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Harjo: ‘N-word,’ ‘R-word,’ Redmen and more macaca

Sen. George Allen’s “macaca” moment has prompted former college teammates and others from the Virginia Republican’s past to tell reporters that he used the “N-word” regularly in the early and mid-1970s.

Allen claims he never, ever said that word, which is enough to make a giraffe laugh.

After all, he’s been waving a Confederate flag since the 1960s. He wore one on his lapel and another on his car when he was in high school in southern California, before moving to Virginia. Two of the rebel flags are said to be on display in his home.

He’s kept political company with leaders of white supremacist hate groups since the 1980s, when he was in the Virginia Legislature, and while he was the commonwealth’s governor in the 1990s. A noose was part of his law office decor in 2000, the year he was elected to the Senate. He says it was a gift from a friend who knew he liked Western things and that he didn’t mean anything by it.

Allen used the word “macaca” while campaigning in western Virginia on Aug. 11. He used it twice, as if it were the name of S.R. Sidarth, a young Indian-American campaign worker for Democrat candidate James Webb. Sidarth, a student at Allen’s alma mater, the University of Virginia, was the only non-white person at the campaign stop.

At first, the senator’s campaign staffers claimed that he meant to say “mohawk,” because of Sidarth’s hairstyle (which is, by the way, a mullet, not a mohawk). When that didn’t fly, they said Allen meant to say, “caca.” When they realized how bad that was, they switched stories a few more times.

Now Allen says he made up the word, didn’t know what it meant, meant nothing by it and was sorry he said it: “because words matter.”

The general speculation is that Allen learned the word from his mother, who is from Tunisia, a former French colony in North Africa, where “macaca” is a French slur for all dark-skinned people, including people from India.

Allen’s mother, Etty Allen, whose first language is French, denies knowing the word.

Amid the allegations and denials about Allen’s past use of the “N-word” came the news that Allen’s mother is Jewish. Following earlier denials, Allen stated on Sept. 19 that he learned it from a magazine and his mother confirmed it in late August. Etty Allen said she kept the secret from her children until she told Allen.

In a written statement, Allen said, “Some may find it odd that I have not probed deeply into the details of my family history, but it’s a fact.” In addition to being a federal and state governmental leader, Allen has degrees in both law and history, usually probative fields.

The Times-Dispatch reported on Sept. 20 that Allen said the disclosure of his Jewish ancestry is “just an interesting nuance to my background. I still had a ham sandwich for lunch. And my mother made great pork chops.”

And we’re back to the George Allen who doesn’t pass up many chances to invoke racial and ethnic stereotypes, especially if they might reassure his political base that he’s the same good old boy they’ve always known.

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At the same time that Allen is accused of using the “N-word” at UVA in the early 1970s, American Indians on many campuses were calling for the Washington football team to stop using the “R-word.”

Allen’s father, the legendary George Allen, was the Washington head coach from 1971 to 1977. A delegation of Indian leaders met in 1971 with one of the team’s owners, Edward Bennett Williams, and asked for the disparaging name to be changed.

That meeting 35 years ago was the very last time any owner of the Washington team ever met or communicated with any Native person who wants the name dropped.

This must be very confusing to Allen. He can say the “R-word” with impunity, but recriminations abound when he uses the “N-word” or “macaca.” It may be that he and others use the “R-word” with impunity because they can’t get away with the other words they’d like to use. They fling around the “R-word” because they can.

The “R-word” and other “Indian” references in sports are public camouflage for bigotry. Not only can the bigots use racial stereotypes and slurs right out in the open, they can wrap themselves in them like flags and mock the people they are offending for daring to say they are offended.

But there are people, Native and non-Native, who are trying to rid sports of this scourge of racism. The NCAA is doing what it can to encourage its member schools to retire their “hostile and abusive” names, images and mascots, or at least to leave them home when they play for championships.

The Indiana University of Pennsylvania used up its last appeal to the NCAA and is voluntarily changing its “Indians” name. IUP dropped its stereotypical “Indian” symbol years ago in favor of a bear, but inexplicably named it “Cherokee,” which was quietly eliminated.

The “Redmen” of Northeastern State University in Oklahoma will soon be consigned to history, too. NSU President Larry Williams wrote in the Tahlequah Daily Press earlier this year that the “Redmen” name would be ended, saying that NSU is a place where “we encourage civil discourse to help promote a more civil society. … We should no longer be using names and symbols that encourage the biases and prejudices that can have a negative effect on contemporary American Indian people.”

Williams was widely acclaimed throughout Indian country, but denounced by a vocal group of NSU alums. The NCAA gave NSU a Sept. 29 deadline to confirm its plans to drop “Redmen.”

The University of North Dakota and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are threatening to sue the NCAA to continue to use their “Indian” sports references, although it is unclear what they foresee as a winning legal strategy.

Like Senator Allen holding on to his Confederate flag and ham sandwich for dear life, UND and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have pledged to keep and “Chief Illiniwek,” come hell or high water.

Don’t they have more important things to do than hang on to bigoted words and symbols?

<i>Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.