Thursday, February 12, 2015

Not Your Mascot: People Versus Product Placement

When I was in my early teens I was watching tv with my father (anyone who has heard this story from him or myself can skip ahead now if you like).  We were watching the high school basketball tournaments for Eastern father obviously didn't have cable because these games are usually about as entertaining as watching someone else's kid sing twinkle twinkle little star for the 20th time while you politely nod and want to stab yourself in the ear with a rusty fork.

The game that we were watching was a battle between two area high schools, the Skowhegan Indians and the Nokomis Warriors.  I don't remember anything about the score or who won.  Why this day is in my memory forever is a moment that I had that shaped my mind in many ways.

The cheerleaders and band conductor all came running out to get ready for the halftime show.  They were dressed in plastic fake leather dresses, had "war paint" on their faces, and had fake feathers in their braided hair.  I watched as they played a chant and made savage faces and they moved through the generic flips and tricks that any small Maine town mediocre cheer leading squad stumbles through.

"That's not right.....that's just not right." I said to my father.

He looked at me thoughtfully as fathers do and I could tell he was searching for words to make me feel better about this.  Something to cushion seeing my heritage, culture, and very essence of being mocked and made to look stupid and cheap. He didn't have the words.  But I had enough for both of us.

I went on a little rant about them not having the right to wear those things and make fun of us.  I engaged my dad in conversation about his experience being a star athlete at a school with an "Indian" mascot.  I used my developing teenaged brain to sort out what I thought versus what I felt.  How many kids at this age have to have these sophisticated internal processes about how their identity is misused and dragged through a circus supported by the mainstream?  I was a teenager, I was full of angst and mistrust anyway for Pete's sake.

I am now 30 and in the years since then I have spoken about changing these mascots at schools (every school I spoke at ended up changing their mascot, not saying it was all my doing but I like to think I have opened a few eyes along the way), school board meetings, different civic groups, and anyone that will listen.  Especially if they disagree, that's my favorite. I have been yelled at, called names, threatened, talked down to, and if I had a dollar for every time someone told me to feel honored I'd be dictating this blog to my pool boy while he fans me and I sip umbrella drinks next to a palm tree.

By now there is nothing I haven't heard when it comes to opposition on this topic.  In college I was awarded a Public Policy Scholarship and delivered an 80 pager on how Indian Mascots affect Native communities in Maine.  I've thought this through and done my research.  Nothing you say will change my stance.  Let me see if I can make you rethink yours.

**Disclaimer** it is my firm belief that these mascots will all be changed eventually and we will look back at them with the same disgust and confusion that we view blackface and minstrel shows with.  So unless you are at a decision making level in one of these organizations I don't give a rat's ass what you think about this topic because your racist and backwards opinion mean nothing at all.  However, I reach out because I want the world to be a safer place for my daughters and that starts with education and outreach.  If we approach each other with open minds and receptive hearts maybe we can connect on our shared humanity and values. 

Carry on.

Here are a list of the biggest arguments I hear folks try to make in defense of their precious racist symbolism.

1.) "It's just a name, get over it.  Don't you people have bigger things to worry about?"

So these bigger things you speak of, I'm guessing they would be along the lines of: alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty, culture loss, suicide, mental illness, crime, obesity, domestic violence, and disease to name a few.  Yes, those are big problems.  Since we have a smaller population we are disproportionately affected by all ills of society, thus our numbers are more precarious than other groups. We are engaged at all times in fighting for our survival and it has been this way for so long it is built into our DNA. One thing that Indian mascots do is freeze us in the past.  It makes us an object, a fixture in history and a stereotypical one at that.  When you see a group of people as nothing more that a cheesy and false misrepresentation it makes it easy to treat them as such.  On a micro and macro level Natives have been mistreated in this country.  Whether it is through public policy decisions that inhibit our rights to our inherent sovereignty or a bunch of kids throwing shit at a Native kid and calling them "chief" or "squaw"...mascots don't help our causes.

Indian mascots feed into the idea that these acts are ok because we are not a seen as the modern, dynamic, multifaceted, strong people that we are.  We contribute to society, we work jobs alongside everyone else, our kids like chicken nuggets, we have thoughts and views that deserve to be heard and validated.  Indian mascots make it acceptable to mistreat us because they take away our humanity.  They take our most sacred religious symbols and customs and parade them around as trinkets to win a game with.  It is stealing and misusing our sacred practices that have survived the unthinkable. Its not just a name, it is our name.  It is theft of our identity.

Looking for their self respect.  I think you left it at home next to the empty bottle of self tanner. 

I worked with native youth for many years and one of the main things we work on is their sense of self.  So many of them are confused and misguided which leads to them looking for a place to fit in and feel wanted and like they belong.  For some this is assimilating into white culture, for other this is finding a place on the street using and selling drugs.  It is all problematic and leads to depression, suicide, crime.....all those "bigger" things.  Maybe they are turning to these things because they are seeing Megan, Ashley, and Tiffany from Skowhegan dancing around and mocking the things they were raised to view as sacred and respected?  Just a thought.

2.) I know an Indian and they think it's fine/I'm part Indian and I'm fine with it.

Ah yes, people who use this one really think they have it all figured out.  They throw that line at you and expect you to bow down to them in all their argumentative genius.  I mean, what are they doing here bickering about mascots when they could be litigating in front of the Supreme Court with all their masterful skills and airtight reasoning??



Call Reverend Sharpton. 

Whew, glad to get that off my chest.  There is an alarming practice of forcing a single Native person to represent all Natives at all times, know everything about every tribe throughout history, and share the same views as every other Native.  In high school my very experienced and educated teachers would ask me random questions about events in Native history in front of the class and if I didn't know the answers I felt like the clouds were going to part and Chief Sitting Bull himself was going to come down and remove my tribal ID.  Could you imagine if all the kids with Irish blood had to recount every detail in Irish and Irish American history on the drop of a dime?  IT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN.

Much like we all don't know everything about the population as a whole, it stands to reason that we all won't think the same.  The Natives that I know that don't have an issue with mascots are either apathetic, are misplacing some need to belong by identifying with the symbolism, or are very assimilated into the dominant culture and taking on the views.

I will tell you this: I've traveled a little and know a ton of Native Americans.  I feel pretty safe saying the majority of us want these mascots gone forever.  And even if that wasn't the case just the fact that they are inherently wrong and offensive means they should be a part of our colorful and more shameful pages of history books.

3.) It's been that way forever and it is a part of our culture so why should go through the trouble of changing it?

This is also a go to argument that resonates from the small towns in rural Maine to the football team of our Nation's capital, the Washington R*dskins. Human beings form attachments to celebrities, authors, tv characters, and sports teams among other public figures because they give us something to rally around, something to believe in, something to look forward to.  We cherish one sided bonds like these because they make us feel good, special, a part of something bigger than ourselves, they allow us to escape from or cope with the stresses and hardships we face.

They make us feel human.

The sentiment here is great.  The logic is faulty.  "It's always been that way" is public enemy number one.  If we upheld this attitude nothing would ever change and we would never grow as individuals or as a society,  Just think if only white males were allowed to vote.  Or smoking cigarettes was allowed in public places.  Or if keeping slaves was legal.  Or if we were gassing races of people for no reason. Or any other silly predicament the human race got itself into and out of by embracing the right thing to do instead of clinging to "it's always been that way."

While traditions can be good things it is our right and responsibility to question even the most beloved practices when they no longer (or never did) serve a good purpose.  Americans get divorced regularly, have different political parties in power on any given year, and change our views on many things as often as we change underwear.  Our fickle nature is also part of our resilience. Let's use it to our advantage.

There is of course the financial implications of changing mascots.  The merchandise, uniforms, signage, etc. Tough tacos, raise some money and make it happen. The morality and ethics of your organization should outweigh the need to keep offensive materials and save a couple bucks.  Plus, sometimes a fresh start is a marketing dream.

4.) But it's an HONOR to you and your people.

I can see why people say this.  Native Americans are proud, strong, have a rich and lasting heritage, are connected to the earth/sky/water and all the creatures in them in a way no other people are, beautiful, somewhat mysterious, hilarious, intelligent, great cooks....the list goes on and on.  I couldn't imagine being anything else and I don't blame anyone for wanting to be like us.

But here's the thing.....this is our identity, not yours.  You can't put it on and take it off when you feel like it.  I live with my skin color and socioeconomic status at all times and sometimes there's nothing Disney Pocahontas-y about it.

I am more likely than a white person to develop diabetes, heart disease, alcoholism, depression, etc. That is nothing I can control, I come by it genetically.  So when little Mary Sue from Skowhegan high school puts on a costume of me to prance around and cheer for the team she gets to take that costume off and get back to her white privilege and much more favorable statistics.  That doesn't honor me.  That takes advantage of my lower social class and makes gains from my race without dealing with any of the many ugly realities.  That is cultural appropriation and that is wrong.

Many Native don't look like the stereotypical images that these mascots promote and perpetuate.  We don't all have big strong noses, dark hair and skin, or long braids full of wisdom and mystique.  And I don't know one fucking Native that looks anything like that horrendous Cleveland thing.

Well maybe I have that one cousin that might...

By using one picture/theme of what are supposed to resemble it does a huge disservice to the diverse people we are.  I know damn near full blooded Natives who by society's standards look more "white" or "black" than the Chief that we are all supposed to look like.  Framing us into a one dimensional picture that we don't even resemble then mistreating us when we don't fit into the stereotype is certainly not an honor.

The concept of "honor" is tricky.  It should be on the honoree to determine if they feel honored or not. I don't know too many instances of the honorers forcing the feeling of honor onto a reluctant honoree.

I am going to tell you that you love pizza.  You tell me that you don't like pizza.  I say, of course you do pizza is delicious and everyone else likes it so get over it and feel good that I even want to share something as lovely as pizza with you.  No matter what I say it doesn't change the fact that you don't pizza. I may pressure you into conforming but I don't change your tastebuds just like no one will every change my conviction on this topic.  I will never have  magic epiphany that these mascots honor me so stop trying. (but I do love pizza).

You can force many things on people.  You can't make them feel how you want them to feel to diminish your guilt and shame.  Just change the fucking mascots.  That would honor us all.

R*dskin: This Has Got to Go 

I have felt strongly about this since I stood in my father's living room and ranted while he drank coffee and probably wondered how he raised such a big mouthed pain in the ass daughter.  I'm glad he did because when I look into the eyes of my own daughters I know that I am working to make this world a better place for them.  Where they can honor their culture that their ancestors fought so hard to maintain for them.  Where eagle feathers and war paint are given the same respect and reverence as crucifixes and holy water.

Do you think you wold ever see a student dressed as a priest simulating a sex act with an alter boy? Do you think a student dressed as a slave owner should come out pretending to whip a black slave or hang them from a tree?  Would it be ok for a student dressed like Hitler to come out wearing Nazi symbols and chasing "jews" around the basketball gymnasium?

If THIS isn't ok.

Then THIS isn't. 

I would hope that any of these things would cause an outcry for change and justice.

Yet "Redskin" is ok?  The term "Redskin" comes from the practice of skinning Native Americans alive.  How do you think that feels to Natives to hear that word tossed around as nonchalantly as "macaroni" or "Wednesday".  In this very area there was a famous bounty hunt that we have a historical document that references it called the "Spender Phips Scalp Proclamation".  This was an effort to eradicate my tribe, the Penobscot people, by placing a different cash bounty for every man, woman, and child that they could kill and rip the scalp from their heads.  So no, I am not honored in one bit by the term "Redskin". It is as offensive and derogatory as "Nigger", which would never even be considered for a team name.

If THIS isn't ok.

Then THIS isn't.

In closing. I am not a caricature.  I am not a stereotype. I am not a Redskin.  I am