Lyn Ellen Lacy is a retired public school teacher, author of four books, mother of three and a defender of cultural identities for all peoples. Especially the Native Americans. She formed the opinions below after listening, learning and teaching Ojibwe and Dakota students in Minnesota.
Perhaps it is unusual for a woman to enter the debate about sports mascots. Perhaps, but not if you know Lyn Ellen.
The University of North Dakota (UND) has three years to win approval from the state’s two Sioux (Dakota) tribes or pick a nickname other than the Fighting Sioux. The Indian logo is emblazoned everywhere on the university campus, anhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifd the debate has been “quite disruptive”, with Native American students feeling forced to explain their opinions, whether they feel strongly or not. The issue is likely going to cause disruption on the reservations as well.
“Such imagery has no place in our collegiate athletics,” said NCAA spokesman Bob Williams. However, the same kind of debate ended in Florida State continuing to use the Seminoles name and logo, after approval from a local tribe. Other tribes in the country remain offended and continue to fight against use of such Indian imagery in sports.
The head-dressed and whooping stereotype of Native Americans is a classic example of culture clash. Non-Native people dressed up as team mascots invade our living rooms through televised sports events. The fans brandish tomahawks and war paint. The mascot issue has been publicly divisive for decades. After talking with Native educators over many years, here are some of the pro- and con- attitudes they identify in the dispute about stereotypes.
1. “Telling other people what they can and cannot do, within the law, is not the American way. It’s censorship and it’s wrong.” But isn’t the American way that all people have the right to equal and fair treatment? All groups have the right to an accurate portrayal of their own culture. They have a right to say what offends them, and other groups have a responsibility to listen, learn, and abide by what is asked of them to the best of their abilities.
2. “Mascots are all in good fun, and nobody means any harm.” Having fun become making fun when someone dresses up as someone else and acts foolish. Picture someone doing that to your own heritage. Native Americans also want to have fun but they are not amused by demeaning images, just as African Americans were not amused by black-faced minstrels. We don’t have them anymore. Just because someone is not acting maliciously does not mean that harm in not done. The greatest harm for Native Americans is that their children, generation after generation, are hurt by these negative self-images in the media.
3. “Mascots are intended to honor the bravery and colorful heritage of Native people.” Many Native Americans are not flattered by savage and warlike portrayals. Traditional beliefs and spirituality are insulted by parodies of ceremonial symbols such as the headdress, sacred music, and peace pipe. No one would consider names like the New York Negroes or Chicago Jews as honoring those groups. According to the dictionary, “Redskins” is an ethnic slur as damaging as other slurs most Americans no longer use. We should all be ashamed of the name of the football team from our own nation’s capital.
4. “Indians are squandering their energies over trivial issues when they have much more important ones to worry about.” Falsely portraying another’s way of life is a basic denial of human dignity. It transcends entertainment, because it condones an idea that Native American are somehow less than other humans, and it directly affects contemporary social policies concerning other issues. Nothing is going to change until the stereotype is erased.
5. “Other groups are stereotyped as mascots and nobody complains.” What group would that be? The Giants? The Vikings? Mythical beings and vanished warriors of the past are a bit different than real Native people who live in the present but are portrayed by non-Native people dressed up like them and acting foolish. The Bears? Come on. The Steelers? Being a Native person is not an occupation or role someone else can play. For that matter, non-Native children shouldn’t dress up as "Indians" on Halloween night or for a Thanksgiving play either. We just perpetuate the stereotype for the next generation, on and on and on.
6. “Not all Indians complain and some even participate.” This is at the heart of the UND and Florida State decisions. As in all other cultures, however, Native people are not all the same. They vary in knowledge of traditions and commitment to beliefs. Native Americans very often do not presume to speak for others. Many of them will not speak out at all because to be in the public eye is not part of their culture.
7. “Indians didn’t complain until they got in the national spotlight and this idea became politically correct.” Along with other people of color, Native Americans have protested for decades against institutional stereotypes. The protest has become more visible in the media because the protestors’ numbers are growing, organizations have broader bases, and various groups are banding together, including many non-Indians like myself.
8. “Mascots have been around for years, and we resist the idea of giving up what we have.” Although none of us today is responsible for the acts of others in the past, aren’t we collectively responsible as Americans to correct mistakes that have been made when we can? Isn’t each group supposed to learn and grow in appreciation of others not like themselves?
9. “American culture is a rich mixture of many people’s traditions. And everyone has the right to use cultural symbols even though they have no ancestral connection to them.” Many traditions are spiritual in nature to Native people, and parodying them for one’s own amusement is trivializing and abusive. When one knows what symbols mean and how to use them properly, one does not use them frivolously and looks with disdain on those who do.
10. “We’re all Americans after all and should look at things the same way.” If multiculturalism is to become a reality in this country, Native Americans must assert their right to define themselves and to expect others to abide by their definition. Historically, many Native people have never desired assimilation to the degree of other groups. Today, many of them attempt to mesh traditional values with contemporary settings, living in two worlds. By race they are American Indians, by citizenship Americans, and by nationality they may be not only enrolled members of a tribal nation but also hereditary members of other nations. Many identify themselves in all these ways, with no single label, no single way of looking at things, no one “American Indian” – no stereotype.