Nicknames reveal more about us than about those they denigrate
The offensive name of Washington's National Football League team just won't go away. So just for fun, let's change the name to Blackies. After all, I doubt there are any American Indians on the Washington team. Then let's create a mascot by painting a white kid's face black, pulling an afro wig over his blond hair, and tying a few chains around his arms and legs. He can run around the stadium grinning and chanting gibberish to the whoops and cheers of the fans.
How long would that team stay out of court? Not long. There are laws against racial bias. But in our nation's capital, we allow an offensive name and behavior toward American Indians, taking sacred and cultural elements and turning them into fun and games. And it isn't only in Washington, D.C., that this takes place. We've seen it in public schools in many states. Minnesota among them. But with pressure from concerned American Indians and other civil rights groups, that changed in the late 1990s. Fifty public schools had indian mascots/logos. Now only a handful remain, including Warroad. The National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media is working toward ending the last vestiges of misuse of American Indian cultures and religions in public schools.
Do not be taken in by the "honor" rationale used so often by offending teams. Look at the depictions used by many teams with Indian logos and names. Half naked savages wielding tomahawks and scalps, faces painted, screaming war whoops. Even those teams that attempt a different presentation are a distortion of our country's history. Our concept of manifest destiny didn't have room for American Indians. They had to go. The noble savage image gave way to the uncivilized pagan standing in the way of western expansion. We decimated them, killed the bison on which they depended for life itself, and tried to destroy their cultures and languages. Now that we have pretty much "put them in their place," we "honor" them?
There are some American Indians who support the use of Indian mascots. One of the saddest remarks I've heard is one made by a native person: "Better to be a mascot than to be ignored." That is a sad commentary on how many American Indians view themselves -- ignored by the majority of American leaders and citizens. Yet that bit of truth is apparent when a native person believes it is better to be made fun of and stereotyped on a sports field than to be forgotten.
An Indian friend once said, "If a team wants to stereotype native people they should put us in modern clothes, driving a car, buying groceries, loving our families, like every white person. We're just like everyone else."
Whether we name a team Redskins or Blackies or Warriors, it says more about us than those we denigrate.
Pat Helmberger is the author of "Indians as Mascots in Minnesota Schools." She lives in Grand Rapids.