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Cherokee chief, equal opportunity advocate square off

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. ? The controversial mascot issue reared its head once more as Jerry Weast, the Montgomery County Maryland Superintendent recommended that county abandon all use of Native American names currently being used for sports teams, mascots and logos.

The issue took on new life for television viewers as Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, went head to head with Linda Chavez from the Center of Equal Opportunity on a Fox News program.

On the day the program was broadcast, the Montgomery County school board voted in favor of Weast's recommendation, the first county in the nation to ban the use of American Indian mascots.

Chavez and Smith debated on the Fox show, 'The Big Story' Aug. 28.

Chavez countered Smith's reference to a recent Indian Country Today reader poll by asking him if names like the Vikings should be banned because they are also racist.

'Out West, the Conquistadors can no longer be named after that group?' Chavez asked. 'I think we are really carrying this to extremes. And frankly, for Indian country and for Chad Smith to be focused on this and ignoring some of the real issues and real problems of the Native American community in

this country, it seems to me that is largely irrelevant.'

Smith broke into Chavez' commentary saying, 'I love that argument.

'Now we have better things to do,' Smith continued. 'That is an argument of ignorance. The issue is here; do we allow our own children, our Indian children to have the respect that every other racial group in this country has? My own child as a first grader just a few years ago went to school. They brought a 'mountain man' into discuss Indian relics. In the middle of the presentation he said, 'I hold this big old knife over my head and when those Indians come at me I stab them with this little knife.'

'That is the kind of things that are propagated by using Indians as a mascot or as a symbol. A mascot by definition begets not only prejudice, but begets patronage and paternalism. For us as Indian folks we don't want to be second class citizens.'

The show's host and moderator John Gibson broke in and pointedly said, 'Linda, just for the last time, a simple concept. Shouldn't the Indians get the last word?'

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Chavez picked up the gauntlet and challenged both Gibson and Smith with her closing arguments.

'Well, first of all if you were talking about teams in Oklahoma, then Mr. Smith should have a say there,' Chavez said. 'But should Mr. Smith be able to decide for people in Montgomery County? The kids that go to this school are going to be very disturbed by this. This is not derogatory, this is symbolism. It's all part of trying to control the way we think, control the words that we use and it ignores the fundamental problems that are going on.'

In an interview with Smith immediately following the television program, he had plenty to say about just how derogatory American Indian mascots are.

Smith said he was contacted at 2 p.m. on the day of the broadcast and had only two hours to prepare his response.

'I have no idea why I was chosen. I only know that I got a call at two o'clock from Mike (Miller is communications director for the Cherokee Nation) and did I want to run to Tulsa and do it, so I did.'

Smith said he didn't believe that Chavez' argument held a lot of water when it came to the hot issue of American Indian mascots.

'I've got tons of stuff to say on this issue. Actually the mascots are a small part of an overall issue and that is of Indian imagery. In that you have public domain cartoons, movies, nicknames, icons, logos, commercial appropriation of Indian images -- it goes on and on. You have to look at each one of those and do an analysis.

'The analysis I use is twofold. The first one is called Anaweg, that is my 8-year-old daughter. Does it teach her the truth about Indians? If the image doesn't, I have no use for it. The second is Nedsin, that is the name of my deceased father. Does it honor our ancestors? If it doesn't, I have no use for it. That is how I look at all the stuff I see about Indians.

'The image of Indians follows a long pattern of appropriation,' Smith said. 'Illegal appropriation often, land, water, resources, our children. So when they appropriate, they believe they have property rights to that imagery and that's not true. The exception is that we have a high school called Sequoyah High School. Indian schools are the only schools in the country that are entitled to refer to themselves as Indian. That is our form of identity. Other schools are not entitled to do that. They are basically appropriating our identity.'

Smith now has one less place to worry about when it comes to the continued appropriation of American Indian imagery, following the 6-1 vote by the Montgomery County board. If the State Commission on Indian Affairs has any say on the matter, Montgomery County may be the first county to ban American Indian mascots, but it won't be the last. The commission wants a statewide ban on the use of American Indian names and symbolism in Maryland.

'What is really important is the process of learning why Indian imagery shouldn't be used,' Mike Miller said. 'The changes in attitude and understanding that come when people do this of their own accord and understanding is almost as important as the fact they have changed the names.'