Tag Archives: Indian mascots

How To Argue Against Racist Indian Mascots: In *Honor* of the #SuperBowl

How many of you have been in the presence of someone using an (illogical and ludicrous) argument supporting racist ‪#‎IndianMascots‬?

This mascot honors Native Americans.

You’re messing with tradition!

Well I’m Native and I approve of this mascot.

STAHHHP!

By artist Bunky Echo-Hawk (Pawnee)

I’ve been at this for more than a decade, and many other amazing women for far longer than that (check out my heroes Dr. Adrienne Keene, Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, Suzan Shown Harjo, Amanda Blackhorse, among many others). Those of us in this battle know well the depth of fanaticism sports franchises and their supporters will travel to in defense of their precious team names and logos.

So while I’m aware a bazillion people disagree with me, I go forth with the following premise, for the sake of brevity: I’m going to assume good intent from readers. I’m also going to assume you understand the basics of racism and cultural appropriation, that you’re against these things, and hope you agree things that marginalize and dehumanize an entire race of people are wrong.

This is where the bulk of my non-activist friends reside when it comes to sports teams that use Native American-themed names and/or imagery: They know seeing a Washington or Cleveland jersey worn on game day makes them feel yucky inside, but when confronting a supporter, they lack the ability to explain their anti-mascot views effectively and succinctly.

How many of you have struggled to find the words to argue against these poor excuses for racism?

Well here’s a handy guide (produced by yours truly for Everyday Feminism) to help counter some of the most common statements from pro-mascoters:

[TW – racist images, words, phrases]

How To Argue Against Racist Mascots 

*A note about the Irish and oppression bit within the article, which many readers are using to derail the conversation: I apologize. I assumed readers would understand what I meant when I wrote “… the Irish… never experienced oppression or genocidal policies at the hands of the US government.” Because, I really do get what you’re trying to say when you write, “But the Irish HAVE experienced oppression and colonial-based genocide!”

Trust me. I get it. Your comment about historical Irish oppression is true. Immediate members of my family are Irish (I am part-Irish) and grew up dirt poor in major East Coast cities. They experienced lots of poverty-based oppression, and my statements in no way erases the struggle for any immigrant, refugee, or impoverished person. I studied the Sinn Fein movement during my undergrad and often compared it with those tactics used during the Wounded Knee occupation.

But the key part of my statement from the article is “… at the hands of the US government.” That distinction is huge because no federal laws ever oppressed the Irish specifically. I thought it was a clear statement, but obviously it wasn’t and the uproar has detracted from the main point about racist Indian mascots.

Were they oppressed in similarly horrific ways on their own soil of Ireland by colonial British rule? Oh yes indeed. They have an indigenous history very similar to Natives. But NOT here in the US.

In the United States:

  • The Irish were allowed to practice Catholicism and rewarded (in terms of employment and eventual political/religious success) for being Catholic – Native people were slaughtered for practicing their religion and only got the *legal* right to practice ours in the 1970s.
  • The Irish received immediate citizenship; Natives weren’t even considered legal people until we were granted citizenship in 1924 (although many states, like my home state of South Dakota, didn’t enact citizenship until the 1960s).
  • Unlike Natives, the Irish could vote, hold jobs, take office, and feel fairly safe in dominant culture, because no systemic oppression targeted them as a race (no federal laws barred them from these things – ever). The “Irish Need Not Apply” job ads were cruel, but not a federal employment policy.
  • Native still experience this kind of systemic oppression. We are still suppressed as voters, still at the bottom of every negative statistic. The Irish – considered by the US Census Bureau (a federal agency) as white people in America – are doing just fine, in terms of race.
  • The Irish’s proximity to whiteness has been a huge factor in their (continued) success in the US. This is what we call privilege, something Natives have never known, in any capacity, in colonized America.

So I return to my original statement “…at the hands of the US government.” The Irish never experienced colonial-based destruction on US soil, by the US government. The Irish have been powerful presidents, Supreme Court justices, senators, clergy and more. Natives have not. There is no comparison here, folks. If we want to start a movement to change the Notre Dame mascot, I am HERE FOR THIS, but do not make the claim that the Irish face the same or even similar racism and systemic oppression experienced by Natives.

So when we talk about Indian mascots (the original issue, remember?), the dehumanization is based on systemic oppression in the US at the hands of the federal government. To compare the Fighting Irish (a school founded and the mascot approved by many Irish Catholics) to an Indian mascot isn’t logical because the Irish have “never experienced oppression or genocidal policies at the hands of the US government” (original quote).

I hope this helps clarify the statement, and I apologize for not being clear within the article.

The Mascot Files: “You have an Indian before you.”

‘Redskin’ is a dictionary-defined slur. So I don’t know where the debate is.

– Simon Moya-Smith

Like anything Fox News puts out there, this clip of last night’s Kelly File is hard to watch (for the well-informed progressive-types, that is). The segment looked at a recent letter signed by 50 US Senators asking the NFL higher-ups to endorse a Washington Redskins name change (a reminder that Natives have been pushing for this same thing for decades, including the National Congress of American Indians). Simon Moya-Smith, whom Kelly’s producers brought on the show after CNN published his spot-on op-ed, does a fantastic job holding his own against three non-Native bigots interested only in sensationalism and the bottom line. If you’re looking for a great example of whitesplaining Native issues and concerns, this video is for you.

Ben Shapiro is the definition of patronizing condescension when he says in the clip that Native Americans have more to worry about than mascots. The Redskins name, he says, “… is about 100 on the list of issues facing Native American communities today.” Two things: (1) Please, tell me more about what I need to concern myself with, Mr. Shapiro. And (2) It’s dangerous – DANGEROUS – to bypass the solid, proven links between mascots and the disparities in health, education, and employment Native Americans face.

The fact of the matter is these words and images – mascots and logos and names like those found on the Washington NFL team – are *harmful.* Like Big Tobacco lobbyists, mascot/name supporters like to say there is no direct link between the Redskins and the vast, plague-like troubles Natives face on a daily basis. “Oh, come on,” they say. “It’s *just* football. The kid who killed himself in Eagle Butte last week didn’t do it because he saw a Redskins football game.”

But like the tar, the arsenic, and the other 4,000-some chemicals wrapped nicely in kid-friendly cigarette packaging, the poison inherent in mascots and racist team names takes root over time. One or two puffs on any given Sunday and you’ll live. But years of exposure to the smoke of systemic, capitalized racism will fester, and, like all cancers, will eventually kill – if not the body, then for sure the spirit.

With each game, with each Faux News-like broadcast, and with each successive PR stunt from the Dan Snyder Is Clueless Factory, mascots and team names like the Redskins reinforce to Natives and non-Natives alike that ours isn’t a cause people care about. That football rates higher than Native people. We are only as good as a game-winning touchdown. We wipe our tears with your jerseys, and thank you for the honor. “Here we are now,” the crowd screams. “Entertain us.”

Native youth especially measure their worth based on how others view them. So, yeah, that Redskins game – the one where the opposing team’s fans held high the bloody head of a plastic Indian – may very well have fed into the fears of a Native kid who thought he was worthless. That’s why I, personally, advocate to end the use of racialized mascots and names, which are classic dehumanization tactics used in genocidal campaigns to show one demographic is *less* (read more here). This isn’t just some Angry Indian, butt-hurt, anti-sport, layman’s POV. This is Psychology 101.

From the American Psychological Association:

APA’s position is based on a growing body of social science literature that shows the harmful effects of racial stereotyping and inaccurate racial portrayals, including the particularly harmful effects of American Indian sports mascots on the social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people.

From Philip Zimbardo’s “The Lucifer Effect“:

Dehumanization is the central construct in our understanding of ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ Dehumanization occurs whenever some human beings consider other human beings to be excluded from the moral order of being a human person. The objects of this psychological process lose their human status in the eyes of their dehumanizers. By identifying certain individuals or groups as being outside the sphere of humanity, dehumanizing agents suspend the morality that might typically govern reasoned actions toward their fellows.

Native appropriation and dehumanization – these physically, emotionally, and sexually violent images – makes our decent into the abyss easier for the masses to swallow: “Oh, they’re just Redskins. Just Siouxper Drunks. Just Halloween costumes, fashion accessories, and characters for actors to play. And just a token Indian to run over when we put him on an editorial news show.”

Redskins violence
Check out the t-shirts: Siouxper Offensive
This Victoria Secret model isn’t Native American. If she were, she’d be four times more likely to be assaulted or raped in her lifetime. Let’s perpetuate the “Sexy Indian Maiden” stereotype some more…

Another issue brought up in Kelly’s circus act was the idea that polls and surveys prove Native Americans and the public at large are totally fine with the Redskins team name. Polls? Surveys? “I think it’s really interesting,” Simon says to Kelly in the clip when she asks him about those ‘Polls’ (show me the money!). “It’s like, what Indians? You have an Indian before you.” Sadly, we are not enough, individually. But I digress. These polls are NEVER done on a reservation or in areas of mass Native concentrations. Not many living in those areas have the resources or infrastructure to take surveys like these in the first place. Beyond this, Native Americans make up about 2 percent of the total US population — let’s talk about how much the other 98 percent knows (or, better yet, cares) about our culture and history? <– Those are the people taking these polls and surveys, which we all know can be skewed toward whatever end you’re reaching for (that’s studied in Journalism Ethics 101, btw).

Finally, I want to talk about Simon’s assertion of the term ‘redskin’ being a dictionary-defined racial slur. It is. Like other derogatory terms, it’s hurtful and goes right back into the whole dehumanizing discussions above. Not so long ago, the ‘red skin’ of my ancestors was worth a big bounty. In the clip Simon points out, “Racial slurs toward Native Americans haven’t been rubbed out… People think it’s OK to denigrate Native Americans because it’s ‘their tradition.’ What about our tradition?”

Skins and scalps of Indians worth $200

Kelly demands Simon play the dictionary and asks, “What does it mean to denigrate? Just to say the word? Because let’s take the N-word for example. If it’s uttered by certain people, it’s considered grossly offensive. If it’s uttered by certain people – rappers, for example – it’s not considered offensive. So the Washington Redskins – that name was born at a time that it wasn’t found offensive, and most of the fans don’t find it offensive, most of the nation doesn’t find it offensive. Now, today, you tell me some – some portion of folks do find it offensive. So what makes a name truly derogatory or not?”

Truly derogatory? You mean, if you’re not personally offended by it, then it’s not really offensive? Lot’s of 101s going around today, and this is White Privilege rearing it’s ugly, blonde head. I’m not going to touch the N-word comment. Too many mascot protesters overuse and misuse the “double-standard” concept in their debates and completely throw our fellow minorities under the racism bus in order to prove a point (I admit to being one of these people until shown the error of my ways about a year ago). Yes, there are many people, Natives included, who do not find the term redskin offensive. But there are, in fact, Natives offended by the term, despite its origins, modern intents, and celebrity mouthpieces. The fact that a major non-Native entity supported by a vast majority of non-Native people approves of a term many Natives – Simon and me included – are personally offended by is racism.

The best thing to happen in the clip comes right after the slur discussion when sportscaster Jim Gray jumps in and says, “If you were naming a team today, Megyn, you could guarantee one thing: They would not name the new Washington baseball team the Redskins.” And she agrees, which totally goes back to the White Privilege comment: If a tree falls in the woods, it only makes a sound if a white person hears it.

Still: Point to Simon!

This will continue to be “debated” for years to come, but I promise you Natives will be victorious on this issue. We have to be. The self-esteem and morale of generations of young people – like my daughter – depend on it. I’ll leave you with this piece from “Psychology Today” and the Science of Small Talk:

In the end, these data pose a problem for claims that these mascots are honorific and likely to enhance the self-esteem of Native Americans. Even when that is (or has recently become) the motivation behind a team name, such good intent is not sufficient to bring about good outcomes. As the authors of the paper described above explain, “American Indian mascots do not have negative consequences because their content or meaning is inherently negative. Rather… [the mascots] remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them.”

 

On Why Hollywood’s Images of Natives are Dangerous

Producers of the Al Jazeera English show, The Stream, reached out last week to ask if I’d provide some commentary on today’s episode regarding Hollywood DEPPictions of Native Americans (that’s my pun!). It’s a neat, interactive show, and they had some good questions. However, I was given a 30-second window to comment, plus tweeting. For a topic this complicated (and controversial, especially among fellow Natives), I felt a little strangled for time. So in addition to my video on The Stream, I also wrote up this piece. By no means am I dropping anything here someone much smarter and more qualified than me hasn’t already discussed in detail. For more in-depth analysis, check out Native Appropriations and Reel Injun, just to point you in the direction of quality critiques.

@AJStream asked: “…[U]sing Tonto as an example… How do stereotypes affect the perceptions and treatment of Native Americans? And to what degree are racist depictions in mainstream media holding back progress within Native American communities?”

Following is the answer I’d have liked to have given:

Hollywood’s go-to design of a Native American character is this: The stoic Indian of bygone yesteryears, with his bow and arrow, feathers and paint, and a HUGE chip on his shoulder (and now a bird on his head – the new acronym is SMBH, shaking my bird head). The character is generally under-developed, very surface-y in his motivations, and never the title role. The character is usually male, as well. Outside of the newest Disney-generated Native bird-wearing archetype, I’m thinking of movies like Dances With Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, and The New World, among others. Then, if you’re showcasing the rare female lead character, say, someone like Pocahontas or Sacajawea, you get the over-sexualized woodland sprite communing with nature and navigation alike. In both cases, Hollywood presents us with under-developed, historically and culturally inaccurate characters depicted as noble savages fraught with need for a great white savior.

Now, critics of this line of thinking will often say, “It’s just a movie. It’s fiction. There are LOTS of fictional characters out there absolutely no one believes is how a real person acts.” Yeah, OK, but those characters are generally white, male, and heterosexual. The Privileged, if you will, because there are so many incarnations of them in media that it’s OBVIOUS there is no one mold for them. Hollywood tells us a white male can be anything he wants to be – today, yesterday, or even in the future. But a Native American male wears face paint, leathers, feathers (with or without the body of a bird – yeah, I have a big problem with avian appropriation, too), has a caring and protective white friend, and exists between the years 1492 and the late 1800s.

Therein lies a big chunk of the problem: We have no modern representations of ourselves on the silver screen. This is a big reason I supported Twilight, and I get a lot of flack for that. (Side note #1: Chaske Spencer, aka Sam Uley of the Twilight Saga, was featured on The Stream show and he was amaze-bombs.) Believe me, I get it, and I whole-heartedly agree that just as Johnny Depp donned redface for Tonto, so too did Taylor Lautner for Jacob Black. Beyond this, however, Twilight did a great job of casting several talented indigenous actors for various big roles; in addition, the story behind Jacob Black (and I’m talking the book here, to deviate a little) describes him as a lead character who just happens to be Native. His ethnic heritage (usually the only depth a Native character has) takes a backseat to the love triangle, and his character development as a son and capable leader. And I really enjoyed that this was the case for most of the wolf pack characters in the books and – to an extent – in the movies. No war paint or feathers (albeit a lot of fur) or alcoholism to be found.

This issue kinda came up during The Stream conversation, too. Chaske Spencer was asked about people seeing his role in Twilight as a sort of sellout move on his part. He had a fantastic reply, saying the franchise gave him an international platform to not only choose a more diverse range of films to act in (catch Winter in the Blood if you can!), but also to advocate for great indigenous causes. Then the host asked him something along the lines of: So, you’re using your heritage as a selling point? And Chaske Spencer was like: No, I’m not “selling” my heritage. That’s just who I am… I was proud of Chaske in that moment, because he brought to light the point I make over and over again in this post: Native Americans are relevant only when cultural byproducts (like regalia, and smudge sticks, and feathers) are involved. We are not individuals.

I’ll end the Twilight discussion here. For me, the biggest thing was it jumpstarted a new generation of readers. (Side note #2: I was introduced to The Twilight Saga by my then-15-year-old mentee, Tiffany, who recently turned 20. There were times throughout our relationship I didn’t expect this kid to graduate high school, for various reasons, so when she started telling me about this great book with a Native main character, I had to check it out. Thanks – in part – to Twilight, Tiffany and I built a stronger relationship and I have been entertained by the series – including the movies – ever since. I’d hang my head in shame if I weren’t so jazzed. *shrugs* Never said I was perfect!)

Returning to the topic at hand, even including Twilight, these Hollywood images leave us with few – if any – ways to interpret how a real, modern Native American looks, behaves, or what she desires. In our own familial and friendly circles, many of us will joke about how people ask if we really live in tipis, or ride horses all day, or if they can touch our hair. Funny, right? It happens far more often than any of us want to admit. We have to laugh to keep from crying. The frustrating reality here is this: We don’t exist as people until they actually meet one of us. And even then, developing a relationship beyond the silver screen takes a lot of time and patience on both my part and the part of the non-Native, which means true exchanges don’t often occur, because it really is just easier to live life based on assumptions (you know, like Skittle-wielding Black kids are inherently dangerous).

So where does that leave us? On one hand we have a Hollywood Indian dramatized as a paint-and-feather-wearing warrior whose people have all but disappeared from the face of the Earth. On the other hand we have the fantastical Hollywood Indian, a werewolf. And in these depictions lie the danger of the Hollywood Native Stereotype: We’re like museum artifacts from “back then,” and the imaginative creations of a white profiter; we’re fun to look at, but absent from any modern or realistic context.

That being said, you’d be hard-pressed to find either of these stereotypes in the real world today, and because those Hollywood images are what many people are working from, real Natives – and our issues – remain invisible. So when we have very real issues like crippling poverty, staggering unemployment, laundry lists of health issues, or even when we’re trying to enact positive change with protests against pipelines and predatory alcohol sales, we rate less than the latest celebrity gossip on the local news channels.

Stereotypes hold everyone back, because they don’t allow outsiders to see the human beings underneath all that black and white makeup and stupid bird hats. Stereotypes allow non-Natives to appropriate indigenous images and traditional aspects of our heritage with offensive whooping and tomahawk chopping, dancing in fringed costumes and war bonnets, Navajo panties at Urban Outfitters…

Argh! I AM NOT YOUR HIPSTER ACCESSORY, dammit!

It is so normalized and accepted in America that we see this (mis)appropriation of ourselves in music videos, fashion shows, Halloween parties, frat shindigs, and sporting events. We become obsolete pieces of art used solely for entertainment purposes. And just as Depp’s Tonto ended up as a carnival sideshow, so too do important tribal issues.

How does this all come back to harm Native people and communities? In one of my favorite books, The Lucifer Effect, Philip G. Zimbardo talks about how stereotypes and misrepresentations are classic tactics of those in power to marginalize, dehumanize and ultimately do away with specific populations:

Dehumanization is the central construct in our understanding of ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ Dehumanization occurs whenever some human beings consider other human beings to be excluded from the moral order of being a human person. The objects of this psychological process lose their human status in the eyes of their dehumanizers. By identifying certain individuals or groups as being outside the sphere of humanity, dehumanizing agents suspend the morality that might typically govern reasoned actions toward their fellows. (Zimbardo p. 307)

Zimbardo explains how dehumanizing can trigger ‘good’ people to commit atrocious acts, i.e. the Jewish Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, and abuse by guards at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. Dehumanization allows people to redefine harmful behavior as honorable, minimizes personal responsibility, maximizes apathy, and “reconstruct(s) our perception of victims as deserving their punishment” (p. 311). <—- Sound familiar? Read through some of the comments on my blog… Or better yet, through the troll-infested comment sections of news stories about Indian mascots or Hollywood depictions of ethnic people. In case you were operating under some delusion to the contrary, let me be the first to point out how alive and thriving racism is today. Let’s stop that whole "post-racial" fantasy, mmmkay?

In the case of Hollywood whitewashing, the context behind the offensive Native imagery is at issue. In relegating Native Americans to Western or mythological roles, Hollywood perpetuates and popularizes racist trends proponents say “honor” Natives; mascots, in particular, which are the little racist brothers to Hollywood’s stereotypes.

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns regarding AI [American Indian] mascots is that, because AIs may be largely defined by (and socially represented in terms of) mascot stereotypes, AI people have ceased to be perceived as real. From the time of first contact with European explorers, AIs have been portrayed fictionally as barbaric, wild, and savage––terms that imply AI people are less than human. Thus, it could be argued that AIs have existed as mascots for the 500+ year history of this country, and one consequence of AI sports mascots is that they keep AI people allegorically fixed as a kind of ‘cultural souvenir’ preserved in the American identity. (Chaney, Burke & Burkely, 2012, p. 43)

Mascots and Hollywood stereotypes exacerbate the issues plaguing Indian Country today by making the American public complacent and indifferent to those “Indian-only” problems, in addition to totally leaving out the fact that many of these issues are because of past and current U.S. POLICIES (I’m thinking in terms of assimilation, allotment, boarding schools, ICWA, VAWA, and – most recently – the sequester)! These images further divide Us and Them, because we Natives are nothing more than ticket sales and sports jerseys. Who cares about the Indians when there are REAL issues to deal with? Dehumanizing Natives through racist imagery has been the most effective modern means of annihilating the few of us remaining.