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Manning: Watertown High School Homecoming Coronation Must Change

Playing Indian harms the concept of self for Native American youth, columnist Sarah Sunshine Manning writes.

On Thursday, September 10, Watertown High School, of Watertown, South Dakota, posted a photograph on their Facebook page, recognizing the homecoming royalty candidates. The photograph quickly caught the attention of Native Americans, nationally, as the students were dressed in leather fringed costumes and headbands, commonly recognized by outsiders as a practice known as “playing Indian.”

After the Facebook photo received hundreds of challenging comments, over 800 shares, and was reported to Facebook as “offensive,” the photograph was removed from the website by Saturday morning. Still, the school continued to receive national pressure after a fast growing change.org petition was started by South Dakota native, Becky Plumage (Assiniboine), of Pierre, South Dakota. This attention continued throughout the Watertown High School homecoming week festivities.

RELATED: Two High Schools Drop Native American Imagery, But Keep Mascots

Evidently, many in the city of Watertown were aware of the uproar, and conversations dominated many social settings. A Native American student at Lake Area Technical College reported being verbally challenged and attacked by non-Native students in her psychology class regarding the issue. As the lone Native American student in her class, the hostility was palpable. 

While some comments on the change.org petition were quick to label the school, administration, and students, as racist, other comments expressed a genuine feeling of concern, shame, sadness, and support to change the coronation activities. 

The hostility, confusion, and tension from both directions, then begs the question, what is so wrong with non-Indians dressing up as Indians? Shouldn’t Native Americans be flattered, or simply turn the other cheek and become thicker skinned? What is the big deal?

Well, the short answer is, many things are wrong with this picture. Serious things that require careful attention, yet the discomfort of cognitive dissonance and the very real internal confusion that comes with pre-exiting values being challenged causes many individuals to look away, bury their head in the sand, or figuratively, resort to putting their fingers in their ears and say “La la la … I can’t hear you.”

But the most fruitful option to get through the discomfort is to listen, and make change.

This needs to be heard. 

Playing Indian is dangerous, and it is harmful. The crippling “playing Indian” phenomenon constrains Native American identity, harms our children, our communities, and reinforces stereotypes. The greater phenomenon of playing Indian is over a century old, and it is a practice which plays itself out in many different social spheres. From Hollywood films, to TV shows and cartoons, school plays, boys scouts, Thanksgiving celebrations, Halloween costumes, Indian mascots- they all perpetuate and reinforce stereotypes about Indians, both negative and sometimes seemingly positively romanticized, yet all moreover constraining Native Americans from seeing ourselves as so much more than that, and for others to see Native Americans as more than that, too.

The Cleveland Indians' mascot "Chief Wahoo."

In numerous studies, it has been confirmed that Native Americans are, in fact, harmed by such stereotypical representations. By being portrayed, overwhelming, as people of the past, leathered and feathered, and as the noble-savage or Indian princess, our identity as Native Americans becomes hampered, and limits our ability to self-actualize as a people. The obsession with the Indian of the past limits the ways in which we as Native Americans see ourselves, and most importantly, has a direct impact on the way our children see themselves, their futures, and their communities.

After being shown incident after incident of mockery, non-Indians playing Indian, Indian mascots, or even the Land-o-Lakes butter girl, a young child will struggle to tell you what he or she wants to be when they grow up, as the imagery has subconsciously told them, that they come from a people who belong in the past. This is what evidence has proven. Also according to the results of studies, while Native Americans have indicated a lowered self-esteem as a result of the mockeries, simultaneously, non-Indians experience a boost in self-esteem while playing Indian, widening the greater “achievement gap.”

If a child is constantly bathed with imagery of the stereotypical Indian of the past, then they will be limited in the ways that they are able to conceptualize themselves as a people of the future. They become young adults who struggle. 

Tragically, Native Americans struggle to see ourselves beyond these stereotypical representations, because the subconscious effect of imagery is inescapable. We do struggle to succeed, representing the highest drop-out rates, nationally, the lowest high school completion rates, lowest post-secondary institution completion, overwhelming mental health disparities, the highest suicide rates, and the lowest life expectancy in many parts of the country. Playing Indian only adds to the pressures of our already strained lives, keeping us firmly marginalized in our own homelands. 

Imagery matters. Our portrayal matters.

Society, at large, has maintained such pervasive stereotypes of Native Americans as people of the past. One need simply do a quick Google search to verify the gravity of the problem. Type in “Native American” or “American Indian,” and the image results are jaw dropping. 

A Google search of 'American Indian.'

We are represented as a people of the past. Leathered and feathered. Male. Stern. Solemn. Try this with any other ethnic group. “African American People,” are portrayed as people of the present, Barrack Obama, Will Smith, successful, modern. “American People,” smiling, diverse, successful, families, suits and ties.

A Google search of 'African American.'

Is it not obvious yet? Dressing up as Indians, in stereotypical fashion, only adds to the saturation of stereotypical imagery obsession, and adds to Native American marginalization. 

City of Watertown, students of Watertown High School, teachers and staff, this is the problem. America, this is the problem with playing Indian, with stereotypical Indian imagery, and Indian mascots. Please help us to change it.

I speak for myself, and many others, when I say that I am not honored that our identity is constrained, and the self-esteem of children is harmed. I am very sad. And I am also sad for the children and communities who stubbornly defend what they view as their tradition built upon on mocking ours, for they know not what they do. To the readers of this column, now you can help them to understand their role. Because now, you know. 

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” –Maya Angelou

A Google search of 'African American.'

We have inherited a situation that does not necessitate blame, but instead, a concerted effort to resolve the issue. Collaborate. Understand. Reconcile. We all inherited this. 

Since I began investigating this story, I had the opportunity to communicate with and also meet with Watertown High School Superintendent, Lesli Jutting. She was immediately gracious, and I must give her a huge amount of credit, for Superintendent Jutting responded immediately, compassionately, and so incredibly respectfully even considering that her school was under attack.

“I believe that our School Board is willing to work with all the people in our community,” said Jutting. “We ask that all are respectful in the discussion and judgments are not made. I don't believe this needs to be divisive as a community. I believe that in today's time, we should be educated enough to listen and discuss this.”

The outcome of our communication and recent meeting was extraordinary. There was acknowledgement, understanding, and a commitment to take steps to remedy the situation, together. 

Yet, the concerning thing is, is that many people are already defensive, unaware of the facts surrounding the issue, and kids are in the midst of the backlash. This is going to be an uphill battle, on many fronts.

So, as a very important cautionary note: we must be mindful of the fact that kids should not be under attack at Watertown High School. They are innocent students, who simply ended up at the school by virtue of the town that they reside in. They are not the Washington football franchise, and they definitely are not Dan Snyder. They deserve to be respected and protected. And they need to be provided with the evidence to help them understand the role that they play.

It is good, thus far. We are in the midst of an extremely powerful opportunity to learn, reconcile, to make an impactful and positive change, and to stand as an example of how to understand each other better. Social justice transformations occur best, when there is understanding. This is just the beginning.

Sarah Sunshine Manning

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.