By now, local Washington media has covered the internet with their summaries of a timely – yet still largely ignored – issue involving a particular football team located in this area. While Racial Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports spoke to the broader issues regarding Native American culture and peoples and their use as sports logos and traditions, make no mistake: the local NFL team’s moniker was a lynchpin in the discussion. The topic was subject of one-third of the day’s symposium, and itself is well-covered elsewhere. (You can watch the recording online in its entirety.)
I couldn’t attend in person, so I settled for the live webcast. And I’ve spent time re-watching the panels as well, because there was so much information and passion involved I couldn’t catch all of it the first time around. I could probably write several blog posts about the topic, and may yet in the future.
But what I wanted to really comment here and now, since other outlets are more focused on the local team aspect, is some key comments made by Director Kevin Gover at the start of the day. Thanks to NMAI, I received a full copy of his remarks; they provide a context that is important to the background of the overall discussion. While I won’t simply copy them all here – you can listen to Dr. Gover online for that – I did want to point out some relevant comments.
The call to change the team’s moniker isn’t an isolated issue and it’s not, as many opponents callously bawl, “a bunch of PC bull.” It’s part of a broader issue in how we, as humans on this planet, relate and respect each person’s beliefs, culture, and ideals. How is it that this crude and racist epithet continues to exist on the fourth-most valuable sports franchise in the world? It’s an issue that goes beyond the misguided use of a word; it’s the taint of a past that many refuse – or ignore – exists. Dr. Gover addressed this in his opening remarks:
Certain myths persist and are reinforced. Disney’s animated “Pocahontas” celebrates the Indian-princess-helping-white-people-bring-civilization story of old. Even the movies in which Indians are heroes too often engage in the old stereotypes. The large blue Indians of “Avatar” and the Indian werewolves of the popular “Twilight” series may be heroes, but note the spectacular violence of which they are capable. Note as well the addition of new stereotypes that evolved in the late twentieth century: Indians as pristine environmentalists and, even better, magic Indians.
Further, these characters represent Indians of the past. Television, movies, and books almost never portray Indians as contemporary characters. are confined to the past, as though the government’s policies directed toward the deconstruction of Native nations had succeeded universally. The practice of using Native people as mascots largely emerged at the very time government policy was to deliberately destroy Native language, Native religion, and Native identity. In this respect, the mascots served very directly the government’s purpose by portraying Indians as proud and noble figures, but only figures of the past. Government policy and the popular culture assumed that, certainly by the end of the twentieth century, there would be no more Indians.
These policies find their roots in the misguided beliefs of the nineteenth century in racial hierarchy and the ranking of cultures from primitive to civilized. It hardly bears noting that the so-called “science” of race in the nineteenth century always concluded that white people, “Anglo-Saxon” or “Nordic” white people in particular, were the pinnacle of human development and their civilizations were the best ever achieved. This foolishness has long since been discredited as simple racism, as have the policy ideas that arose from it. The popular culture, however, has kept alive the “vanishing red man” stereotype that is at the foundation of the phenomenon of Native mascots.
The celebrations of our extinction turned out, of course, to have been premature. However, certain ideas and themes in the popular culture remain persistent and influential. Native mascots are primary offenders in perpetuating these stereotypes. Consider why a franchise or university might choose a Native image to represent its team or teams. We are told that they are meant to honor Native American qualities such as bravery, strength (physical, not mental), endurance, and pride. Certainly Native people had and have those qualities in varying degrees, though I do not believe that they had or have them in greater quantity than other peoples. And why is it that Native people are not chosen to represent positive human qualities such as intelligence, piety, generosity, and love of family? I suppose the answer is that we are far less interesting to mascot makers when revealed to be ordinary human beings, with all the virtues and failures of other human beings.
At the National Museum of the American Indian, we address a public that has been deeply influenced by the failings of formal education and the misinformation imbedded in the popular culture. The existence of Native American mascots is partly responsible for this misinformation. Mascots stereotype Native people, employing imagery and ideas that arose from the racism of the nineteenth century.
I challenge those who find the whole “name change” issue either pointless or an affront to their team loyalty to take the time and watch the symposium, listen to the panelists. Better yet, visit the museum. Talk to the staff. Grasp the cultures of the hundreds of nations that were here before Europeans – and still thrive today. Learn more about the “history” behind the team traditions. (Did you know Lone Star Deitz, whom the team was supposedly named for, was actually 100% German and posed as a Sioux to avoid serving in the Army? I didn’t until yesterday…)
We need to look at this issue not with burgundy and gold glasses, but with educated respect and understanding. That’s how change truly begins. And hopefully, one day soon, we’ll all be united in cheering on a re-branded and re-birthed Washington football franchise.