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What Movies Best Depict Indians?

Connecticut activists working on the mascot issue need some suggestions about movies or other cultural events we could use to educate about Indian nations. There’s been some small progress in Connecticut in getting rid of Indian mascots, but not enough. A couple of years ago Quinnipiac College changed its mascot from the “Braves” to the “Bobcats”. This year West Hartford public schools decided to abandon Indian mascot pictures. They’ll keep the names “Chieftan” and “Warrior”, but replace all Native American images.

In North Haven, Clark college sophomore and recent North Haven high school graduate (and athlete) Talia Gallagher was allowed to make an extended statement at a Board of Education meeting calling for an end to the town’s “Indian” mascot. She was very poised as she told the assembly that use of the mascot amounted to stealing from a culture of a people who had undergone massacre and theft of land. The use of the mascot continued the stereotype of Indians as “savage, aggressive, warlike creatures”, she said. She mentioned the common practice of “wearing headdresses and stereotypical war paint” at sporting events. She said, “the majority of the Native American community are offended and harmed by any Native American mascot”.

Later town residents were allowed to make their own remarks. It got pretty heated. Opinions did not break down along ethnic lines. A Dr. Camp, who said she was a direct descendant of an Indian nation, in Bolivia spoke strongly in favor of keeping the mascot. She compared keeping the term “Indian” to other teams names that had some ethnic reference like Yankees and Celtics. She asked, “Should we expunge all Indian names from streets and rivers?” She said removing the mascot would be “showing deference to the eradicated tribes by removing all memory of them as it appears in our language.” She suggested those suffering “white guilt” would do better by advancing the “mission” of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Ah yes, the beloved Bureau of Indian Affairs.

A non-Indian woman who lived on an Indian reservation as a child while her father taught at a South Dakota “Indian School” talked regretfully about how for a century those schools tried to wipe away Indian culture from the students. She said studies showed the mascots caused profound negative impacts on Native American student self-worth even when the students said they liked the mascot.

One woman talked about a supposed unique situation in North Haven. She said the Quinnipiac Sachem Montowese had sold the land to the settlers. However, a Pebobscot and confederate Qunnipiac named Norman Clement disputed her rosy version of the history, particularly the idea that Sachem Montowese freely “sold” the land to Europeans saying Indians had been deceived. They had no idea of the European concept of a “sale” and no notion that they were giving up all rights to their land.

Several supporters of keeping the Indian mascot talked about “our tradition”, “our heritage” and one enthusiastically said, “we are the Indians”. It was embarrassing to hear that muck in 2015. 

James Rawlings, Chairperson of the Connecticut Native American Intertribal Urban Council (Wampanoag) was pleased with the meeting on the whole for creating dialogue. However, he felt most speakers had little understanding of the struggles of Native Americans over the last 500 years.

In the end the North Haven Board of Education decided to create a committee to study the matter. Yet, truth be told, there were not many members of tribes in the audience despite rather decent notice of the event in the media. One didn't have to be a North Haven resident to sit in the audience or to carry a sign. Why didn't hundreds of Indians show up from other towns and other states? As related above the woman who started the campaign, Talia Gallagher, was baited as a non-Indian with liberal white guilt. She and her friends deserved better support.

We have a ways to go. Activists need to educate the public in North Haven and break down the stereotypes. We should show some films, have some performers, etc. What are your suggestions?

Stanley Heller is host of The Struggle.