Richie Plass was a teenage mascot who dressed in leather clothes and a feathered headdress to cheer for his Wisconsin high school team, the Indians, so he knows how it feels to be “honored.”
“Kids called me a lot of names and threw paper cups and food at me,” said Plass. “Then some of the guys on the top row started spitting on me.”
It was 1968, and Plass was so humiliated he quit. But in many ways, the experience set Plass in a new direction. Much of his life since has been directed toward educating people on American Indian culture and history, and the negative impact of cultural stereotyping.
Plass, a teacher, actor and musician, talked as he set up his traveling exhibition that shows “the good, the bad and the ugly” depictions of Indians through the years.
The exhibit, which runs through Wednesday on the second floor of the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union, was timed to coincide with Thursday’s Vikings game against the Washington Redskins.
Plass will join the American Indian Movement in a protest against the use of the “R” word inside the stadium and in the media. Kids from Little Earth housing development a few blocks from the dome will also protest.
The exhibit contains hundreds of items, from plastic bows and arrows to advertising and sports logos that reflect on the country’s often confounding and contradictory depictions of Indians.
There is the photo of President John Kennedy with a native woman, with the magazine caption calling her a “squaw.” There is the rare beer can called “Treaty Beer,” a product cynically developed to raise funds to fight Indian hunting and fishing rights in Wisconsin.
Then there are the fake team banners, with exaggerated caricatures of blacks and Jews that mimic such icons as the grinning Cleveland Indian mascot.
Plass points to a photo of the “fighting Illini” mascot. “Part of my push back to this dude here,” he said, “is the idea that he has never been portrayed by an actual Indian. An Indian wouldn’t do it.”
The Illini mascot was eliminated in 2007 in response to protests by native groups, yet names like the Redskins and caricatures like Cleveland’s Indian remain.
Plass has a large collection of Cleveland souvenirs, including headbands, hats and eyeglasses.
“You explain to me how this is honoring my mother and father and grandfather,” he said.
Plass picks up a “spirit flute” in a box decorated with Indian symbols.
“Got this at Toys R Us, ten dollars,” he smirks. “For us, flutes are sacred. But with this, you can learn how to play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,’ which every Indian child should know.”
Plass has brought his exhibit, called “Bittersweet winds,” around the country for nine years.
“I try my best not to say, let me show you this and tell you what it means,” said Plass. “Instead I sit in the corner and if you want to know about something, ask me.”
Plass, a member of the Menominee band in Wisconsin, is disarmingly soft-spoken with a self-deprecating sense of humor.
That doesn’t mean people won’t challenge his perceptions. He’s had visitors insist he take down offensive team banners that depict “Dagos” or Jews unflatteringly, but not the Indian stereotypes.
He finds that amusing.
When they ask whether the Fighting Irish symbol is offensive, he says it’s up to Irish people to decide if it is, because “I don’t know the culture. I’m a Menominee. Our tribe was terminated in the 1960s. But if you are going to let a little leprechaun speak in your high school class next week, let me know because I’ve never seen that. If you are Irish and not offended, fine.”
Plass, however, would prefer that all ethnic mascots in general be retired to eliminate the issue.
While protesting at various stadiums over the nicknames, “I’ve been called everything but a white man,” Plass joked. “I’m ready for it. It doesn’t bother me at all.”