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Matthew McConaughey, You're All Wrong About the Redskins

A response to Matthew McConaughey from Jacqueline Keeler, founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry:

Mr. McConaughey, I read your comments in the recent GQ interview, and what grabbed me was this observation you made: “What interests me is how quickly it got pushed into the social consciousness. We were all fine with it since the 1930s, and all of a sudden we go, 'No, gotta change it'?”

Indeed what did happen? I can tell you, Mr. McConaughey, it is that Native people are using social media and the result has been magical. Hashtaggery some call it, but it’s what we do to be heard.

In a concentrated burst Native people have been working together to trend hashtags like #NotYourMascot nationally. The group I founded, Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry exists as a grassroots, Native social media collective. Together we get Native people from across the country and even Canada tweeting a hashtag over four hours in one night in order to get it to trend. We call these Twitterstorms. Poetic, I guess, and if you want to mine commonly held imagery of Native people just think of a Thunderbird or a coming storm seen high over prairie releasing its burst in one large downpour. That’s us and in one night we can average 18,000 tweets and reach over 17 million timelines. And a lot of it is educational in nature, about actual Native lives versus stereotypes like the ones the Redsk*ns promotes.

RELATED: Matthew McConaughey Says "Keep Redskins," Cites Hamburgers and Westerns

And Mr. McConaughey, there's nothing "all of a sudden" about our feelings—Native people have been speaking out about this issue for decades. In 1968, the National Congress of American Indians, the largest representative body of Native Americans in the country, called for the elimination of the mascotting of Native people. That was the year before you were born. Five years before the four-year-old you chose to be a Redsk*ns fan for life.

And every year of your life Native people have been protesting the Washington team and other teams that use Native Mascots like the Cleveland Indians. I was born in Cleveland, Ohio—a child of a federal program called Relocation whereby the U.S. Government sought to “terminate” tribes and relocate their populace to urban centers. The newly-burgeoning American Indian community in Cleveland in the 1960’s quickly began organizing to get rid of the grotesque caricature of Chief Wahoo. I’ve participated in this this fight my entire life.

But despite all these protests, NCAI campaigns against mascots, and a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office case begun in 1992 by Suzan Harjo, a Muscogee Creek leader in the fight against mascots, most Americans have somehow remained clueless that a controversy even exists. The oft-asked philosophical question applies here, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" And the reasons for this lack of knowledge goes directly to the lack of coverage of Native American issues in the media. Native Mascots abound, just turn on your TV on any given Sunday, but actual real-live, modern Native people? We are far outnumbered by mascots and our lives are masked by them.

So the advent of social media united Native people who live mostly scattered across the country. Most, in fact, do not live on reservations. Estimates are that as many as 70% of all Native Americans live off the reservation. They live in communities in which they are minorities amongst minorities. Most Native youth face these images and the stereotypes they promote alone, not buffered by an isolated Native community on the reservation.

Often they are completely invisible as Native people to those around them. Either being taken for Mexican or, depending on their family history, other ethnic groups. My own father was often mistaken for being Arab or Jewish (he was Dakota Sioux, French, German and English) and my mother, a full-blooded Navajo, was often taken for being Asian. In fact, during the Vietnam War she was not allowed back into the country (she went to Niagara Falls) for fear she was a Vietnamese spy. My father after 9/11 was routinely held by the TSA to make sure he was not a Muslim terrorist. We are not always easy to spot.

Using social media, we are able to connect over great distances with each other. My mom can go to Facebook and trade jokes in Navajo with the family and friends she usually gets to see only once a year during her journey back home to the Southwest. I am able to pursue social justice issues using social media and connect with other like-minded Native people from across the United States and Canada.

And it is out of these connections that the Native American Twitterstorm was born. Last fall, a group of Native people on Twitter had been arguing with Redsk*ns fans, using #ChangeTheName, a hashtag promoted by NCAI. But right before the Super Bowl the hashtag was hijacked by spammers and our tweets were being buried by ads to purchase real estate in India (I know, ironic). So a group of us calling ourselves, “Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry” brainstormed a new hashtag #NotYourMascot inspired by #NotYourAsianSidekick.

We liked #NotYourMascot because it articulated our feelings so well. We were taking back our identity, our image, and making it clear it is not yours to do with as you will, but ours. And we trended #NotYourMascot during the Super Bowl and doubled the views of NCAI's "Proud to Be" video in one night. Coverage of what we did hit the national media as it did with every Twitterstorm we have done since: #NotYourTonto during the Oscars in response to The Lone Ranger’s nomination for make up (yes, for Redface,)#NotYourTigerLily in response to Rooney Mara’s casting as Tiger Lily in a Peter Pan remake, #RedfaceDisgrace during the Rose Bowl when FSU fans dressed up in Redface 90,000 strong on national television, #Dechief, in support of Cleveland fans who were “dechiefing” (removing Chief Wahoo) from their Cleveland Indians gear and posting photos online with the hashtag #DeChief.

I coined the term “mascotry” to encompass all the things that the use of Native people as mascots promotes: “playing Indian”, Redface, stupid fake "war chants," "Scalp ‘Em" and "Trail of Tears" signs at games, dressing up in Pocahottie outfits and wearing facsimiles of our sacred regalia while pounding back beers at a tailgate party. It promotes stereotypes about us to the exclusion of knowing anything else about us. It pigeonholes us and our children are confronted by the narrow confines these images limit them to whenever they share their identity as Native Americans with their peers.

Mr. McConaughey, imagine you're not white, and in all the depictions of white people you ever see, they're Vikings. In this hypothetical scenario, there are no films with modern white men in them, out of the 5,000 books published each year only a few had a white man as a main character, and even then only as historical figures of the past? What would you say the first time you met a white guy—where’s your longboat? Where’s your helmet with the horns? Are you going to pillage my hometown? I know you said that the Redsk*ns mascot, "gives me a little fire and some oomph. But now that it's in the court of public opinion, it's going to change. I wish it wouldn't, but it will." But it’s these limitations that mascots impose no matter how prosaic the image may be.

The court of public opinion is being moved by Native people using social media to promote facts that this mascot, the one makes you feel good, actually reduces Native youth’s self-esteem. Studies done by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg—and cited by the American Psychological Association in their resolution calling for the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots—found that after Native students were exposed to a Native mascot their self-esteem went down. And for Native people like your friends who tell you they “are okay with it” their self-esteem went down even more. Simply saying you are “okay with it” may in fact be a cover for a person experiencing even greater distress at being mascotted. Exposure to Native mascots also decreased Native youths' belief in their ability to succeed in the future. And for non-Native folks like yourself? The exact opposite occurred, it improves and inflates their self-esteem as you described yourself feeling. 

In a sense this constitutes a real taking from Native youth, the most vulnerable population in the country—just like our land, our culture and languages were taken. Native youth commit suicide at an alarming rate, three times that of all other American youth (these are numbers from the CDC) and Native women are three times as likely to experience domestic violence or be murdered according to the Department of Justice. And nearly 90% of the rapes of Native women are done by non-Native men. The stereotypes promoted by mascots have a very real effect on our lives and how we are treated and viewed by the rest of the population. The continued use of mascots even affects funding for our vital programs like the Indian Health Service and education. The perpetuation of these for profit (the Washington Redsk*ns franchise was recently valued at $2.2 billion) and entertainment is immoral and the fun you might enjoy is far outweighed by the harm it causes.

In April, due to the work of Suzan Harjo and the lead plaintiff in the Trademark lawsuit, Amanda Blackhorse (Navajo), six Redsk*ns trademarks were cancelled, including that of the Redsk*nettes, the team's cheerleading squad which has worn Pocahottie-inspired uniforms in the past. In July, the San Francisco Giants added a clause to their dress code that forbids the wearing of “culturally inappropriate” attire at games at AT&T park. This happened because EONM publicized the story of two Native people being beaten by the San Francisco Police for asking a fan to not wear a fake headdress. We Twitterstormed and contacted the media and finally the Giants’ owner heard us even though the San Francisco newspapers would not touch the story.

Only one newspaper carried the story right away: USA Today’s Erik Brady who has been following our social media work and covered the story the same week of the beating. This was due to the work Native people have been doing collectively to be heard through social media and breaking the wall to the national media.

I'll be there at AT&T Park on May 28 when the Atlanta Braves come to play the Giants. And if I see any fans wearing redface, or cheap parodies of our sacred headdresses, or t-shirts with the old "screaming savage" Braves logo, I will text "Foul" to the number the Giants provided and I will have those fans removed. You are right, the times they are changing and Native people are leading the charge. I also invite you to be my guest at the game.

And Mr. McConaughey, I am truly touched that as a four-year old you chose to identify with Native people with the only image available to you at the time. I understand that. I think there is in children a truly noble inclination, but that is why we need to provide the next generation with more accurate and varied images of Native people today. If we are to truly understand and help each other our relationship cannot be defined by stereotypes but by a broad understanding of one another’s humanity. Certainly, white men enjoy the privilege of being depicted in numerous and varied ways in film. Your career, the range of roles you've played and the different experiences and lives you've portrayed, certainly reflects that. This is all we seek, and I hope you will join us in that quest.