Seeing teenagers at a game or school assembly run out of teepees, wear war paint or mimic a tomahawk chop makes me cringe, every time.
The same sinking feeling hits when seeing words used as mascots that have been used to slur native people. These usually include school fight songs that parody ceremonial war chants in minstrel-like fashion.
It just doesn’t feel right.
The argument over the use of Native American names and images spans decades. Even within tribes, citizens have varied opinions.
Some native people are highly offended. Others view it as no big deal or even an honor.
The issue comes up again as Maine becomes the first state to ban the use of indigenous nicknames and imagery at its public schools.
Maine passed the law in May, but the last district in the state dropped its use of “Indians” just two months prior.
The Skowhegan district spent years considering the move with passions flaring on both sides. Those in favor say it’s a tribute the native people who lived nearby, until they were massacred or driven from their land in the 18th century.
Critics said it was wrongful cultural appropriation. The Penobscot Nation, one of the four federally recognized tribes in Maine, had long urged the district to remove the name.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills and the state’s education department encouraged the local board to make a change. The district’s board voted 14-9 to retire the name.
Idaho is facing a similar movement led by the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, which submitted a position paper to the state’s education board, Legislature and governor last month.
The tribe (one of five federally recognized tribes in Idaho) asked to cease using all Native American mascots, calling it “racial misappropriation,” according to the Idaho Statesmen. It also requests mandatory Native American history be taught in schools.
About 11 Idaho districts use an indigenous mascot.
“The people, the schools and institutions who developed these names ... are perpetuating racism and stereotyping,” the tribe wrote, according to the Statesmen.
“These types of school labels, both names and images, propagate harmful attitudes and perceptions to and about Indian people, leading to past, current and future misperceptions about tribes and of Indian people.”
A lot of national opposition focuses on a word I won’t use in print. I’ve heard from indigenous people how seeing it is personally offensive, often comparing it to the n-word that slurred African American people for generations. I don’t want something I write to hurt someone on that level.
Other states have restrictions regarding Native American-inspired names and logos.
The Oregon education department issued orders for districts to drop all indigenous nicknames. Four years ago, California lawmakers forbid the use of the r-word as a mascot, which affected four districts.
Wisconsin had passed a law requiring districts get the permission from native tribes to use imagery.
In 1992, The Oregonian newspaper in Portland was the first to stop referring to the r-word or “braves” in sports stories. Others media organizations have joined that position. So, a sports story will refer to the NFL team from Washington or the Atlanta Major League Baseball team.
All this leads me back to Oklahoma, home to 38 federally recognized tribes.
Descendants of American’s greatest holocaust of indigenous people live within our borders; their ancestors survived the Trail of Tears in the early 19th century.
Native American history is Oklahoma’s history.
That doesn’t mean tribal mascots and images are OK for use.
It means Oklahomans ought to be more sensitive to this debate and be a leader in the discussion.
And because I see this argument coming, the Fighting Irish is not the same.
Native people have been oppressed through systemic racism and a history of violence and broken treaties. For generations, tribal people were kept in poverty and away from basic civil rights.
While Irish immigrants faced discrimination and ugly stereotypes, the moniker wasn’t used in the same way to demean an entire swath of ethnic people for decades.
In 2014, students at Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City successfully lobbied its school board to drop its 88-year-old r-word mascot.
While a few alumni objected, it was overwhelmingly embraced, particularly by a student body composed of a majority of Hispanic and black students. They are now the Red Wolves.
A year later, McLoud schools decided to keep its r-word mascot with the blessing of the Kickapoo Tribe, headquartered in the town. The tribe’s position was that the term originated with native people in reference to ceremonial paint used.
Linguist Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian Institution backs this claim with early writings from tribal people. But reporter Baxter Holmes wrote a 2014 piece for Esquire about bounties placed on the heads of indigenous people, invoking the r-word in the descriptions found in 17th and 18th century documents and newspaper clippings.
While the word may have started as a self-identifier, it was warped by colonists and others into disparaging and violent insults. That is what matters now.
The kind of language evolution has happened with other words and symbols. We can’t change the past, but we can adjust in ways that reflect our current values.
Oklahoma has about 55 high schools with mascots of the r-word, Savages, Warriors, Braves, Chiefs, Chieftains or Indians. Some of these have a majority of students who are tribal citizens. Most do not.
In Tulsa, the most notable is in Union, but there are also the Webster Warriors and Central Braves in Tulsa Public Schools.
There isn’t a current push for changes in these schools, which I find puzzling.
For now, Maine has made a stand for tribal members. Perhaps one day, Oklahoma will follow.
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