Why Is the Debate Over the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux Mascot Important?


First of all, debate is important in airing out the differences of opinion, and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as people RESPECT each other's right to their own opinion. The key word that should resonate throughout this discussion is RESPECT. Two words, or combination of, come to mind on the subject of the University of North Dakota's mascot issue, RESPECT and SELF-ESTEEM. The word RESPECT is something that the UND lost from the outset, when it chose to adopt the image of the first people of this hemisphere, as a mascot. The second word is SELF-ESTEEM, which was the indirect cause and effect that for years was silently endured by all the Native alumni who attended that institution of learning.

Having served for thirty-one years as a National Advocate (American Indians in Film & Television, AIIFT) for the American Indian Image and its use in different mediums, and having written countless articles on the subject, not to mention the time consuming speeches and seminars, let me give you some of the historical back story and uses in which our image has been utilized. The image of the American Indian has been manipulated for the purpose of "honoring", authenticity, advertisement, and indirect subliminal racist ideology, since time immemorial. Shame on those institutions who still demand for us to accept these images as a method of honoring us. My traditional mother used to say that in order to be shamed, you had to know what the word meant. Unfortunately, in some circles of our society today, the word shame has become a positive instead of a negative. That having been said, allow me to enlighten you with my educated opinion of how I have arrived at the history of this method of subliminal racism, as I refer to it.

Our images date back thousands of years to the early use of hieroglyphics, as a form of visual communication. The Wintercounts, utilized customarily and created by our ancestors to document our tribal histories, have always been self descriptive and could be understood by the images and stories they told. So figuratively speaking, our images have been around for a very long time. With the creation of the printing press, and the "dime novel" of the late nineteenth and twentieth century, our image began to take on a significantly different and maligned purpose. It could best be described as demeaning and degrading, and society accepted it and in most cases applauded it.

The "western" movie was subliminally used as a tool to make it a more visually palatable process, because, after all, the Natives were only "uncivilized savages", and besides, they -- the Natives -- were not complaining.

How does one explain this lack of concern coming from the Native population? The reason is that there was no established line of communication. But due to our silence, Hollywood felt entitled to do anything and everything with our image. Wrong. At the time, and even in some cases today, the Native people would not even indulge that attitude by protesting it. Natives' silence was the most honorable of gestures and protest. It was unfortunately misunderstood.

In early printed material, the image of the Native people of what is now called America became cartoonish. This cartoonish representation was accepted by the press and used in literature for the purpose of having displaced the Native people of their land and possessions. The disrespect for a race of people by utilizing those methods became common and accepted, with the Native people having no say. The Native people were not consulted then or even today, and not until recently, having gained a recognizable amount of political clout, has their voice finally begun to be heard in regards to their dissatisfaction over being maligned or demeaned by these mascot images. They have finally been empowered to challenge the existence of Native mascots by learning institutions like the University of North Dakota.

Many years ago, in Los Angeles, I and other concerned parents and Native people, confronted the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), about the demeaning and racist use of Native images as mascots in schools. We fortunately prevailed in convincing the school board that they, the teachers and the schools, should be in the business of enlightening the youth, not teaching them to discriminate or make fun of another race through the use of imagery such as a demeaning mascot, and they saw the common sense of our appeal. They unanimously agreed, and racially-based mascots were longer allowed within the LAUSD. Some outstanding learning institutions have served as examples of doing the right thing; Stanford University in California and other colleges have also realized their mistakes and wisely changed their mascot image. The NCAA has admirably taken a zero-tolerance stance against member schools who retain Native and discriminatory mascots by not allowing them to compete, and hence the grinding and prolonged effort by UND to phase out their Fighting Sioux mascot.

There are still many schools and colleges that cling to these racist, demeaning, and cartoonish images that they refer to as "honoring" mascots. As a federal and state taxpayer, I am appalled that my tax money is going to fund schools that retain these racist image mascots. Special mention and kudos are in order for the state of Oregon, which has recently outlawed the existence of Native mascots in their schools, and I would encourage other states to follow their lead.

Some of these mascots have existed for quite a long time at some of these schools, but tradition is still no excuse for their continued use. Do the right thing and get rid of them. America has always been a work in progress. At one time women were not allowed to vote, but that was changed because it was not right. African Americans were used as slaves, and that was changed because it was not right, so why continue to allow continued use of Native themed mascots? They hurt Native children and contribute to their low self-esteem and cause other sociological problems for an undeserving people. There is no logical human reason for their existence under any circumstance in today's diverse mainstream society. In denying any race of people the freedom from degrading imagery -- in schools, of all places -- is to accept that America is only for a chosen few. And that is not the America I know.

We as a society are better than that. We have too much on our proverbial plate to continue to demean and degrade a proud race of people. If we collectively profess that our children are special, then why burden them with mixed messages? How can we teach them in school about respecting others, while depriving a group of their self-esteem with cartoonish images of their ancestry? Today, as America prepares to celebrate its birthday, and a nation of people take pride in being an American, do not allow its brilliance to be tarnished by accepting the status quo. Be willing to learn from the past, accept the diversity that exists, and press for the respect of all those who call themselves Americans -- especially the first Americans.

I personally want to thank all those colleagues of mine who over the years have had to endure countless acts of racism by those who would have you believe that this subject does not deserve discussion, let alone change. It is, undeniably, a matter of respect.

Pilamaya pelo. Thank you -- and have a great FOURTH OF JULY!