An honor? Only if Native people matched simple perceptions.
Make no mistake: The Washington Redskins team name is offensive. It’s racially loaded at best and thoroughly racist at worst; it is degrading and dehumanizing both in the imagery it depends on and in the type of “savage” behavior it allows fans to engage in — and seemingly forgives.
Though fans argue that the name honors Native people, what it really honors is the fans’ idea of what they wish and believe Indian people were — not who Indian people are.
Images like the “Redskins” and other mascots generally place Native people in the past, the one that the rest of America moved away from, and embalms the idea of Indianness as a relic of a bygone age. Such images propagate the notion that Native people are Native only if they look and live as they did 150 years ago — forgetting that 500 years ago, those people looked and dressed differently than they did after European contact. Changes in material life are constant, even as the bedrock of cultural ethics carries on from generation to generation.
Even worse, these mascots ignore who Native people are today and how they may be affected by being treated as objects of the past rather than as people who live down the street, shop at the grocery store, work in state and tribal governments, raise their kids, play for the Boston Red Sox (as Jacoby Ellsbury, who is Navajo, does), or serve as U.S. ambassador to Libya (as Chris Stevens, who was Chinook, did before he was assassinated in the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi).
Teams like the Redskins would never think of having a mascot jog out onto the field in a suit and tie or in bluejeans or a Red Sox jersey — because the reality of Native life today does not accord with the fantasy that American culture has constructed of Indian people. It is time that the larger society listens to the stories that Native people tell of their experiences in the world today, rather than listening to those same old mascot stories about headdresses, tomahawk chops and tom-tom hey-how-are-ya drumming that puts Native people in the rearview mirror every time the Redskins play. Or the Braves. Or the Indians. Or … well, you get the point.
While many (most?) Native people feel this imagery is dehumanizing and rightly worry about the effect such images have on the members of their communities, we need to also consider that it dehumanizes those who use and defend the name. I believe any time any of us act in a manner that is derogatory toward a people, we diminish our own humanity — we dehumanize ourselves. Even if our societies and the institutions our societies produce are often pessimistic and hold that racism is part and parcel of the human condition, I believe people are optimistic and want to learn about — and from — others.
Back in the 1970s, when NASA sent the two Voyager spacecraft out into the universe, it put a record on each one in which people from all over the Earth offered words of welcome in their various languages to extraterrestrials that may or may not exist and may or may not ever intercept the record. But hopeful humans expressed a desire to hear from them. That idea of reaching out to others, with curious interest and a desire to say hello defines much of our humanity.
In her wonderful book “Dwellings,” the Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan notes that a Chinese person on the record asks of the aliens, “Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have the time.” That statement perfectly captures what I mean by the optimism of our humanity.
A racial epithet (and make no mistake: “redskin” is an epithet) affects the humanity of both those it is aimed at and those who make use of the word, even if that use is a seemingly innocent part of the spectacle of a big Thursday night football game.
Racism and the tolerance of racism diminishes everyone.
Carter Meland (of White Earth Anishinaabe heritage) teaches in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.
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