We have nothing but admiration for Elsie Meeks, Oglala Lakota, and the first American Indian appointed as a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
March 13, she challenged the commission to condemn the racist and sacrilegious use of American Indian names, images, and religious symbols by sports teams and the media. She has also recommended that the commission condemn the use of federal money by academic institutions that participate in these practices.
The tepid response by the commission is a sad testimonial to the still prevalent view that American Indians don't care about this issue. The hypocrisy is evident from the commissioners who said that only a few urban American Indians care about Native mascots, that the great majority of American Indian people don't mind these practices. Again, we see American Indian peoples being ignored and told what to do and what to think. In this case, we should shut up and agree: it's no big deal.
But American Indian peoples do care, and very passionately. The yahoo images of American Indians inherent in names and logos by sports teams and the media are demeaning. In a previous generation, many fought to get rid of the images of Little Black Sambo and Aunt Jemimah.
It is no stretch to see the racism inherent in the grinning buck-toothed American Indian wearing a feather who represents the Cleveland Indians. The same sorts of people then said that Aunt Jemimah was honoring black people, really a benign figure representing motherhood and nurturing.
The same kinds of arguments have been made for the Atlanta Braves "chop" and the antics of Chief Illiniwek of the University of Illinois. They say that they are really honoring American Indians and the qualities of courage and manhood.
For us, the reality is that these names and these images are demeaning. They ridicule our dress, our tradition and our culture. Racist images turn people into stereotypes and objects.
As world history has shown clearly, especially in the past century, once turned into non-human objects, all manner of cruelty can be practiced against the victim. In the context of racism, words and images do not only mean what they say. They are endowed with complex meanings, of the history of marginalized people, of the perceptions of the dominant culture and its historical relation to oppressed people.
The language we use is a reflection of our cultural values and if American Indian names are used for mascots, in racist or sacrilegious ways, then our culture is saying that American Indians are less than the other members of this society.
Mascots perpetuate stereotypes about American Indians, involve the misappropriation of the American Indian cultural identity, and often include the display or depiction of symbols and practices having a religious significance to American Indians.
In addition, these practices are likely to have a negative impact on the educational experience and self-esteem of American Indian students and contribute to the mis-education of all students.
Despite the advances in civil rights of the past 50 years, here we are, still having to explain the nature of racism and racist images to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. We would have hoped that American Indians would have been included in the progress that has been made, particularly by those who are entrusted with the task.
It is our turn, our time to change these repugnant practices. Elsie has begun the official process, but she needs our help. As in the days of the early civil rights movement a generation ago, unity of support among tribes and individuals is vital to changing the minds and hearts of the members of the Civil Rights Commission.
A unified Indian country is a strong Indian country. We can actually win this one. Support for Elsie has been pouring in from tribes around the county. Keep it coming. The fight hasn't been won yet, but the goal is in sight.