Who’s saving your child’s life? (or, Why Native American mascots must end)

                                      Indian_physicians

Dan Snyder, the current owner of the Washington “Redskins,” defends his team’s mascot in very bipolar ways. On one hand, he states that the Redskins mascot is just a symbol…doing no harm to anyone. Days later, he states, in very emotional rhetoric, that his dad spent months (if not years) seeking the right image among tribes in the Western United States to make the current image of the Redskin on his team’s helmet. Dan Snyder’s racism – yes, Dan Snyder is racist – is bipolar because it attempts to offer up the extremely emotional and the extremely indifferent (simultaneously!) all for the purposes of maintaining status quo.

The fact is, mascots dehumanize the people that they represent. In one way, mascots misrepresent the dead. They aren’t historically accurate.  In another way, mascots take living people out of our collective senses of reality. They make some living people obsolete and unimportant. 

The sports culture in America is on a mission to be victorious and maintain team pride (read: national pride) for the sake of a paying public. That’s why many folks in Washington DC and other large sports cities describe their areas as “Redskins Nation” and “Red Sox Nation” (for examples). These teams, in their aiming for victory, help perpetuate a psychological hunt. This isn’t lost on older Americans, many of which were born and raised in the early to mid-20th century when sports and war were simultaneous. A great book titled SHOWDOWN by Thomas Smith discusses how Americans clothed themselves in the veneer of Redskins (and Cowboy) fandom while the United States was at the brink of nuclear warfare with Russia and in the middle of the war over Black civil rights.

Recently, both Mike Ditka (famed Chicago Bears coach) and Ted Nugent (a formerly popular musician) have stated explicitly that Native American activists are in the way. While Nugent told Native Americans in the Great Plains that they should “go back where they came from,” Mike Ditka has stated with certainty that activists against the use of the “Redskins” mascot by the NFL are out of their mind. Both men make Native Americans out to be antagonists of a nationalistic, sports-centered ethos. In their minds, this is America, and it will always be America…and Native Americans ought not mess with that. 

Stephen Carter, a faculty member in the Law program at Yale University, wrote an article (link here) titled “Hail to the Lumbee” that suggested that we might consider changing the Washington DC football mascot name from “Redskins” to “Lumbee.”  I thought it was ironic that Stephen Carter is Black. I know the Ivy League system quite well. His role as a Black faculty member at Yale is surprising in its own right. Beyond that, however, I am surprised by his use of his role as a Yale faculty member to provide propaganda for a major news outlet without any interrogation of where and for whom he writes. I was surprised that he, a Black faculty member in the Ivy League, would be insensitive to the racial plight of Native American people.

Mr. Carter’s article showing up in the Chicago Tribune is possibly purposeful. Chicago is in the state of Illinois. The University of Illinois has made it no secret that they are protecting the “Chief Illiniwek” mascot for their mostly White alumni base. The Chicago Blackhawks organization has, overwhelmingly, ignored how its use of the Blackhawks logo helps celebrate a quite brutal history of Indian genocide and removal in the Chicago region. The Chicago Blackhawks fan base is multi racial….and you should not be surprised to see people from the nation of India wearing tshirts and other garb that have the word “Indian” and pictures of feathers on them. It shows how the colonial conquest of Columbus has been fulfilled. 

I think about the arguments that are made by pro-Redskins folks about why we should allow the continued use of the “Redskin” as a sports mascot. Their arguments, often, discuss how Native mascots are used to honor the “bravery” or “history” of Native American people in the United States. Mr. Carter, in his article in the Chicago Tribune, states that this should be considered as we continue to use Native American mascots.  In his description of why the Washington mascot should be changed to a Lumbee, he writes about how Lumbee people are brave, smart, savvy, determined, etc. He discusses their education and political determination. Mr. Carter goes as far as using the example of Sean Locklear, a Lumbee Indian football player. Sean Locklear, he suggests, played for the Washington Redskins for a number of years. So, in Mr. Carter’s opinion, we should take that as an affirmation that Sean Locklear (and his people) would endorse such a move to make Lumbee people a mascot. 

In attempting to comprehend the idiocy of Carter, Ditka, and Nugent, it is apparent that they see racial segregation and racism as systemic and systematic processes that only affect Black and White peoples in the contemporary world. They live in a faux-tolerant society that would never tolerate a football team that celebrates the bravery of Black slaves. (I can see it now, a bright green and red helmet with a black man emasculated under chains).  Americans can’t (or don’t) comprehend that the “Redskin” and every other Native American mascot is a token of American victory over the Native american body and mind. While the White pattern of thought is to say that Native American people were brave, we know that Native American men often posed with government photographers after months and years of accepting the conditions of war. They were handed medals, which were dual symbols. On one hand they symbolized “peace.” On the other hand, they were an inverted trophy, given from the victor to the loser in colonial battle. 

Indeed, what is forgotten in all the debates about the Redskins mascot is how we tend to glamorize the assassinated, the victimized, and the publicly shamed. We think that Black Americans shouldn’t riot like Malcom X. We think that Martin Luther King provided a better example of how the racially oppressed should act. With the CIA and and every other soul stealing spy agency on his back, Martin Luther King was depicted as a stoic martyr. Similarly, sports fans, when questioned about the use of the Redskin, state that he (the “Redskin”) represents the brave Indian…the one who was proud of his fight until the end.

In the meantime, little Black boys and little Indian boys don’t carry with them the same stoic looks. They are often angry and hostile, and their disruptions as living peoples is anything but acceptable within American society. They are often told that their “attitudes” and demeanors ought to be more respectful and pleasant to look at. 

Yet, what if that little boy is smart and able to make his way through medical school? (I’m keeping the gender theme going here because the Washington “Redskin” is male.) When working in DC two years ago, I tended to ask many of my colleagues (in a local hospital) about their appreciation of the Redskins. Many of my Black colleagues would easily put me off by stating that they were “part Indian.” My White colleagues would easily put me off by stating that “history” was “too big” to change. I asked them if their token Indianess or their incomprehension of history could make sense of a Native American doctor coming into a Washington DC hospital. “What would happen to them?” I would ask. “Could they be Native American and be a doctor?”

I said to one of my colleagues, “Try to understand what would happen if a Lumbee man was a doctor in the DC area and had a child patient ask them what they were. Consider what may happen if that Lumbee doctor said ‘Native American.’ Then the child said, ‘like the Indian man on the helmet.’ Then think about the way that this doctor would be perceived. We hope that the Lumbee doctor would break stereotypes. However, it seems more plausible that the child wouldn’t be able to comprehend a ‘real’ and ‘live’ Native American when all they know is Black and White fans at Redskins games dressing up in faux feathers and face paint on Sunday afternoons.”

This was my example…and it depended on my breaking the Native American doctor out of the feathers and stoic face…out of the death and disfigurement…and making him important within the context of treating a child in an emergency room situation. To exist as real people, Native Americans can’t continue to exist on a helmet or jersey. They can’t be stoic. They must be allowed to live in the here and now as fully animate and comprehendible human beings.

They may be saving your child’s life. 

 

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