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Mascots play like broken record

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The issue of sports mascots that offensively use American Indian-related names and images got another fifteen minutes of fame this past week. It also revealed itself as a broken record of Indian assertions predictably confronted with obtuse counter-arguments and commentary skirting the edge of bigotry.

The fame came to a group of American Indian students at the University of Northern Colorado who introduced "The Fightin' Whites" as their name for an intramural basketball team. Their idea was to make the point about cultural appropriation, which is the crux of the issue, but their clever twist-around grew legs in the national media, which played it out all over the country, usually giving the student group's email address. Now it is reported that the group is swamped by orders for the t-shirts and the issue they sought to raise is indeed getting attention.

The commercial value of their national media breakthrough caught the group and the university by surprise. They are acknowledging orders but not yet filling them as they ascertain copyright and production issues. They have opted to set up a scholarship fund with the merchandising revenues of their media windfall.

Of course, bigotry, which is so hard-headed and tunnel-visioned that it can not contemplate others' views, surfaces in the midst of such an event. A lot of people hate the idea of Indians bringing up this issue; some even claim that a lot of Indian people do not like the idea of challenging the Indian mascots. They argue that Indians actually like being stereotyped.

One source who gave out the email address for fightingwhites@hotmail.com was the nationally syndicated talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh laughed hard at the whole idea and wished "the injuns" a lot of success with their "stunt." Then the celebrated right-wing spinmaster spun the story in characteristic fashion in his March 14 show. According to Rush-talk, the "injuns" (yes, he actually enunciated the word carefully to stress this moniker) were quite clever, showing media savvy, etc., except that the sudden rush of interest for orders, which "is likely to make money," actually gives evidence of how ridiculous the whole complaint is.

The Indian complaint is "politically correct claptrap," stated Limbaugh (an opinion shared by about 100 percent of conservative commentators), but what was supposedly significant to Limbaugh was that by buying the t-shirts, a presumably mostly white male general public was showing that the issue did not bother it at all. This was the point for Limbaugh.

Lost in the shuffle of papers the radio talk-show host is noted for was the reason the Indian students changed the name of their intramural basketball team in the first place ? from "Native Pride" to "The Fightin' Whites." The students did so when the high school in nearby Eaton refused even to discuss changing their school team name, the "Fighting Reds," which comes accompanied by a twist-faced, big-nosed, loin-clothed Indian mascot. Also lost in the shuffle of papers was the racial-tension among sports teams all over Indian country, particularly in the Dakotas last year when an Indian girls basketball team was jeered at an away game and then chased through a mostly white town while local toughs fired a shotgun as they passed. (The two youths will now be tried anonymously in Juvenile Court.) When pleas for tolerance and understanding of the issue were discounted, the UNC students said, they worked up the provocative name to stir up the discussion.

Meanwhile, at Sports Illustrated magazine, editors weighed in on the issue. Guess what? According to Sports Illustrated, Indians are really not offended, after all, by Indian nicknames for teams, mascots and motifs. In fact, they like it.

According to a poll of American Indians on and off reservations conducted by Sports Illustrated and the Peter Harris Research Group, when asked if high school and college teams should stop using Indian nicknames, 81 percent of Native American respondents said no. In pro sports, 83 percent of Native American respondents said teams should not stop using Indian nicknames, mascots, characters and symbols. According to the magazine, even Indians who are against Indian team nicknames "wear Washington Redskins paraphernalia with pride." The magazine cited an alleged incident of two Indians at a January conference on race relations in South Dakota wearing Redskins sweatshirts while speaking against Indian nicknames.

The magazine and other commentators seized the poll results and the anecdotal arguments to minimize the mascot issue as unimportant. Clearly it is mandatory "politically correctness" for conservative pundits to consider this a trivial issue. In straightjacket, cookie-cutter approach typical of the type, these pundits do not allow the mascot issue onto the serious side of the journalistic ledger. Suddenly, the question is not about racist stereotypes but about whether Indians really "care" about the supposedly trivial issue. Since (according to their poll) Indians don't care, they ask, is it really an issue at all?

The Sports Illustrated article goes on to say that activists downplay the poll's results as misguided or as evidence that Native Americans' "self-esteem has fallen so low that they don't even know when they're being insulted." The Washington Times later wrote that this would be a "racist" response by Indians. But this level of commentary is simply to add speculative non-Indian opinion to other speculative non-Indian opinion, in a context, as usual, removed from the formally expressed and well-documented opinions, positions and resolutions of American Indians, their tribal leaders and governments.

It is all very intriguing. We conducted a similar poll here at Indian Country Today. Our results were quite different. It could be because our opinion makers' list is comprised of our active readers, among them college students, tribal leaders, educators and other professionals, perhaps people who are of necessity thinking more deeply about the impact of mascots and other identity grabs on our children.

It is an extremely important issue for Indian people, who are intent on cultural and political survival as distinct nations of the world, to own and control as much as possible all information and knowledge about our peoples' identities, and to influence as much as possible just how such information is presented. No corporation, organization, school, municipality, county or state can afford to allow denigrating or incorrect information or images about itself to be consistently disseminated publicly without response. Any of these institutions would fight to the teeth such an appropriation which American Indians nations know all too well can still set the stage for a resulting loss of political and economic respect and status, and that might pave the way for the appropriation of essential tribal assets.

Thus for each tribal Indian people distinctly and also for Indian country as a whole, the issue is not trivial, regardless of polls or the spin-doctoring opinions of media pundits. And it is not going away. The attempt of Indians active on this issue is properly to disappropriate the image and the text on Indian people from those businesses, writers, artists, broadcasters, directors, etc., who now wantonly insult people of other races, ethnicities and nationalities, as their fancies will, in pursuit of making money.

Perhaps most importantly, the campaign by Indian tribes and organizations to remove Indian nicknames and mascots has resulted in an estimated 600 school teams and other sports clubs changing such nicknames since the movement started in 1969, when the University of Oklahoma was shamed into dropping its "Little Red" mascot. Just last week, after two years of rancorous debate, the president of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts decided that "changing times" dictated a changing of names. Thus, the college's sports team, now known as the "Mohawks," will likely soon become simply, "The Hawks."

This action is respectful. This action exhibits intelligence and integrity. This is a display of mutual affirmation. This is progress.