Friday, November 7, 2014

My Scalp is Not for Sale: Not Your Mascot

**Fictional account of a hypothetical situation intended to give  different view of a topic that has been dissected, debated, intellectualized into the ground, discussed by pundits and posers, and you're sick of hearing about it.  Good. Turn that sickness into action. It can really be this simple. **

Dad was always a Patriots fan. Through thick and thin, victory and defeat, snowy games, rainy games, beautiful sun kissed games that made you as soft and gooey inside as the meatballs in the crockpot. He loved them. Not like a man loves his spouse. Not like a man loves his brand new car. Not like (in my Dad's case) a man loves his favorite frying pan and spatula. When a man loves a sports franchise it becomes a part of his makeup. It goes beyond the merchandise, lineup, injury report, season record, or how many rings they wear. It's about the rituals, the pride, the comfort of the routine, the excitement of the outcomes. It's looking ahead to the next season and knowing that your team will be there waiting for you. It's about tradition. It's about hope.

Dad isn't a "typical" dad.  No pot belly with a beer can resting on it as he calls plays from his trusty recliner while my mother serves up nachos and wings. He loves preparing delicious food for the family after his outside work is done.  He loves to run and had been sort of a football player himself in his day. He is a loving and active father to the three of us and a good partner to my mom who looks at him as he jumps, yells, and swears at the tv and says "He works hard, he deserves it"as if convincing herself as much as anyone. There is a special science to the sports loving human male, I don't pretend to understand it. I attribute some of his passion to the fact that we are Indigenous people of America. Native, if you will. I guess we have gotten through quite a bit by having faith and believing in the future.

Then there is me. Fifteen year old son of Mr. Patriot. I live on the reservation with my parents and am the last child home so they cling to me pretty tightly.  I can only imagine what this empty nest will look like during football season. I should probably visit a lot to keep my mother sane.  My two older sisters come around when they can but one is in college and one is a mom herself as well as a teacher. I have a chubby baby nephew with cheeks that could feed a nation of hungry aunties' hungry pinchy fingers.  Our house is on the smaller side so when the whole family is home everyone is usually pretty sweaty and at least two people are crying at once, not always the baby.  My mom works for a bank and my dad is an electrician. They work hard and love life, as annoying as they can be I must admit I have a pretty good thing going here.


There's Dad. I'm guessing Brady dropped it or someone didn't catch it.

If you couldn't tell I'm not all that into football.  I watch with him and eat the food while reading books on my tablet and doing homework.  I like school. I go to a school off the reservation and my bus ride is 40 minutes one way.  Sometimes by the time I get there I feel like I smell like diesel fuel from the old and tired bus fumes.  It's tough enough being one of the only brown faces in school but feeling like I smell like a gas station raises the anxiety a little too much some days.  I have a few friends but mind my business, the teachers seem to like me, I get good grades and play the trombone in band.  I play soccer, not "real" football because I like my brain the way it is, and in the winter it's indoor track.

I love to run. I'm on the taller side and thin but my legs are strong and fast. I run long distance, sprints, uphill, over hurdles, I just love to run. Sometimes in my mind when I'm running I feel like a true warrior. I think of my grandfathers before me that would run through the forests in search of game or on their way to war to protect the people.  I think about the spiritual guides from our nations that would run for long distances in hopes that their suffering and physical sacrifice will help all of us.  I think about the wild animals that run in herds.  I think about the beauty and freedom of movement.  I think about a lot when I run. It's home. It makes me feel alive.

And probably makes me look like this. 


My father again.  Apparently the person in question was "right there" and someone with much more influence than my dad in his slippers and sweatpants is debating that fact.

My mother, sisters, and I decided that for my father's 50th birthday this year we were going to blow his mind with a big party and extra special present.  We managed to get him the holy grail of birthday presents: Patriots tickets.  Yes, my father the superfan will be yelling at the refs in person, freezing his 50 year old buns off, and having the time of his life at a real life Patriots game.  Since we didn't want to have to sell my nephew to pay for tickets for all of us it was decided that I would accompany (*chaperon*) my dear old dad on this bucket list item expedition.

I sit with him as the Patriots win this one and he high fives me so hard I think I felt it in my shoulder joint.  It occurs to me I'm going to have to man up if I'm going to be an actual football fan for a day,

The fateful day arrives and my mother gets us ready to go on our way.  She is licking her fingers and shoving pieces of my hair down, a habit that I have repeatedly expressed my displeasure over yet she still finds it necessary especially in Target and in the parking lot at school. She looks at me with one of those complicated mother looks.

"What is it?" I asked.  Preparing myself for anything from lice she found in my saliva laced hair to an elderly relative passing away. Both are tragedies in her eyes.

Just another reason to say no to selfies. 

"Well, love, I just want you to know a couple things before you go to this game.  I was so excited when I found such good seats that I didn't realize who they were playing."

I didn't even think to ask.  I figured whoever isn't the Patriots are all equally enemy-like according to my dad so game on, whoever you are.

"They are playing the Washington Redskins. The name doesn't seem to bother your dad at all but I have mixed feelings about it, as do your sisters.  You may see things that make you uncomfortable and don't actually portray what our people are really like.  I just want you to be aware.  Remember who we are and let all that stuff slide off if it gets to you."  She gave one last wipe to my hair and now I looked like Charlie Chaplin and smelled like her morning coffee and lipstick. Lovely.

"It's ok, Mumma.  We're there to see the game, I'm not worried about it. I'm more worried about Daddy running onto the field, honestly."

We laughed and she kissed my cheek putting big maroon native Mumma lips on my face just to make extra sure no girls would look at me if they made it passed my hair and how I smell.

So begins the 5 hour drive with my father.  Lover of Patriots, creative sandwiches, and "dad rock" radio. We discuss several topics on this ride ranging from my sister's supposed gluten allergy (which we both agree is all in her weird hipster head), my mother's new perfume that we hope is just a phase, my running times and how they compare with his times at my age (I think memory shaves a few seconds off his), and in the background is a steady stream of Styx, Rolling Stones, The Doors, and James Taylor to keep things light.

"Dad, why did they call their team the Redskins? I don't get it."

"Well, I'm not all that sure actually,  Some say it comes from a bounty on Native peoples' heads way back in the day.  Others say it is a term to honor us as the fierce and brave Warriors we are. I'm no historian but those are my two best guesses." He gives the road a weird look like maybe I am barking up a tree he'd rather cut down now.

"Why do people get upset about it?"

"Because they have nothing better to do.  You know, we have real problems facing our people.  We have lazy drunks that keep making babies they can't take care of, we have meth heads shivering in the streets, our young people are leaving our culture, our languages are dying with our elders, and just last week a rez in the next state over had a 17 year girl hang herself.  Now those are things we should be upset about. Not whining over some team name. At least when people say 'Redskins' they are referring to us in a good way."

I leave it alone.

We drive on while Jim Morrison sings "Riders on the Storm."

After the GPS almost sends us into a swamp, we have a dinner of chex mix and gatorade, and my father took out three traffic cones in search of a parking spot....finally here we are.

Gillette stadium. Lights, camera, action. It looks chaotic to me but to my dad we just stumbled upon Oz. If I didn't know any better I swear I see a tiny tear escape one of his tough old eyes.

I bundle up. Hat, scarf, mittens, long john skivvies under my tough guy jeans, and a Patriots jacket that the old man got me for my 13th birthday.  I've grown a little since then so my arms neck stick out of the sleeves and top so I feel a bit like a baby man-boy but I guess that's just the plight of the 15 year old. Dad looks great. He's got all his gear as well but he chose a leather jacket that only he can pull off.  He's like a Patriot-Indian-Mafia guy and I am his awkward giraffe boy.  Let's do this.

We walk in stride and start to smell all the smells and see all the sights.  The tailgating folks have the sausages cooking and the beer flowing.  My father is not a fan of either so we press on, the lights of the stadium our north star in this foreign land of grease and white people customs.

Everyone is having so much fun and the energy is contagious.  There is music and laughter.  My father reaches out a gloved hand and takes my hand in his like when I was a little boy.  We stand shoulder to shoulder now but with my hand in his I feel the childlike wonder and pure excitement that he is feeling too.

Then something not quite as magical happens.  As we approach the further end of the parking lot I hear an odd chanting and a group of people wearing red clothing.  But not just red clothing, I also see bright colored feathers and wildly painted faces. The chants get louder and sound silly. They are beating the sides of a pickup truck to make a drum noise and some of them are jumping up and down. Feathers adorn a few of their heads in costume headdresses that are obnoxious looking and fluorescent.  A few have fake tomahawks that they playfully throw around.

Ahh. The Redskins fans. I felt like I fell down a staircase.

I grab my father's hand tighter.

They yell something about "scalping the Patriots" and my father stops dead in his tracks.  One in facepaint steps forward and yells,


He looks at them and doesn't seemed phased at all.  He's tough.  Not like me.  I want to cry and yell. I don't know if I'm embarrassed for me or for them. I'm confused and all of sudden feel like the only person in the universe.  I want my Mumma.

"Could you please not use that language around my boy? It's our first game, we don't want any trouble." My dad is cool but I can hear the tension in his voice.

"WHOA EASY, CHIEF. DIDN'T MEAN TO GET IN THE LINE OF YOUR FUCKING WARPATH. I HOPE YOUR PUSSY PATRIOTS GET SLAMMED BY OUR SKINS!" (followed by a screech that is so loud and long my ear drum whimpers).

My father didn't say a word.  He put his head down and shook it slowly as we walked on. They yelled and taunted and one even threw a beer can in our direction.

 When we were out of earshot he stopped and hugged me.

"Sometimes a warrior is the one who walks away. Those people think they can act that way because they are more privileged in this country than we are." He feels shaky.

I hugged him back.

"Daddy.  I think the name Redskins is a bigger deal than you think it is." I pull away and stare thoughtfully at the ground.

"You've always been smarter than me, son.  I love you very much."

We had a great time at the game.  Thankfully no one was scalped.  (If "scalping" is a new term for you, here is some recommended reading).  On the way home we had more to talk about.  I grew up a lot that day.  The headdresses that I had known in ceremony were not fluorescent and placed on any drunk guy's head. The chants and songs I had knew since my mother sang them to me in my bassinet were nothing like the things those people were yelling at us.  They have no right to degrade us that way.  Who says that our religion is something that can be cheaply mimicked and ridiculed? It takes away our humanity.  It locks us into stereotyped versions of our historical selves with no room to evolve and have a place in the modern world.  And most of all it says to us on a national level that our identity is worth nothing.  That our traditions, cultures, languages, customs, legends, art, communities, nations, history, are all just a joke.  Just a mascot.  Just something to paint on your face and scream at strangers about.  They absolutely protect and promote racist behavior which certainly doesn't help any of those "real" problems my father spoke of.  These mascots are wrong at every level and need to go.

It was a good day to be with my father.  It's always a good day to be Indigenous.

I made this story up to prove a point that all we need to look at on this issue is common sense and human decency.  I had a similar experience at age 15 while watching a basketball game on tv with my dad.  It was a local high school and the cheerleaders and bandleaders were wearing facepaint, feathers in their hair, and fake leather dresses.  I felt like someone punched me in the stomach.  It had never occurred to me that this was how we were viewed.  Some silly dressed up idiots jumping around and acting "savage".  I am from two strong Indigenous families and am raising my children to be proud of who they are.  These mascots have the potential to undermine the pride we feel in our heritage that has already been through so much.  Redskins is not an honorable term. It's not a nice word.  It is a racial slur and it is time to go to it's grave in the history books next to minstrel shows and black face. 


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