Essential DC, History, Interviews, Life in the Capital, Opinion, Special Events, Sports Fix, The Features, They Make DC, We Love Arts

Local Indigenous Artist Showcases the Racism of Redskin

(c) Gregg Deal

(c) Gregg Deal

Those who think the continuing movement to change the name of the local pro football team is a waste of time and trivial were clearly not at the recent Art All Night event here in the District. Secreted in one corner of the venue was local Indigenous artist Gregg Deal. His project, “Redskin,” took on the racial overtones of the team moniker and projected it at his audience.

What he, nor spectators or his helpers predicted was just how pointed it ended up being.

Deal first let me know of the project in early September. What initially struck me about his proposed performance piece was the fact he was willingly subjecting himself to some serious abuse. Natives in the area–as well as those protesting football games elsewhere in the country–have always been subjected to abuses by team fans, especially if they’re open about their opposition to the name. (Witness the reactions by fans, as recalled by several Natives, during a recent taping for The Daily Show.)

So why do it, especially in an art venue? “As people of color, or more specifically, Indigenous people, we deal with something called microaggression. It’s the needle pricks in our general American society and culture that says or does things that are offensive to Natives. They’re called ‘microaggression’ because they are passive aggressive enough to get by your average person, but still aggressive,” said Deal. “For example, when I worked at the National Museum of American Indian in 2004-2005, someone asked me if I still lived in a Tipi. This would be microaggression because it’s an insane questions that is based on stereotypes, but it’s also a statement about what this person believes quantifies me as an Indigenous person.”

The term ‘redskin,’ painted faces and faux headdresses, drunken war chants – these are all examples of microaggression. Deal’s performance piece was meant to use all of these abuses, commonly found in tailgate parties at FedEx Field and used by team fans around the world, over an eight-hour period. “I ended up calling it after just over four hours,” said Deal. “All of us–my friends who were helping me and myself–were just mentally and psychologically drained from the experience.”

Bryce Huebner, an Associate Professor at Georgetown University, was one of Deal’s assistants who played a part of one of the abusive fans. “I said things that I would never say in real life, in hopes of making it clear how ugly and harmful the casual racism against indigenous people in the United States is,” he said. “I was struck by how difficult it was to start playing that role, when I arrived my heart was pounding and I could hardly speak; but more troubling by far was the fact that it became easy to continue as I started to play off of the other actors. There’s an important lesson there: if you surround yourself with people who espouse hostile attitudes, it’s much easier to adopt those attitudes yourself.”

Deal said a lot of the audience mentioned to him how truly real it felt, watching it unfold, and he agreed. “After it got rolling, the invective felt truly real, like a few situations I’ve found myself in around the District.” When I mentioned that a Huffington Post review said it was unauthentic because he had used his friends as the antagonists, Deal laughed. “They should’ve been in my place, then. It certainly felt real to me.”

Deal (seated) in the middle of his "Redskin" performance. (c) Darby

Deal (seated) in the middle of his “Redskin” performance. (c) Darby

Tara Houska, a board member of Not Your Mascots and a big proponent of the name change movement in the District, was one of the audience members. “The experience of watching Indigenous-based racism being hurled at a Native was difficult, to say the least,” she said. “Some of those phrases hit too close to home, and brought me back to moments in which I’ve experienced racism. At times, it was hard to keep in mind that it was a performance. I wanted to yell at the antagonizers to back off, and felt the hurt Gregg must have been feeling.”

Both Houska and Deal were also participants in the recent Daily Show segment that showed a panel of team fans and a panel of Indigenous people who, after separate discussions, confronted each other through the show’s direction. The segment has had mixed reaction in the press, with a lot of sympathy generated for the four white fans (who all self-identified as some fraction of various tribes, but with no real knowledge of their heritage – or, in one case, how generational fractions work). The incidents taped at FedEx field later between some of the Native panelists (specifically, the 1491s) and fans weren’t shown, which is unfortunate.

“Honestly, both the Daily Show and my art performance felt very similar,” said Deal. “The racism against Indigenous people in this country is so ingrained it it’s culture that the only way a team could exist as a mascot (which is defined as a clown, a court jester, by the way…nice ‘honor’) in the first place. The Washington Redskins–and other Indian mascots–are a really good illustration of not only how disconnected America is from it’s own history, but how disconnected it is from the issue of equality towards Indigenous people is. We are literally sitting on an issue where a significant amount of this country’s Indigenous are saying ‘it’s offensive’ and the answer is ‘no, it’s not offensive at all!’”

Gregg Deal with "Colonialism"

Gregg Deal with “A Nice Can of Colonialism”

Deal went on to say the whole movement to change the name isn’t really about offense, but about equality. “What you’re looking at is the tip of a very big iceberg of issues that are simply illustrated by this specific issue. The fact that we don’t seem to own our identity enough for someone to allow us to assert that identity appropriately, but that a corporate sports team is making billions from our image and likeness and has the audacity to fly it under the flag of honor is insanity,” he said. “Let’s be honest here, it’s not about honor, tradition, or any other lame excuse Dan or his constituents are saying. It’s about money, and the fans have all bought into supporting one of this country’s financial top one percent.”

Houska felt that Deal’s passion really came through in his performance piece, and she applauded him for taking a stand in such a public way. “I think it was a very in-your-face method to get locals aware that Natives experience racism, including the racist imagery and name of the Washington team,” she said. “We have all experienced being belittled and told to ‘get over it.’ I hope that people walked away with a sense of understanding that microaggression is a very real and damaging thing. And how it feels to be deluged by caricatured Natives via the Washington football team and having no say in it, despite being the subject of that caricature.”

Deal agreed. “I believe the term REDSKIN, if it belongs anywhere…it belongs to Indigenous people. In the same way the Black community essentially own the N-word,” he said. “While there are different schools of thought on that word and it’s usage in the Black community, it’s understood that if you use that word outside the Black community, you’re a certain type of person. The word ‘redskin’ belongs to us, and it’s not up to [non-Indigenous people] how it’s used.”

For more information on the name change social media movement, visit Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, Not Your Mascots, or follow the #changethename hashtag on Twitter.

History, Opinion, Sports Fix, The Features

Hey R**skin Fans, Snyder Cares! (Not Really)

With little fanfare, Washington pro football team owner Dan Snyder slipped a letter out to the team’s fan mailing list this past Sunday. It was a masterful work of self-service. In it, Snyder finally realized there were problems in Indian Country, based on a supposed 26 visits to various reservations around the country. The visits – all cherry-picked to councils who “agree” with him about the “non-offensive” nature of the team’s moniker – apparently opened his eyes to the plight and ills of reservation residents.

Let’s set aside for a moment that Snyder refuses to meet with tribal councils who oppose the name, including the still-open invitation from the Oneida Nation in New York. Snyder quickly jumped to the “hey, there’s more important issues to deal with than changing a football team’s name” defense, pointing out the horrific poverty rates, unemployment, poor health, and abysmal education found on many Native reservations. And yes, these are real problems. Big ones. Continue reading

History, Sports Fix, The Features, WTF?!

What’s In a Football Name? Snyder Thinks He Knows – And He’s Wrong

So this popped out the other day.

It’s no secret how I feel about the whole name thing with the Washington football team. I oppose it. I think it’s racist. I have several personal issues with the name. But that’s not why I decided to post something about it.

The letter is a poor public relations attempt, mostly to mollify diehard team fans who will, unto the bitter end, support the racist moniker. Not out of reason, but blind emotion.

Hey, I get it. I understand why. Team fandom is a complicated, deep, personal thing that involves a lot of emotional investment and history. It’s difficult to hear that your beloved franchise is doing something wrong – simply by using a name (and by extension, mascot and other fan accoutrements).

The problem comes when that moniker is unveiled to be racist. The Washington issue isn’t anything new; it’s been around for decades. The movement today has found new momentum and has begun to find rightful traction in righting a wrong. (Just like the Civil Rights Movement began finding traction nearly one hundred years after Emancipation.)

The first third of Snyder’s letter is a play on his loyal fanbase’s emotional strings. “I still remember…the passion of the fans…the ground beneath me seemed to move and shake…he’s been gone for 10 years now…” All phrases and words evoking emotions and certainly causing the reader to recall their own cherished memories. Setting them into their defensive stance, so that the rest of the letter, which uses standard PR spin and deft deflection, only ratchets up the emotional volume for their impassioned – and misguided – defense.

Oh, and then there’s the trite “Our past isn’t just where we came from–it’s who we are” phrase. Bolded and italicized, even. Because it’s important!  Continue reading

Business and Money, Downtown, Education, Essential DC, History, Life in the Capital, Opinion, People, The Features

A Conversation on Culture and Change Regarding the Washington [blank]s

Photo courtesy of BrianMKA
FedEx seats
courtesy of BrianMKA

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. Continue reading

Downtown, Fun & Games, Special Events, The Features

NMAI: Living Earth Festival 2012

Photo courtesy of bhrome
Bill Miller and Derek Miller at Living Earth 2010
courtesy of bhrome

Celebrate indigenous contributions to environmental sustainability, knowledge and traditions at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian’s third annual Living Earth Festival, presented from Friday, July 20, through Sunday, July 22. This year’s festival features an organic farmers market, an outdoor cooking competition, music and dance performances, hands-on workshops about gardening, goat cheese and basketry, as well as discussions about the impact of climate change on marine habitats and concerns over genetically modified foods.  Continue reading

Downtown, History, Special Events, The Features, We Love Arts

NMAI: Hear the Song of the Horse Nation

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian opened its doors this past weekend to a new exhibition, “A Song for the Horse Nation.” The exhibition, nestled on the third floor of the museum, tells the epic tale of the how the return of the horse to the Americas changed Native culture, from lifestyle to war to art and beyond. “For some Native peoples, the horse still is an essential part of daily life,” said exhibit curator Emil Her Many Horses (Ogala Lakota). “For others, the horse will always remain an element of our identity and our history. The Horse Nation continues to inspire, and Native artists continue to celebrate the horse in our songs, our stories, and our works of art.”

To walk the exhibit’s path is to walk side by side with the conjoined path of Native and horse. Though horses were introduced to the Native Americans relatively late in North American history—the early 1700s saw the initial widespread explosion of the horse from captured Spanish mounts in the southwest—the image of Indians astride these graceful animals is one that is common to modern Americans. The “Horse Nation” quickly entwined themselves with Native communities, forever altering tribal culture and the Indian way of life.

The Smithsonian’s exhibit seeks to give us a view into that not-so-distant past. But it’s more than just a simply history lesson: subtly but surely, “A Song for the Horse Nation” reveals how interwoven both horse and man became among 38 tribal communities from the Plains and Western United States. The horse was more than a beast of burden or a tool; the animal became a part of Native culture that still resonates among the people today. Continue reading

Downtown, Education, History, Special Events, The District, The Features, The Mall, We Love Arts

The Song of Emil Her Many Horses

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

out of the earth / I sing for them
A Horse nation / I sing for them
out of the earth / I sing for them,
the animals / I sing for them.

~a song by the Teton Sioux

Emil Her Many Horses is, by first appearance, a quiet, unassuming gentleman. A museum specialist in the office of Museum Programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), he is responsible for the facility’s latest exhibition “A Song for the Horse Nation.” A member of the Ogala Lakota nation of South Dakota, his expertise on the Northern and Southern Plains cultures is well served and seen in the exhibit that opens to the public tomorrow.

NMAI’s latest offering is a touching and brilliant display of how the horse has deeply impacted and affected Native cultures since their introduction to the Americas in the 17th century. “The exhibit tells the history of the horse; that they were here once before, migrated to Europe, and returned as the horse we know today,” explained Her Many Horses. “They changed Native culture. The horse had a major impact on hunting, warfare, travel, spirituality. These were big changes.” Changes that extend beyond the European vision of the animal.

Seen as a beast of burden, a tool, a weapon, the horse was brought and used by European explorers and colonists early in America’s “New World” history. And their introduction, according to many Natives, was probably one of the biggest positive changes brought about by the white man.

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Downtown, Entertainment, Interviews, Music, Special Events, The Features, The Mall, We Love Arts

NMAI’s Indian Summer Showcase Not Just for Natives

Photo courtesy of
‘Bill Miller and Derek Miller (no relation) perform at the 2010 Indian Summer Showcase at NMAI’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

Tomorrow afternoon, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is hosting a free outdoor concert to kick off their yearly Indian Summer Showcase. This year, the Indian Country/Country Indian concert will feature Victoria Blackie (Navajo), Rebecca Miller (Six Nations, Canada), and Becky Hobbs (Cherokee). The concert will take place at 5 pm outside on the Welcome Plaza in front of the museum’s main entrance.

I was fortunate enough to squeeze some time from Victoria and Becky to talk about their music, their heritage, and what inspires them in their artistry.

First, there’s Victoria Blackie. Last year’s winner of the Debut Artist of the Year at the Native American Music Awards, she also performed at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her voice has been described as powerful with lots of soul, hearkening back to the days of Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and other female greats of the past. And don’t let her small stature fool you (she’s 5’1”); her voice is strong enough to pull you in and versatile enough to appeal to a wide range of country enthusiasts.

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History, Scribblings, Special Events, The Features

American Indians, American Presidents…And a Heritage

Photo courtesy of
‘In the land of the Sioux’
courtesy of ‘Smithsonian Institution’

Ask someone on the street about Native American history and more often than not, they’ll most likely recall the “Thanksgiving story,” the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century, “Custer’s Last Stand,” or probably the (abysmal) movie Dances With Wolves. It’s an era of our nation’s history that I think many know little about – or choose to look the other way – and I cannot blame them for it. It’s not a pretty period of history, nor is it exactly the United States’ most proudest collection of moments.

When I saw the National Museum of the American Indian’s (NMAI) press release regarding the variety of activities in celebration of Native American Indian Heritage Month, one of the events that caught my eye was today’s lecture with NMAI Director Kevin Gover and museum historian Mark Hirsch. They were speaking regarding a book the Smithsonian released last year, American Indians, American Presidents: A History, edited by Clifford E. Trafzer. While I couldn’t attend the lecture, I had wanted to interview both Director Gover and Mr. Hirsch regarding the book and its impact but despite both NMAI and my best efforts, we couldn’t quite make things work out.

Nonetheless, I decided to forge ahead with a look at this book – even though it was released last year – for a variety of reasons. Native American history is a subject very close to me, for starters, and is an era of history I feel is mostly glossed over in classrooms. The struggle of Native Americans during this country’s formation and rise to power is something that cannot be ignored and, I believe, contains lessons for our future as a nation and as a people.

So I asked NMAI for a copy of the book, eager to see what new perspectives awaited within. And…I was left wanting. Continue reading

History, Interviews, People, The Features

Scribblings: Paul Chaat Smith

Paul Chaat Smith 4/18/09

On one of the first springtime Saturdays in April, I managed to slip down to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian to catch its associate curator, Paul Chaat Smith, read from his latest book Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong. Not exactly an event to herald the death of a wet, extended winter, but the book title and press release had my attention. I wanted to know more about the book – and the man behind it. Spring, for the moment, could wait.

I wasn’t disappointed.

To understand the author is to understand the book that much more. It’s less a cohesive treatise on any particular point – and if you’re looking for a “top ten” list based on the title, you’ll be sorely disappointed. As Paul stated, “It’s a book title, folks, not to be taken literally. Of course I don’t mean everything, just most things. And ‘you’ really means we, as in all of us.”

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