Skip to main content

A real honor: Collaborating with tribes on name changes

  • Author:
  • Updated:

Confronting problems together is so often declared an American value that one is tempted to believe it is true. In fact, it is completely characteristic of American democracy that any issue is open to dialogue, delay and disagreement. The perpetual debate regarding place names and mascots considered offensive by Native peoples offers many examples of both successful collaboration and doomed obstinacy. As with most conflict, genuine compassion and educated decisions are critical to reaching a resolution.

In the midst of a Major League Baseball playoff series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians, caricatures of Indian faces and accoutrements flooded stadium seats and television sets. There are wide-ranging opinions from Native and non-Native people on the effect and gravity of Indians as sports mascots. But there is no question that allowing the practice to continue makes it possible for individuals (and groups) to freely mock Indian songs, dances, traditional dress and languages. ''It's Tribe time now,'' reads the Cleveland Indians' rally towel. ''Go Tribe'' and ''Indians win!'' are common sentiments. But only, it seems, inside the ballpark. Imagine such passionate, public outcries by non-Natives in support of tribal sovereignty or other important issues. There is no honor in paternalism, and ironic cheers for Indian mascots turn fun sporting events into virulent arenas for racism and ignorance.

Native peoples scored a moral victory four years ago when the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names approved the renaming of Squaw Peak in Phoenix to Piestewa Peak. The new name honors the heroic service of U.S. Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa, who is believed to be the first American Indian woman killed in combat on foreign soil and the first U.S. female soldier killed in the Iraq war. Though the road was fraught with controversy, the strong leadership of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, long an ally of Indian tribes in the state, made all the difference and the name change was made well within Arizona's standard five-year waiting period. Piestewa Peak is now a monument to the courage and pride of the young Hopi soldier, mother of two children, who made the ultimate sacrifice for her nation and country. It is a victory not only for Native Americans who share and admire Piestewa's traditional values, but for all Americans who believe in duty, honor and sacrifice.

In Maine, where a state law prohibits the use of the word ''squaw'' in all circumstances, the small town of Stockton Springs near the Penobscot Nation community is refusing to effectively change the names of local places containing the word. Where names offensive to other ethnic minorities have been scrubbed, town leaders in Stockton Springs dropped the ''w'' from the names and called it a day. This antagonistic gesture at Indian people deserves to be censured by town residents and tribal governments alike. Public meetings have become hostile, says a tribal member who regularly attends to suggest alternate, more agreeable names. ''One woman, who is a teacher, asked me, 'What do we call you Native American Indian women if we can't call you [squaw]?''' Rhonda Frey said. ''They have told me that they don't care if the word bothers me and don't want my suggestions,'' she said. ''I don't see a resolution.''

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Absent any real relations between the Penobscot Nation and Stockton Springs (located within the tribe's ancestral territory), many point to the derogatory place names as the only exposure townspeople have to Indian culture and it's not good, according to Frey. ''We're invisible,'' she said, ''and we're treated that way.'' A determined effort toward community-building and good neighborliness can weather such poor leadership, but it depends on the voices that rise to the occasion. We commend all those who risk personal condemnation to defend their right and their children's rights to live free of cultural prejudice and bullying based on their identity as Indian people.

Despite decades of slow gain, it is clear that there is still much work left to be done. A Google search of the word ''squaw'' brings up more than 2 million mentions. Many refer to tourist attractions; only a few are etymologies of the word and most of those argue the offensiveness of its usage in the public discourse. What is not up for debate is the struggle Native peoples endure to change these names. Outspoken opponents of renaming places and landmarks, like those of mascot reassignments, regularly employ ignorant and racist language that contributes to the public weariness of the entire issue. Reaching the heart of the matter - fostering respect and discouraging animosity among neighbors - is difficult when communities must first navigate stubborn bureaucracies and historic tangles before even approaching the complexities of Native languages and concepts.