniwek. I’m not American Indian, but I can tell you the climate was very tense. Students were crying, candlelight vigils were held and mock funerals took place to give the chief a “going home.”
I mean, people were sobbing all around campus over it.
Meanwhile, real Native Americans are having real issues. Like private businesses encroaching on their land and having to defend their tribal sovereignty in federal court. Just last year, the U.S. government finalized a $3.4 billion settlement stemming from a 1996 lawsuit originally filed by Blackfeet tribe leader Elouise Cobell after she witnessed those who leased American Indian land gain wealth from selling its resources. There are many more cases like this around the country.
But we know nothing about them because we’re too busy enjoying our own mythologized reality of Native American culture which allows rich men like Dan Snyder to continue making millions off of revisionist perceptions of American Indian heritage. That said, there are growing numbers of people who believe it’s time to move on from the name, but more needs to be done.
We have to stop being intellectually lazy about American Indians and realize that they are more than modern, Stepin’ and Fetchit,’ blackface caricatures we can turn our backs on as soon as we leave the football field. They are America’s first people and we need to start treating them that way.
But when they do speak, we’re forced to listen.
Back in February of this year, a group of protesters held an anti-immigrant rally in Arizona saying they are tired of illegals living in the country. Though the protesters were caught by surprise when an American Indian interrupted their affair.
“Y’all f*cking illegal. You’re all illegal. You’re all illegal!
“We didn’t invite none of you here!
“We’re the only native Americans here.
“That’s right. We’re the only native Americans here. Y’all are all illegal. We didn’t invite none of you! We didn’t invite none of you here. Get on, get on, get on with your bogus arguments.”
You hear that, Redskins supporters? And in case you didn’t, watch the video below. Warning: The man won’t entertain you like Pocahontas.
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