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David Joles, Star Tribune

Stereotypes in sports, chaos in federal policy

  • Article by: CARTER MELAND and DAVID E. WILKINS
  • November 22, 2012 - 1:05 PM

This afternoon, the Dallas Cowboys will "welcome" (as the sportscasters might put it) the Washington Redskins to Arlington Stadium. There, an epic battle will play out as each of these storied franchises tries to seize, defend and win precious territory from the other. In its concern with acquiring property through conquest, football is the most quintessential of American sports.

It is ironic that this contest falls on a day -- Thanksgiving -- exalted in grade-school lore as the great coming together of Native people and Pilgrim settlers in a sharing, celebratory and bonding gathering. Though the Cowboys may welcome the Redskins onto their field, there will, in the end, be no great coming together. When territory is involved, there is almost invariably a winner and a loser.

This football battle is a microcosm of what has too often been the case in intercultural relations between native nations and the United States. What the federal government has "won" has been some 98 percent of the lands previously held by native peoples, along with the political power to do virtually whatever it wants to native lands, rights and resources. What the native nations "lost," besides nearly all of their land, was a profound measure of political, legal and economic self-determination.

These losses, along with numerous retained rights (to their shrunken lands, rights of self-governance, of hunting and fishing, etc.) were fought over tenaciously -- not on football fields, of course, but on other fields equally as valuable to the natives and equally as prized by the United States, all under the rubric of formally sanctioned and constitutionally acknowledged treaties, of which there were more than 375 ratified by the Senate and proclaimed by the U.S. president.

Why is this? What factors did the government deploy that have had the effect of enfeebling the territorial, political, economic and cultural vitality of the more than 560 native nations that still exist within the United States?

The answers are many and varied, but the focus here will be on some of the myths and stereotypes that continue to shape the way many non-Indians perceive and relate to indigenous peoples.

Since the first Europeans made landfall in North America, native peoples have suffered under a weltering array of stereotypes, misconceptions and caricatures. Whether portrayed as "noble savages," "ignoble savages," "teary-eyed environmentalists" or, most recently, simply as "casino-rich," native peoples find their efforts to be treated with a measure of respect and integrity undermined by images that flatten complex tribal, historical and personal experience into one-dimensional representations that tells us more about the depicters than about the depicted.

Native people, not surprisingly, do not have "red" skins, despite the stubborn refusal of the Washington Redskins' owner to acknowledge as much. And to continue with our sports analogy, indigenous "Braves" (no cowards in Indian Country) don't do the tomahawk chop, but Atlanta Braves fans do.

That these fantasy images affect how non-Indians regard real native people is inarguable.

The break between fantasy and reality inherent in these stereotypes reflects a keen observation that Associate Justice Clarence Thomas made in a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Thomas pithily remarked that "federal Indian policy is, to say the least, schizophrenic," and he went on to note that tribal nations "are not part of this [U.S.] constitutional order and their sovereignty is not guaranteed by it." His statements powerfully reflect the harsh reality confronting native nations that -- despite their treaties, constitutional recognition in the Commerce Clause and, at the individual level, their U.S. citizenship -- are only sometimes viewed as bona fide polities.

Until and unless the federal government, state lawmaker, and the American public discard the many damning caricatures, derogatory names and stereotypes of native people, all the current parties, natives and nonnatives stand to lose. There will be no celebratory coming together on this or any future Thanksgiving Day until all such myths and negative images are systematically and permanently dismantled.

John F. Kennedy, in a speech at Yale University in 1962, summarized the current predicament well: "The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie -- deliberate, contrived and dishonest -- but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic." Let the games go on, but let's rename those teams whose monikers demean and denigrate entire peoples in a manner that will never contribute to ending the relations they damage.

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Carter Meland (Anishinaabe heritage) and David E. Wilkins (Lumbee) are professors of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. For more resources, go here.

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