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The Oklahoma State Incident: Reforming the Racism Cycle

Cherokee Nation citizens had a set plan for our Cherokee National Holiday weekend. Plans that would be later interrupted by some college students from Oklahoma State University holding up an offensive sign. This weekend commemorated the 175th anniversary of the Trail of Tears where an estimated one out of every four Cherokees perished on the forced death march from their homes in the "old country" to lands in Indian Territory. Many people wrongly consider the Trail of Tears as the end of all the taking from the Cherokee Nation. Instead, it was a horrific starting point. Later years would see forced land sales and grabs, our government going underground, and cultural stripping. As a nation we always are moving forward to restore so much of what has been taken and remember our ancestors legacy. One day we will be ancestors too. It is a real emotional connection to our nation.

Whenever I hear the words "Trail of Tears" I feel a little drop in the center of the earth below my feet. It was always more than a brutal incident in history. It was about people whose stories I have heard since I could hear. The Uncle who ran in his shackles from US Soldiers and tried to escape. He was hunted down by a search party and murdered. A young man who watched both his grandparents die before him and not from old age or illness, but from abuse. A baby girl being born along the way. Cherokee mothers who had lost their children helped care for her and protect her. By some miracle, she made it. It was the story of a toddler disguised as a girl so that he might make the forced march alive. The DNA of all these people lives in every cell of my body and is also in my children. So when their memory is attacked, mocked, or jokingly used by an outsider, it is undeniably personal.

Wednesday, I was having issues with my iPhone and a guy on Twitter who told us to feel honored by Indian mascots. Once, I had thoroughly explained why it was so disparaging he then said he was 1/16th Cherokee and "didn't find anything wrong with it." Nothing is unusual about someone pretending to be a citizen of a Tribal Nation or having heritage that they probably don't posses. Their cultural taking hurts many people who do have legitimate Native American heritage, but aren't citizens. Plus, I equate this to an Irish-American (or a pretend one) going to Ireland and telling Irish citizens about Irish language and traditions. Sound absurd? It is.

This may seem like a digression from the Trail of Tears and the offensive OSU student banner that was shown on ESPN's GameDay broadcast which read " SEND 'EM HOME #TRAIL_OF_TEARS #GOPOKES," but it is connected.

A few hours later, I was at the local Apple store talking with a guy named Brett. He was on a work/visit to our area from New York. I told him the feature I liked most about Apple was easy access to the Cherokee language keyboard. He then remarked that he was Cherokee, "1/32nds whose ancestor-grandmother escaped the Trail of Tears in Tennessee". He wasn't a citizen of any of the three bands of Cherokee. He knew "nothing about Cherokees, at all". My son was with me and I guess our looks read like a book. Anyway, we tried to educate him about what being Cherokee really meant. I asked him if he was planning on going to the Cherokee National Holiday. After all, tens of thousands of people do go Cherokee or not. He had no clue about it and although I really do hope he went. I left the store with my replaced phone and a feeling that he had no plans on going. "Maybe on your 200th anniversary I can come." was his parting remark.

Before Austin Buchanan gave an apology, so far the only student to issue one, he tweeted: "Sorry to everyone that got butt hurt by my last tweet, just btw I'm 1/16th Cherokee and my family and Indian friends thought it was hilariou"

It is sad that Mr. Buchanan is the only person that has come forward and given an adequate written apology. We have all done things we are deeply sorry for and ashamed of. Racism is one of those things that is taught, and taught at an early age. I definitely think a full measure of guilt should be shared by institutional Native mascotry which is like an open door to hate of indigenous people. News reports and officials keep saying these students "crossed the line", but I believe they just went to a dark corner of the room.

I do want to believe in Mr.Buchanan's apology. He has more community building to do than a sincere letter and a pledge. Rebuilding what cruelty has broken will take time. It will also take time for my children to heal from the pain they felt by what he and others have done and seemingly endlessly continue to do to us. Together as people we need to do better. This cycle of harmful actions and apologies isn't good for anyone. Many people, including myself, called for his expulsion. Because, as I stated, if it was "Pearl Harbor" being mocked, that consequence is what would be happening. But, maybe we should pause and ask if an example should be made of him while Florida State still has a race-based mascot and while Washington, DC, still has a racial slur for a team name. Even after I read out the apology to my family, the pain and trepidation of the next incident is still there because the door is still open and that is something that the general public is slow on closing.

Jennie Stockle (Cherokee and Mvskoke Creek) is an Indigenous Rights activist and serves on the Executive Committee of EONM (Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry). Most Recently, she has written for ICTMN, eonm.org, and RHrealitycheck.org on local and national issues of discrimination and rights of Native Americans. She lives in the jurisdiction of the Cherokee Nation where she grew up picking strawberries and pestering her fluent Tsalagi-Mvskoke speaking grandmother for more stories about what life was like before her grandmother learned to speak English.