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Racism: The Longest Battle Against Native People

an editorial by Terri Andrews, editor/publisher of The Good Red Road


"The Indians are on the warpath again." was overheard at a resent gathering that I had the displeasure of attending. The derogatory statement was made in reference to the many Native American Indians who are protesting the Chief Wahoo logo currently used by the Cleveland Indian baseball team.

Unknowing to them, I took offense to such a negative and insensitive comment. The Native American blood that pulsed through my body was boiling - and I set up to defend the position as to why using such a mascot was blatantly racist and a cultural insult to indigenous people everywhere.

Their argument was that the name and likeness was a compliment to Native Americans because the name is in honor of a Native American Indian who played baseball a century ago. Abreast of the history myself, I noted that indeed, the team was named for Louis F. Sockalexis - a Penobscot Native Indian from Old Town, Maine, who played the position of pitcher/outfielder for the Cleveland Spiders in 1897. Eighteen years later, a local newspaper ran a contest to rename the team (previous names included the Broncos, the Blues and the Naps) - and as a tribute to Mr. Sockalexis, the Cleveland INDIANS were born.

Admittedly, this certainly was a compliment to the Native Americans of that time, and would be today if it weren't for a few problems. First of all, this historical tribute has been lost over the last one hundred years. The origin is not held scared, only the label "Indians" has been preserved. The logo is NOT in honor to Mr. Sockalexis. It depicts a "Chief" who looks more like a stereotypical drunken Indian than an idolized ball player. I seriously doubt that the ancestors of Mr. Sockalexis find it heart-warming to see their tribal relation being mimicked by fans wearing chicken feathers, layering on the face paint, screaming out a "war cry" while drums pound in the background. Is it a tribute to his playing to have a teepee built in his honor, when he probably never even seen a teepee? They were of the Northern Plains Indians, not the Penobcsots. Call me silly, but I find this behavior to be absurd! And the fact that our society glorifies and accepts it is even more ludicrous.

If Mr. Sockalexis were alive today do you think it would sadden and outrage him when he overhead fans of the opponents’ teams scream out "Kill the Indians!", "Scalp them!" - which is often ululated at the baseball games. Statements such as this are pure racism at its core.

Let’s, for a moment, create an analogy so that you may better understand the severity of this situation. Say that Georgia started a new baseball team - the Georgia Jews.

The logo was that of a caricature of a stereotypical "Jewish-looking man" wearing ringlets and a yarmulke, playing with a dreidal. The fans chant "Shalom" over and over when the team is up to bat and the vendors sell t-shirts and keychains with the Star of David printed on the front. While at the concession stand, where a manora is brightly burning, you overhear the rival teams fans talking about how their team needs to "Smoke the Jews".

Humm.... anyone offended? Would you even attend such a game, or be embarrassed to support a prejudiced and idiotic sporting event such as this? Are you appalled?? You should be appalled, upset and even infuriated!! The thought a team being named after a group of people who have already been through a mass attempt of genocide and elimination is disgusting. I know that I would be out there protesting such a name and team, as would thousands of outraged human beings across this country.. And this is my point exactly.

You would never hear of the Nevada Negro's, the Maryland Mexicans or the Vermont Vietnamese. So why the Cleveland Indians? Why aren’t you offended? Is our society so unaffected by the plight of the Native American population that we would allow bigotry, disrespect and ignorance to prevail over common decency and being a ethical humane being?

So it seems.

Secondly, you need to examine the point of the mascot and ask yourself what type of an image is this team trying to convey? For the most part, the team mascot is supposed to embody an image of what power the team has. For example, the Lions or the Bears shows strength, while the Panthers embodies swiftness. The mascot implies what this team can do - as well as what it can do to the other team.

So why the Indians, the Redskins or the Blackhawks? What imagery are these teams trying to convey about themselves? By comparing themselves to a race of people - what is their opinion of that particular human group? Are they saying they are peaceful, full of spirit and love? Or are they using the imagery of a savage Indian, on the "warpath", ready to attack their enemy? Look at the Atlanta Braves logo and tell me that is not the image that is being depicted! This is a distorted stereotypical perception - generally (and inaccurately) portrayed in movies and in fictional works, and continued on with each and every Atlanta baseball game. By using Native Americans as logos and mascots, as well as their names and likeness, you are equating a human race with animals, as well as allowing inaccurate images of the Native Americans to be filtered into the public again and again.

Lastly, the term "Indians", to many, is considered offensive. The term was coined by Christopher Columbus, who, carried across the Atlantic racist prejudices and perpetrated the beginning of a holocaust that killed millions of the America’s first inhabitants. Continuing to use the term "Indian" is a slap in the face to those people who are fighting to correct the lies told in textbooks that Columbus was a valiant adventurer who founded this country and made it what it is today.

By this time, my naive audience had still not succumbed to my persuasiveness, nor could they comprehend how "one tiny logo" could cause such a social outcry.

I continued on, explaining the Chief Wahoo logo was only but one inaccurate characterization of Native American names and likeness used to sell products or images to the American people - others include (but are not limited to): Washington Redskins, Land ‘O Lakes butter with the "Indian Princess" logo, Florida Seminoles, Kansas City Chiefs, Jeep Cherokee, Edmonton Eskimos, Chicago Blackhawks, Redman Tobacco, Winnebago campers, Native American Barbie, Atlanta Braves and Crazy Horse Beer. Each name, logo and likeness exploits Native Americans to a mass market, distorting images which are prevalent in our society.

Images either of the romanticized Indian (Pocahontas and the Land ‘O Lakes Indian Princess are two examples) or as the Savage Indian, depicted in most "cowboy and Indian" movies, as well as with teams such as the Braves and the Redskins.

This problem is not one belonging only to team sports, it belongs to the country as a whole. While we allow big business to capitalize on the stereotypical images of an entire human race, we slam the door of righteous and respect in the face of the Native people.

My argument was starting to have an effect. I could see the questions, the assumptions and the spark of conscientious thinking looming in their eyes. But they were still not totally convinced that the Native people of this country were "entitled" to such protests. Why, they asked, couldn’t they just let it go?

I asked what facts they knew of these people? From history of textbooks - filled with selected racism and inconsistent historical distortions of past events where conquerors are portrayed as heroes and aboriginal people as uneducated drifters who believed in superstition and magic?

When the non-Native authors wrote propaganda that fed our young minds with the images of wild Indians "scalping" innocent homesteaders and incorrectly honoring Columbus and Thanksgiving traditions - was it believed? Were students subconsciously taught that Indians were primitive untamed tribes filled with questionable ceremonies, laughable beliefs and tragic warfare? Of of course they were. Unfortunately, children are still taught this today.

But I digress, and that is the point of yet another argument and another editorial. I could also of raised issues of cultural theft, cruel political crusades and the current fight for land and human rights.. but this would not suit my current situation. Not because they are not unimportant concerns, but because my audience had accepted my position, reluctantly, by at least agreeing to disagree, and apologized for their rude comments I thought it was best to leave the conversation there. I had not won the battle - and I assume that my point of view will not make them erase the Cleveland Indian tattoos that permanently mark their body or help to raise their consciousness to the point where they would feel guilty when purchasing that Cleveland T-shirt or when watching their mascot run across the field like a idiot, mimicking the fictional actions of a fictional character derived from non-Native perceptions. Nor will I have compelled them to join the picketing souls outside racist sporting events across this country. But I did voice an opinion... and I was heard. That was enough for me - for now.

But the problem rages on. Perpetrated by profit and greed, companies are refusing to show the requested respect to Native Americans and remove the negative stereotype and racist mumbo-jumbo to show an ethical backbone to those who deserve it the most. So, until they can make the stand that needs to be made, why don’t you? Boycott team products, write to the companies that use such likenesses and refuse to buy into the business of prejudice.

If you do not, the images will continue and an entire culture will be erased by a society who will not be able to recognize where the propaganda ends and the truth begins. Asides, by that time, it will be too late. The Native American people, culture, innocence and spirit will be gone - the result will be a cultural extinction.