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First Nations Continue to Be Savaged and Ravaged by Mascots

A column by Simon Moya-Smith about offensive American Indian stereotypes in sports.

No right-wing GOP chubby-belly apologist would dare attempt to persuade civil rights activist Al Sharpton into believing that black-faced caricatures of young African Americans, clad in ripped overalls and Afros, are not disrespectful.

“Wait a minute, Al. You’ve got it all wrong! We’re honoring you.”

No. If this sort of affront took place, the party would be instantly lambasted on CNN and MSNBC, and anti-discrimination organizations like the NAACP and the ACLU would slap the party so hard with racist accusations and lawsuits that even the Romneys and Bushes of the world would flee the GOP like a sinking cruise vessel in the Mediterranean.

Yet it was recently that a high school principal in Colorado attempted to persuade an American Indian mother that a stereotypical cartoon of a shirtless Indian boy sporting a loincloth and gripping a spear is not offensive—that he and his school are honoring Indian peoples with their caustic caricature. His curt comments were in response to the concerns of a Denver parent who questions the use of the school’s mascot, which she argues is distasteful and offensive.

Patricia “Pat” Pino, a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation and a behavioral health counselor at Denver Indian Health and Family Services, said that her daughter, Abby, went with her classmates in early February to Strasburg High School in Strasburg, Colo., to participate in a Future Business Leaders of America competition. When her daughter entered the gymnasium, Pino said that Abby was immediately offended by the depiction of the Indian boy dancing around a fire.

Abby said that she began to send her mother pictures of the images via her cell phone.

“I was very, very angry,” said Abby. “I felt disrespected by the cartoon. That’s not how we look!”

Abby said that she tried to ignore the “racist images” that surrounded her, but she couldn’t. She said it wasn’t long before she succumbed to emotion.

“When I picked her up that afternoon, Abby was upset,” said Patricia. “She was so angry that she had tears. The next day when I got to work I started drafting a letter to the principal.”

According to Patricia, it took one month and a second letter to receive a response from Strasburg High School Principal Jeff Rasp. When it came, it reeked of entitlement and read like a didactic declaration:

“I have reviewed the posters and other representations of Native Americans in our school,” wrote Rasp. “I do not find the way Native Americans are portrayed to be offensive or mocking as you suggested. Our school is named to honor the native Indians who once resided here. In fact, the posters that are in every room in our building have the phrase ‘Indian Pride’ to emphasize the pride of the Native American people.”

I asked Patricia what she thought of the letter. She said that she considers it a “further insult” and that Rasp is being “patronizing.”

“(This) carefully worded letter did nothing to acknowledge even the possibility that the issues I raised could be seen by Natives as offensive,” she wrote.

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Frankly, folks, the tragic reality of this situation is that Strasburg High is merely one of 15 schools in Colorado that have appropriated the American Indian image for its mascot. And only one of the 15 schools—Arapahoe High School—has worked closely with American Indians to ensure that no offense is made in their attempt to honor the First Nation community.

Yet, the other 14 schools—one being the Lamar High School Savages in Lamar, Colo.—are riddled with utterly intransigent ninnyhammers. Lamar High administrators, in fact, have publicly declared that they consider the nefarious noun savage to have a meaning divorced from its actual definition.

And why not look up the definition? It’s been a while …

Well I just learned that defines savage as “uncivilized; barbarous: savage tribes.”

Where does it end? I don’t know, but I’d argue that there was nothing quite as wild or savage in the west as the gold-hungry, insatiable settler.


And if you’re not American Indian, I think it’s imperative to inform you at this juncture that mordant school administrators aren’t the only ones who believe Indian mascots should be permitted from sea to shinning sea.

A grandiloquent gargoyle at the University of Denver “challenged” me a couple of weeks ago during a public discussion on stereotypes, American Indian mascots and Cowboys and Indians parties hosted by campus fraternities by asserting that Indians are the epitome of the “P.C. Police.”

“I’m Han Chinese,” he said. “And I wouldn’t mind at all if my people were honored as mascots.”

“Neither would I,” I blistered, "were we being honored.”

The hardhearted polemic sat glaring at me as I reeled about how mawkish Indian mascots are the antithesis of honor and should be immediately outlawed by the next affluent politico to usurp the American throne.

Today, Patricia said she has yet to hear back from Rasp.

Until then, there are always more rugs to lift and Redskins to ravage.

Simon Moya-Smith, 28, is an Oglala Lakota journalist and blogger from Denver. He'll attend Columbia University School of Journalism in the fall.