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Connect the Dots: Mascots, Feathers, Termination ... Domination

The New York Daily News decision to "sack the name" of the Washington Redskins sets an example for all other news outlets. As the paper's editorial says, "The Redskins name is a throwback to a vanished era of perniciously casual racial attitudes."

The dictionary definition of "pernicious" shows why the editors chose the right word: It means not only something harmful, but especially something harmful in a gradual or subtle way. And "perniciously casual" strengthens their point: The casual use of racial epithets wears down our ability to see through the epithet to the racism. We get used to racism; we normalize it; in the case of the football team, someone profits from it.

This explains why some people have a hard time getting the point about names and mascots: They have normalized the racism inherent in the language and the images. They cannot connect the dots between the present and the past. Cultural blinders—what the Daily News called "loyalty, tradition, affection and nostalgia"—prevent them from understanding what's happening.

The Daily News connected even more dots by saying, "many Native Americans view the word as a slur born in the country’s inglorious victimization of their ancestors." This points to the roots of anti-Indian epithets and images in the violent dispossession and subordination—"victimization"—of Native peoples.

The Daily News might have gone all the way to the core of anti-Indian racism, but it would have had to tackle an even more pernicious attitude: the religious doctrine called "Christian Discovery" that colonial invaders used to justify their claims to own the lands that Native peoples lived on.

Eliminating a racist word carries a danger: In the process, we may forget the past that made the word racist. This, in turn, may allow us to ignore the ways in which that past continues in present institutions, not just in media. Refusing to use a derogatory term for Indians puts an end to racist language, but it does not put an end to the racist framework of laws that keep Indian country in a condition of colonialism.

As Steve Newcomb pointed out, the "redskin" and mascot issues offer an opportunity to investigate the whole scheme of legalized domination we call "federal Indian law." That investigation does not appear to be happening on a widespread basis: "The Court’s use of a framework of domination for its decision [in Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community, May 2014] apparently hasn’t caused even the slightest emotional ripple among the leadership of Indian Country."

Other issues present similar opportunities to dig beneath the surface to the deeper structural questions. For example, DaShanne Stokes's column about the 5th Circuit U.S. Appeals Court August 2014 decision that struck down a federal law restricting eagle feathers to federally-recognized tribes. 

Referring to recurring tensions between federal and state "recognized tribes," DaShanne wrote: "Federally recognized tribes should support state tribes on this. After all, if the 1940s to 1960s Termination era is any indication, federally recognized tribes are by no means immune from the threat of losing their recognition status. During Termination, over 100 tribes had their federal recognition status terminated."

By pointing to the "termination" era, DaShanne reminded us of the dominating framework of federal Indian law, which presumes that the U.S. Congress has power to destroy the independent status of any Indian nation. That presumption erupted crudely in the "termination" laws that attacked the sovereignty of many Native nations. The eagle feather restrictions express the same presumption of federal superiority. By understanding this, we not only get DaShanne's point, we position ourselves to be alert to other examples of institutionalized racism based on religious discrimination against Indians.

Jacqueline Keeler offers still another opportunity to look beyond the surface issue to the deeper structures of anti-Indian colonialism. Her column reported on a Texas kindergarten that tried to force a five year old Navajo boy to cut his hair; but she didn't stop there. She went beyond that incident—where the school backed down in the face of opposition from the Navajo Nation—to write: "I'm concerned that the school does not see that what we are talking about is not only about hair, but also about respect for our culture and our right to be Navajo."

Keeler recounted the experience of her grandfather, who told her he cut his hair when he was in Oklahoma only because "none of the women knew how to tie his hair up into a tsiiyéél." She wrote that he might have been joking, being "a bit of a joker," but she "also knew instinctively that the pain of being separated from everything he knew, even his language (he only spoke Navajo) had marked him." Keeler saw the roots of the surface issue.

No matter how important the surface issue—whether a name, an image, a feather or hair—the real task of decolonizing Indian country and Indian life requires digging deep into the structures of law and governance and economics that underpin the surface issues.

Surface issues represent the proverbial "tip of the iceberg"—the little part that shows. The part that shows is supported by the great bulk out of sight…and that's the part to which we must pay attention.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.