Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Real America, with Abe Sauer: Red Skin Cheer

redskins-band-leaderIn 1930, the University of North Dakota changed the name of its sports teams from The Flickertails to The Sioux (and then later, the "Fighting Sioux"), presumably because a flickertail is a type of ground rodent and the Sioux were considered to be a tribe of Indian "warriors." Also, their teams' archrivals are the "Bison," and what better mascot to wipe out a bison than an Indian? (Given that irony is not favored in athletic departments, i.e., "The Fur Traders" was not considered.) Three years later, and two thousand miles away, a professional football team changed its name to The Redskins.

Both the Sioux and the Redskin names and logos have been challenged. Last week, a federal judge in North Dakota granted a temporary restraining order against the state board of education's attempt to retire the Fighting Sioux nickname. And earlier last week, the Supreme Court refused to hear a decades-long case against the Redskins-not because The Court disagreed with the plaintiffs' assertion of the logo's racial insensitivity (which would bar it from trademark protections) but because the claim was brought so long-25 years-after the Redskins trademarked the name.

While the Redskins debate is fairly straightforward, the Fighting Sioux case is characterized by paradoxes and ironies. That a debate about the offensiveness of a logo depicting people who once freely roamed the central plains area is being settled by stuffily-named committees in cheap folding chairs under florescent lights. That "Sioux" itself was a derogatory term from the French. Or that the "Dakota" in "North Dakota" refers to the region's natives so "North Dakota Fighting Sioux" is a lexiconic absurdity. That the Fighting Sioux name was chosen to replace Flickertail because of the perceived fearsome nature of the latter; yet, the Sioux were systematically exterminated and subjugated while flickertails still wreak havoc on the region's settlers. Or that logo-defending rhetoric about maintaining "tradition" conveniently overlooks that it was tradition that was changed to accommodate the Fighting Sioux logo. Or that the logo that "honors" the Sioux has changed over the years from a cartoon to an image also used by the Chicago Blackhawks, ostensibly to honor the Blackhawk tribe. Most absurdly, the ruling by the National Collegiate Athletic Association requires the University of North Dakota to secure approval from the state's two Sioux tribes for at least 30 years, essentially meaning it has to get approval that the logo does not offend right now.

At the heart of the matter is "The Ralph," a hockey arena named for its patron, the late Ralph Engelstad, whose donation of $100-million is still one of the largest ever in the history of college gifts. A former UND hockey player, Ralph was once one of the richest men in America and owner of the Imperial Palace casino in Las Vegas.
At the turn of the millennium, Ralph was dying (not of shame). With the future of the Fighting Sioux logo grim, he did what any rich crazy person would do and wrote the university president a letter about the status of his generous donation:

If I walk away and abandon the project, please be advised that we will shut off all temporary heat going to this building, and I am sure that nature, through its cold weather, will completely destroy any portion of the building through frost that you might be able to salvage… Please do not consider this letter a threat in any manner, as it is not intended to be. It is only notification to you of exactly what I am going to do if you change this logo and this slogan.

Surprising only to those who had no knowledge of the threat (which was everyone), the state board of higher education reversed its long-held position that the logo was offensive. "Fighting Sioux," scheduled for mothballing, was revived. The whole subtle letter is available online as a black eye to higher education. Also, just to be sure, Ralph had thousands of Fighting Sioux logos placed throughout the arena, including a massive marble inlay one, so as to make removal prohibitively expensive. (A bit of trivia: It was the Chicago Blackhawks-like logo that Ralph wanted UND to re-adopt to "honor" the Sioux. When the idea was nixed by the UND president, the current logo, an approximation, was commissioned. A coincidence then that Engelstad's hockey career peaked with a tryout offer from the Blackhawks? Looking at the two together it's easy to see the influence honor.)

Finally, it's noteworthy that the attorney who filed the restraining order on behalf of several North Dakota Sioux just happens to have done work for the Engelstad Arena in the past. Engelstad spokespeople insist this is a coincidence.

American Indian Cultural Support estimates that about 2,500 kindergarten, elementary, middle and high schools use American Indian mascots. Then there are the colleges and professional teams. In recent years, many schools, faced with requests from the American Indian community, have quickly and willingly changed their logos. Many, many others have not.

So, are these logos offensive? Maybe. Certainly some are, such as Cleveland's Chief Wahoo. But in general, nobody agrees at even the most basic level: many who believe one logo is racist see a similar one as acceptable. Further exacerbating the complexity is that many American Indians themselves see variety, agreeing that a logo like the Fighting Sioux is inoffensive while that of the Washington Redskins is racist. Or that a logo may be offensive but as long as it has the approval of the tribe, it's acceptable. A further complexity is that even if a team name itself is not overtly offensive, it invites offensive statements from "fans" and even national media outlets, such as the Washington Post. Then there is the awkward merchandising, such as the opportunity to wipe one's feet on an image ostensibly honoring a people.


There are several popular defenses for continued use of such symbols.

To get a better understanding of the reasoning of supporters, I spoke with two of North Dakota's popular writers on the Fighting Sioux mascot. First is that these logos "honor" American Indians. This reasoning is used in both the Fighting Sioux and Redskins cases.

I started by asking The Whistler, a syndicated writer for Say Anything, what he would say about how some might find this an odd honor for a group that has seen little in the way of honor in any other form.

"I don't believe in any sort of collective guilt. What some people who are dead did to some other people who are dead is irrelevant. Another factor is that by the standards of their time what happened was being done all over, even by the Indian tribes themselves. I'm just saying that things were different back then and if we go to correct historical wrongs where would we ever end it? Cain and Abel?"

In 1887, Congress established the Indian Trust. Probably as early as 1888, the American government began dishonoring that agreement. The trust incorporated millions of acres of Western land once owned by individual American Indians. Believing these people could not effectively and reliably manage the wealth these lands would certainly soon produce, the Department of the Interior was installed as trustee. In simple terms, the US took the land, promised to act as the executor of the trust, and then more or less never returned any calls. The fact that the Interior Department maintains an Indian Trust site that claims "We have proposed an initiative to improve and fix the Indian trust program" should be about all one needs to know.

A Native American leader named Elouise Cobell sued for the mismanagement of the trust's royalties. The case has been ongoing for, it seems, as long as the trust has existed (actually since 1996). In a ruling on the case, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth wrote: "What remains is the raw, shocking, humiliating truth at the bottom: After all these years, our government still treats American Indians as if they were less deserving of the respect that should be afforded to everyone in a society where all people are supposed to be equal" and that the Interior Department was "the morally and culturally oblivious hand-me-down of a disgracefully racist and imperialist government that should have been buried a century ago."

Lamberth was rewarded by being removed from the case by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, which claimed he lost his objectivity. Lamberth was succeeded by Judge James Robertson who, in 2008, wrote that the Interior Department had "unreasonably delayed" the case and that "a remedy must be found for the department's unrepaired, and irreparable, breach of its fiduciary duty over the last century." At the time of Robertson's ruling, he was the tenth circuit judge who had been involved in the case whose docket had 3,504 entries. He compared the case to Bleak House.

The Bush administration (as with the administration before) had, to date, "honored" the government's responsibility for mismanaging the trust by fighting the case tooth and nail, going as far as attempting to remove judges. Congress strangled the Interior Department's funding, effectively gumming up the process of finding an adequate accounting (of this move, Judge Roberts criticized Congress for an "unwillingness to fund such an enterprise"). It's an incredible case that finally got its due in an eviscerating cover story Parade magazine… published Sept. 9, 2001.

And while the case is not yet over, the original amount sought (tens of billions of dollars) has been whittled down to an award of $455 million, which works out to honor every possible claimant to the tune of about $900. Keep in mind, this is not a case about reparations for government-sponsored genocide, which will never come to pass. This is a legally-documented trust of Indian holdings in timber, oil and resources that the U.S. agreed to manage and then proceeded to gut. Our defense? Those records are all gone, so how can we pay anyone? So, as The Whistler said, it all happened between people who are long dead and not worth revisiting, right?


I also spoke with Goon, a columnist for for Illegal Curve and other Sioux sports sites. He said:

"Many Native American have said they think that the Fighting Sioux name is an honor and are very proud of it. Being in North Dakota, I see a lot of Native Americans wearing Fighting Sioux hats, shirts and jerseys. So do we disregard these people's opinion? Why is a vocal minority speaking for the whole Sioux Nation? I have seen Native Americans talk disrespectful about the Native Americans that are for the Fighting Sioux name. Also, a lot of the people that are against the Fighting Sioux name are white liberal professors or native Americans that aren't even of Sioux decent.

Like many who support the Fighting Sioux nickname, and American Indian logos in general, Goon and Whistler often point out that those offended are "a very small vocal minority" and that an "overwhelming majority of Indians" are "in favor of sports teams using their names for their team names." They back these claims up with surveys and polls. These include an April 2009 Spirit Lake tribe of North Dakota Sioux referendum, in which 67% of its members voted to retain the nickname, and a 2002 Sports Illustrated survey that found 81% of American Indians didn't find such nicknames offensive.

What everyone who cites the Sports Illustrated poll fails to mention is that the 81%number was for those Indians living off reservations. For those who lived on reservations, that number drops to 53%. Meanwhile, a 2005 poll found that 61% of North Dakota American Indians (and 95% of overall state residents) were "not offended" by the nickname. (It's noteworthy that in supporters' rhetoric, poll numbers based on "not offended by" questions were characterized as "support for.")

The polls cited by both Goon and Whistler demonstrate anywhere from, at most 37% (Goon) to, at best, 19% (Whistler) of a group of people are offended by the names. I asked both if this was the case. Of the 37% of Spirit Lake tribal members finding the Fighting Sioux logo offensive, Goon said, "The Tribe has voted and that's acceptable to me." Whistler agreed. He said, "One final thing with the poll is that a lot of the people against it have been influenced by the loud minority over what they should decide. I'm not saying the poll is invalid, but I think some peoples opinions have been influenced by the antis. In the absence of any public debate (the time is of course past for that), I think even more would support the name."

This "vocal minority" or "very small vocal minority," to use their language, is something like 1/3rd of American Indians in North Dakota.

Of Whistler's reasoning, it's especially noteworthy that when he finds himself in the minority, he sings a different tune, very vocal tune. For instance, his criticisms of Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND); Dorgan was opposed by about 32% in his last election.

American Indian logo supporters often appeal to "democracy" to settle the issue. Voting is America's foundation, right? But as anyone who is not a member of a majority knows, resolving ethical or civil rights issues by majority vote is not the least bit American. Certain residents of California and, recently, Maine understand this well.

But what makes the "honoring them" line hardest to swallow is that America's effort to honor American Indians doesn't seem to extend past using them in iconography to represent our sports teams.

American Indians rank at the bottom of nearly every social statistic: highest teen suicide rate of all minorities; highest rate of teen pregnancy; highest high school dropout rate; lowest per capita income; highest unemployment of any American demographic. Newscasters go crazy about areas of Michigan with near 20% unemployment. Yet, un- and under-employment at North Dakota's Standing Rock Reservation is more than 70%, compared with something like 5% for the state overall. And Standing Rock is not the worst.

A 2003 United States Commission on Civil Rights study assessing federal funding for American Indians found extreme disparities in the areas of health care, transportation, public safety and education. And yet, under Bush, American Indians were "honored" by the reorganization of the Department of the Interior's trust fund management structure. Cuts included more than $7 million for Indian housing programs and more than $4 million for Indian home loans. Bush then broke the back of American Indian entrepreneurship by dismantling tribal business information centers, the Small Business Authority's only program targeting American Indians. He tried to cut all funding for North Dakota's United Tribes Technical College. The Army Corps of Engineers re-launched large water projects that have been identified as threatening sacred sites.

Then in 2008, Bush took his hatchet again to Indian housing services grants, going after 15% of its funding, about $100 million. The cowboy capped it all off, in one of his only public mentions of American Indians, by "honoring" them for getting preferential consideration at the University of Michigan: "…some Native American students receive [extra points] not because of any academic achievement or life experience, but solely because they are Native American." Had Bush been in his prime, he would have made that speech at Illinois or Florida State… or North Dakota.

nd state patrol

These economic insults are dwarfed by the travesty that is public safety on Indian lands. Justice Department data says that 30% of all American Indian women will be raped in their lifetimes. And thanks to the 1978 Supreme Court ruling in Oliphant vs. Suquamish, only federal prosecutors can prosecute crimes on reservations. Because they are not exactly high on the fed's priority list, rapes are almost never prosecuted. The 1978 ruling also means that tribal police (of whom there are few) can often only prosecute American Indians, not off-reservation offenders. This essentially means that, in some parts of the country, anyone can go onto a reservation, commit a crime and most likely get away with it. It is unsurprising then that the Justice Department says that about 80% of reservation rapists are non-Indian men.

In the end, tribal police turn the rape cases over to the feds, who decline to file charges in nearly three of every four. It is estimated that about half of all murders on tribal lands also never see prosecution.

To return to logos, one great irony of the North Dakota Highway Patrol is that their emblem features the symbol of Red Tomahawk, "a Teton Dakotah (Sioux) Indian who lived on his land near the Cannonball River on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation near Mandan, North Dakota." The Highway Patrol is largely not allowed to police Standing Rock.

For more information about how reservations in the United States can make our worst, most blighted urban centers look warm and inviting, check out Herbert Hale's story or, better, Matthew Powers' outrageous "Ghosts of Wounded Knee" in the latest Harper's.

It's worth mentioning that tribal governments themselves, often insisting on independent jurisdiction even at the expense of maintaining order, bear some of the blame for the utter preposterousness of such a public safety "system." But again, they're not the ones claiming to be honoring anyone. And while many say these atrocities on tribal land are solely the fault of the tribes themselves, recent Obama administration actions and comments about "making good" are evidence to the contrary, such as Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar's recent remarks about the "federal government's pattern of neglect" and Obama's goal to motivate the justice department "to improve public safety on tribal lands."

The most popular, most common defense of the use of American Indian logos is "but, but, the Fighting Irish!" While there is the matter of Notre Dame selecting the name for itself as a Catholic institution with Irish roots, this reasoning is far more flawed.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish comparison should, if anything, testify to the offensiveness of American Indian logos. From a social level, there was never an attempt in the US, both locally and on the part of the government itself, to exterminate the Irish. The fundamental point of American Indian logo usage is that these logos "honor" people we largely tried to kill by any dirty mean available. One wouldn't expect to find a Turkish basketball team called the Marching Armenians or a Srebrenican hockey team called the Battling Bosniaks. There is no other people so singularly "honored." Except the Fighting Irish. The Irish logo should be the exception that proves the rule. Instead, in typical reactionary logic, it is the rule. For a comprehensive collection of research and commentary on this issue, visit Blue Corn Comics, a publisher of comics focused on American Indians.

The fundamental bizarreness of the logic supporting the use of American Indian logos logic is evidenced when the subject of other American Indian logos is raised. I asked Whistler and Goon about their thoughts on Cleveland's Chief Wahoo and the Washington Redskins.


"Chief Wahoo is negative, it's a cartoon character, and I can see the reason people think the Washington Redskins is offensive but the Fighting Sioux logo is not portrayed in the same light, it was drawn by Ben Brien, a person of Chippewa decent and who is married to woman of Sioux decent."


"I haven't been a NFL fan for a lot of years, although I was a fan of the Redskins during the Hogs area. At the time I didn't think that the Redskins name was a negative in any way. Now I wouldn't call an Indian a 'Redskin' today, but given the tradition of the name I don't see that being bad."

Got that?
The fetishization of American Indians is by no means the sole province of athletic programs. Commercial interest from Indian Motorcycles to Leinenkugel Brewing Co. to Land O'Lakes Dairy leverage American Indian iconography to sell products with no relation at all to native culture or history. Halloween costumes and other debris round out the inheritance of insult. But the athletic logos are the most widespread and most egregious simply because they are employed by organizations whose foundations are predicated on equality, opportunity and absence of the inescapable judgment, habit and bigotry of the "real world." We are so quick to see it, even when maybe unintentional, in political cartoons, Vanity Fair covers, "chink eyes," protest posters, Australians, illegal alien costumes, sports movies, Nick Douglas Internet theories, movie posters and other nation's outrages. Asian women trigger our outrage but not Indian faces?

Can anyone even imagine a world where "Indian" is interchanged with another people in features editor Jaine Treadwell's recent, hard-to-believe-it-got-published ruminations for The Troy Messenger ("Circle the wagons, the Indians are coming") and it still gets published?

Were the Fighting Sioux logo the only of its kind, a lot of this might be easier to swallow. But the American Indian logo whole is more offensive than the sum of its fighting, brave, warrior parts. It's the pervasiveness. The Sioux or Seminole or Illini or Braves or Redskins or Chiefs cases are always fought individually, with no reference to how they might impact the whole. It's always: "Does the Redskins logo offend?" Not: "Does the widespread use of American Indian logos for sports teams reinforce a single, one-dimensional stereotype and offend?"
And while the use of American Indian logos for sports teams stinks of a legacy of discrimination, their defenders smell of the cult that sees anti-political correctness as reason. Like almost every progressive achievement in the United States, the fight to retire the use of American Indian logos is opposed by a population of white male reactionaries with persecution complexes. Within the last year, the U.S. did what a generation ago seemed impossible, and elected a black man. He happened to be born around the same time as the passage of the Voting Rights Act-a law that, interestingly enough, probably would have died in individual state referendums. And now that man holds post-racial "teachable moment" beer summits on race in a city with a professional sports franchise named "Redskins."

Abe Sauer still likes sports though.

61 Comments / Post A Comment

KarenUhOh (#19)

This is a complicated issue only–or, mainly, I should say–to those whose alliances and allegiances encompass sports teams and the schools that have maintained these symbols, mascots and logos.

I grew up in Champaign-Urbana, with family lineage to the University of Illinois. The Fighting Illini, Chief Illinwek, what have you. And, for what it's worth, the allegiance to the athletic program as I grew up, and deep into adulthood, was as strong as to that of the school I graduated from, and that my father worked for 40 years. If you wanna make it even goofier, I have Native American blood in me.

I was a staunch partisan of the logo and the "symbol" that was the Chief. I never understood why anyone would be offended. No one was laughing at the Chief when he performed. In fact, there was a quasi-religious reverence that hung over the audience when this person, who was always a white male, did some concocted "dance" that represented nothing authentic in Native American history at all.

When the Chief was relinquished (we can still call the teams the Fighting Illini) I was a bit disheartened, because to me there was never anything but honor to it. But? Just a wee bit? I think to equate the egregious past of the sovereign's treatment of Native American "rights" and "welfare" with naming sports logos may help elucidate a point, but it doesn't exactly nail it. In general, it just indicates the old saw that we white folk can be tone deaf when we aren't plain heartless.

Most people look at all this and say, "So what?" and I can hardly blame them. I wish we'd put the Native Americans back in charge of everything, quite frankly. My school's football team sucks anyway.

Abe Sauer (#148)


KarenUhOh (#19)

Abe, & my fellow Illini:

I thought I'd be a lot more upset about the "forced retirement" of the Chief than I was. . .part of the benefit of growing older–at least for SOME sports fans–is you figure out that your silly behavior can lapse into ludicrous behavior. But still, this whole "Illini" lore is part of my cultural DNA, and to suggest my "being an Illini" is an affront simply makes no sense, if you aren't an Iowa basketball fan.

I was visiting Dartmouth a few years back–a school with an utterly barren sports program–and these two young men were on the corner behind a card table, selling shirts that read, "The Indian Will Never Die." They'd taken their symbol away, as well, and now were called the Big Green.

I bought one of their shirts. Because, as a Martian, I was appalled.

belltolls (#184)

I didn't pay much attention to sports when I was at Champaign but I know you are right that the Chief was never an object of derision and although over costumed, never cartoony. I believe the NCAA banned Illiniwek and though he doesn't appear at college sponsored efforts, he is seen around campus at other functions.

Full disclosure: I am writing this with a Chicago Blackhawk logo Captain Morgan Night Cap Recap hat on which I wear at some point during most days because I live in Seattle and it rains alot here and I got it for free. I also live near two major Indian reservations.

Holding to a general rule that it is wrong to unreasonably upset one's neighbor — and having no idea what effect being born and raised and having attended college in places all named for Indian tribes
(Chicago, Illinois, Fighting Illini) has had on me, I defer to my neighbors in this regard.

In the couple of years I have worn my Blackhawks hat (and the logo is very cool looking) and knowing that during that time I have talked to, had coffee with and generally interacted with many Native Americans (okay, yes, at the fucking casino too) no one has said a word or looked askance at my hat. One guy did ask me where he could get one.

If one of my fellow islanders or someone in line at the Starbucks or on the reservation ever objects, I will likely get a different hat. I bet it never happens.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Um. . .as for "never cartoony," well, if you search back to the 60's or 70's, you will find your share of Wampumy kitsch depictions of the Chief that would offend all but the most diehard Indians fan.

In fact, one of my prized possessions is a rug adorning the laundry room with those leering injun caricatures. But, it's, well, um, ironic.

belltolls (#184)


tiny dancer (#1,774)

I remember an essay in the Daily Illini years ago (but probably runs every year) that offered suggestions for a new name. One suggestion was the Illinois Prairie Fire. Hm. It just didn't have the same impact as I-L-L!

Can they even sell merchandise with the Chief on it? Or is it pretty much the block I?

belltolls (#184)

Not from the university. Just things with the whoosy forward leaning ILLINOIS and the Orange and blue "I".

jfruh (#713)

There are of course gradations of unpleasantness involve here and I have to think that parodies or garbled versions of what are in origin religious ceremonies are pretty bad. To anyone who'd say that various "war dances" done by fake-Indian mascots are honorable somehow, I'd wonder if they'd feel the same way about the San Diego Padres dressing someone up as a Dominican priest and having him hurl communion wafers into the crowd.

belltolls (#184)

I really do get your point — though I got to tell you the idea of the Padre throwing wafers into the crowd is an absolute winner.

When I was little I thought the Redskins were called that because of the potato (a dish I loved that my mom made often used them). I favor simply changing the mascot to a potato.

mathnet (#27)

ME TOO. I'm a starch supporter.

What about redskin peanuts? What are we gonna call them?

ProfessorBen (#1,254)

This may be a little arcane but an asian-gay equivalent to 'rice queen' (aka white guys who love asian guys) is a potato queen (aka asian guy who likes white guys). I find both a little weird and a little too looks-focused.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Ha. Up until a few years ago there was an ND Potato Queen

mathnet (#27)

The federal prosecutions problem realllllly pisses me off.

the Loud Coast (#1,362)

Just for some background/context on Ralph Engelstad:

"The control board found evidence suggesting that bumper stickers reading HITLER WAS RIGHT had been printed at the Imperial Palace"

Yeah its a good read.

Is he from the Marge Schott school of team owners?

Abe Sauer (#148)

I intentionally left out any "Ralph loved Hitler" stuff mainly because, while pathetic, clouds the issue. They were the Fighting Sioux long before Ralph developed his crush. And, again, while interesting, removes everyone's complicity in the existence of the Fighting Sioux logo by putting it all on one very evil person (ironically JUST LIKE Hitler and Nazism!)

the Loud Coast (#1,362)

Oh I totally support your editorial sensibility there, It was clearly a good thing that the article was on topic and not distracted by an overly inflamatory tangent. I was just saying in sort of a "just sayin" sense.

HiredGoons (#603)

You can't just give a team a name and then take it back.

Hobbesian (#255)

There should be a term for that…

NeonTrotsky (#2,249)

Well, for me, it's all about the University of Northern Colorado, home of the "Fighting Whities"

When the Cleveland Indians were founded, the most famous local baseball player was….an American Indian. So that's what they named the team.

The Braves (Milwaukee at the time, right?) were founded by a group that included a so-called sachem from Tammany Hall. And what does a sachem do? Oversees braves. and hence the name.

so, in some cases it's not just caricature. But in most cases it is.

Abe Sauer (#148)

This is also apparently true of the Redskins, who had a "redskin" coach at the time. See, also, the United Negro College Fund.

Hobbesian (#255)

As a long suffering Cleveland Indians fan, I can't believe they still trot out there with Wahoo on their caps. The team has obviously been trying to gradually introduce new logos over the past couple of years (including the truly awesome "block C" cap), but seriously: let's just be done with it already.

HiredGoons (#603)

I wonder what an Australian football team might look like?

muskegharpy (#2,094)

Nice read. I have nothing to add except this bit on how some Tlingit folks got back at those imperialist Russians about 100 years later.

I laugh now when I walk by this pole, thinking about who had the task of schlong removal.

iplaudius (#1,066)

These scuffles over symbols say a lot about how the Left responds to those on the losing side of historical conflicts. It's like white guilt for people with advanced degrees.

myfanwy (#1,124)

The excerpted comments really add a kick to this piece. I am unable to read those sorts of things without flying into a wholly un-ironic rage and then sink into despondency.

myfanwy (#1,124)

*sinking, dammit.

First Americans!

Mindpowered (#948)

They're not "americans" We're all late, Squamish, Seneca, Cree, Hopi etc…

petejayhawk (#1,249)

No matter what one's opinion on the mascot issue is, you have to admit that The Ralph is a hell of a place to watch a hockey game. And that Grand Forks in winter is really, really fucking cold.

Rod T (#33)

I suspect my suit against the Calgary Flames isn't going to every see me rewarded.

Flashman (#418)

Indeed there is a lot of that team's history, dating back to when it was one of the more progressive teams of the old WHL, that current management would now rather forget. They'll tell you that the name comes from burning oil wells or something like that.

hockeymom (#143)

Here's all I have to say about this:
Cary Eades and Jim Archibald are still goons.

Flashman (#418)

My alma mater, McGill in Montreal, had a similarly controversial mascot, but it came about in rather a backwards way.
McGill's guy teams are known as the 'Redmen.' This came about back in the late 19th century, when the University of Toronto were dubbed the 'Blues' and McGill the Reds; apparently over time this became 'Redmen', and then some years later (maybe the 40s or 50s?) they decided to adopt a mascot/logo to suit: a native dude in full headdress.

Flashman (#418)

Anyway, by the time I left (96) they'd decided to ditch this mascot, and according to wikipedia in 2005 the school chose 'Marty the Martlet' as its new mascot.
(PS according to WP, my "late 19th century" should be '1929').

sailor (#396)

Growing up in D.C. I managed to get involved in Native American rights in the early 60s while rooting for the Redskins with heart and soul. Absolute contradiction I'll grant you, but I wasn't around to protest when they named the team and there wasn't much I could do about it, so Joe Gibbs, the Hogs, Riggo, Charley Taylor, Joe Theismann, Art Monk it was. And we won 3 super bowls and also beat Dallas when it mattered, which was always more important.

And now Dan Snyder has wrecked the franchise, so now they are well and truly the Deadskins, which is even worse. Feh.

Bittersweet (#765)

The Hogs and Riggo! Dan Snyder killed my Skins love too. *sob*

kpants (#719)

Oh Abe, this is great. I grew up in southern South Dakota, and the levels of racism (veiled or unveiled) and consequent internalized racism flourishing there were and still are astounding. It was lucky that as a kid a mixed-race friend taught me to choose "Lakota" rather than "Indian" or "Sioux," but the white panic levels were such that I was constantly corrected by white adults (my own family included) to use the slurs instead. The reason given to me was "because that's [Sioux, Indian] what they are, they just want to say it's differnt." This sort of othering was/is not unusual, and you're right to point out that sports mascots are but one symptom of the huge socio-economic and racism issues that persist. For instance, my mom defensively points to the myth that SD state universities grant tribal members free tuition as evidence that they don't want to better themselves because they don't get degrees. Pointing out that getting to college when the systemic lack of economic resources and support to finish as far as high school even (let alone the lie of free college) may demonstrate the fable of free university education is a specious argument, however it quiets only that specific deflection against the charge of institutionalized racism. It's always one excuse or another why they are to blame for the very racism used against them. I won't even bother with the usual variations on the trope "they're all drunk, promiscuous, lazy, and stupid"; That excuse gets trotted out by all bigots everywhere against whomever the object of hate. Adding to this is a sort of racial insularity that's not necessarily obvious to those outside the Dakotas; Nearly every white parent I know (of my and my parent's generation, at least) has a "funny" story about the first time their kid(s) saw a black person. I am not surprised vocal support exists for outsider caricatures of various native peoples as examples of their tribal pride. It's one of the few instances of visibility within pop culture that's ever granted to native peoples. It makes the privileged feel better about implicitly enforcing a system that continues to make money off peoples encouraged to remain silent, invisible, and colorless outside of the green they provide.

Abe Sauer (#148)

This point about outsiderness is so important. One irony is that many Fighting Sioux logo supporters point out tat those most against the logo are the pointy-headed liberal OUTSIDERS at the University who just moved to the state, not realizing of course that they themselves are the ultimate outsiders for the region. And while I could not find a place for it, I;m sure you'll find sentiments like this familiar not only in that they exist but in that there is widespread agreement about the point they make:

kpants (#719)

Ugh. To be fair, he does say "pretty good point" not once, but twice, which totally makes it true rather than a substitute for actual analysis. My favorite is the rhetorical device of "Why the double standard? Could it be that the logo, in both instances, isn’t really hostile and abusive at all?" Gee, who could possibly imagine why co-opting Lakota culture for entertainment purposes by a state that has an ongoing history of being actively hostile and abusive towards native peoples could be considered wrong.

This whole obliviousness reminds me a lot of what happened in Miller in 2001 when a bunch of white boys chased and shot guns at native girls after a basketball game. The racist slurs and "war crying" aimed at players during the game were just as much a part of the violence as what continued to happen afterward. There was a concerted and deliberate pose struck by the white community to pretend that none of this GROUP PARTICIPATORY activity existed or resulted from the current non-native culture of hate and violence. This American Life did a story a long while back on it; I feel like it's still worth a good listen for those who might not understand the pervasiveness of these attitudes.

We have family friends that live somewhat nearby in Redfield, who while otherwise liberally minded people, excused the whole social/cultural environment that led to the situation by saying, "well, that doesn't happen all the time, obviously." Just some of the time, then, which I guess makes it okay. Sigh.

myfanwy (#1,124)

Grew up several hours north of you. Shit's still pervasive as hell up here, and if I point it out, I get blank stares and "Well, they can't help it, they're just not wired that way/fit to oversee their own affairs/leeching off the gubmint." A racist alumnus donated money to the university with the stipulation that it be used for a scholarship for *anyone but* First Nations people, as they already have too many scholarships, I suppose. Ugh. Thankfully the university told him where to go and how to get there, but took a lot of flak from the general public here, who saw nothing wrong with it.

Oh, and let me tell you about my first year Anth class that devolved into a shouting match between angry racist Caucasian women and an older Aboriginal woman.
The First Nations woman told me later that she had felt "very threatened". This is in a fucking university! And you could see the racist girls swaggering out after class, believing that they had won and that they were right, that they had showed her. So much simmering hate here, but fear that the First Nations will somehow rise up and take it all back is really what drives it. They know their European ancestors really fucked shit up with the Aboriginals – we all learn it in school here – and a lot of the racism stems from this assumption that one day white people are gonna pay. It's an admission of guilt in a really messed-up way.

Mindpowered (#948)

Indeed. The whole deep guilt of the colonization has scarred both Canada and the US (Mexico is more akin to what the south would have become had it won the civil war).

It's especially prevalent on the northern Prairies (alberta/saskatchewan/manitoba and adjoining US states), as that a) where the native population is growning and b) where (with few exceptions) immigrant(1800 + onward) population is declining (or not growing as fast).

It's interesting as I've mentioned how the US celebrates the martial spirit of the various nations it conquered while Canada just wishes they would go away. The dissimilarity in symbolism is quite striking.

garge (#736)

I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland; in middle school, we had a small assembly in the library. Members of a Native American tribe were to present to us about their reservation and day to day.

Being twelve and all, we settled into a comfortable lull of note-passing and spying on some boy we stalked. Until the slide show took a turn in tone. The person giving the presentation began showing all of these slides of suburban sprawl. A deadpan shot of the freeway exit to their reservation. The strip malls encroaching upon their land, driving animals away. He was talking about poverty, and alcoholism. And then the whole presentation was co-opted into a People Not Mascots protest.

My first reaction was glee, of course, because our teachers were soooo uncomfortable. Clearly they went off script. And you CAN'T INTERRUPT AN INDIAN.

But ultimately, it profoundly affected me. He articulated the pain of racism, and I had never been so intimately aware of it before. A friend and I joined them at the peaceful protest which is held in downtown Cleveland before the first home game of every month.

I haven't thought about it since I moved away. But thank you for this post, as it was both informative and allowed me to revisit a past locus.

Forgive me if this has been mentioned already (I'm too tired to read through all the comments above), but here's a fun fact: The Redksins got their name because they had a Native American coach back in 1933: William "Lone Star" Dietz. They were in Boston at the time, and they changed the name from "Braves" to "Redskins" in honor of Dietz (who apparently didn't find the name offensive).

The were the only NFL team ever to have a Native American coach. And one result of that, ironically, is a name-change that has insulted many Native Americans ever since.

sailor (#396)

Thanks for the clarification. Nice to be on the same comment thread again.

maebefunke (#154)

Nice work on this piece, Abe. As an anthropologist working on an Indian reservation in Washington state, I see the racism directed at my friends and colleagues non-stop. Shit's fucked up. Sports mascots are but a blip on the surface of centuries worth of systematic degradation. We are far from post-colonial.

Notes from undergrad: The Dartmouth "Big Green" used to be the "Indians" and the old guys at homecoming still buy Indians paraphernalia from the Dartmouth Review (crazy neo-con student paper) hobble around campus talking about how much better the place was when there weren't any women allowed (unless they were bused in from the 7 sisters for sexytime on the weekends). It's gross.

BoHan (#29)

Abe, great piece. Also, Issues Day on The Awl! Where's my stuffing recipe?

OK, from the guy who knows very little about lots of things, FIRST, this is by no means a defense of a lack of rape prosecutions or silly mascots. So don't go there.

BUT Abe, when you wander into the issues of Tribal Sovereignty, the Tribal Courts, the Tribal Police, Olymphant and so on, you open up a whole bunch of issues that are not as black and white as you portray them.

For example, if a company is off-reservation, it is totally screwed when it comes to enforcing something as simple as a repo for breach of contract for failure to repay a car loan. You can't get a tow truck onto the reservation, and you'll lose at Tribal Court anyway. There is total Tribal hometowning going on, and who knows who started this chicken and egg and when, but it's bad, and the citizens of the Reservation lose in the end. Few off-reservation will do business with them, let alone open up a company there. So yeah, Tribal Sovereignty is the greater good and everything, but you can't say it had zero to do with the current state of Reservation poverty. And the issues get even more mixed up from there.

Time for more wine.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Agreed. The Indian Country system benefits the few and leaves the most of the rest in poverty. I have no solution for this. Few do. Interests are entrenched. I'm talking specifically about law enforcement, especially for violent crimes. And from the federal side that is woefully underfunded. Last year there was "surge" of law enforcement (just like Iraq!) in the Standing Rock reservation increasing the force to 29 for 90 days. Crime dropped sharply. Then the over 2.3 million acre reservation soon went back to its 9 man force (Nine!!!) because federal funds to maintain the extra officers dried up.

Mindpowered (#948)

Indeed there are so many competing groups for a shrinking pie. Moreover a lot of problems stretch back to first encounter, when who ever was on top at that time was permanently placed on top ever after (disrupting the normal turnover of political life even since).

It's sad but one the great problems is few lineages milking the mass of the group for their own personal benefit.

carpetblogger (#306)

My HS mascot was the Crusader. Never once, in 15 years of catholic education (and 4 years with the Jesuits!), did anyone mention there might be another side to that narrative.

Rw (#1,458)

As a Washington DC native (not the First American kind) I gotta give you props. As an African American, I have to say the response from my people here in D.C. has been Most saddening to me. Where is the NAACP et al. in a city that is majority Minority ( ha ha, what the hell?) it's just puzzling and plain dumb that we have a team named the redskins supposedly representing the city. If the Redskins had been named "The Darkies" in "Honor" of a coach I wonder how this all would have played out. A certain part of me enjoys the agony these redskins fans are feeling, from up on my high horse it looks like they deserve to have a team that sucks as hard as these clowns do.

Rw (#1,458)

just to be clear certain NAACP chapters have tried but… lately most have been absent on this.

Mindpowered (#948)

And Now I'm going to Rant:

As the white husband of a Cree woman ( who has found prostitution to be the most lucrative career option in Canadian society), I've found my self on the firing line between both groups more than once.

The first person was myself, as I had shed a lifetime of liberal assumptions about what kind of society I lived in and what it was like for her.

To put it simply for her, it's a constant fucking struggle. And woe betide you if you have the misfortune to be born outside your nation and have dark skin. You might as well put a gun to your head and be done with it. The much vaunted Canadian tolerance(based largely on the lack of African slavery) stops dead when it comes to Metis, First Nations and people of joint heritage.

Tom Benjey (#2,335)

"While the Redskins debate is fairly straightforward.." is not accurate when one considers the research done by Smithsonian Linguist Emeritus Ives Goddard who spent several months researching the origin of the term "redskins" and found it to be benign. The word was coined by Indians to differentiate themselves from white and black people. The bloody scalp definition was apparently "discovered" in the 1960s by activists.

Tom Benjey, author of
"Keep A-goin': the life of Lone Star Dietz"

Abe Sauer (#148)

While the origin maybe have been benign, its current usage is not. Like the swastika, things come to hold meaning over time regardless of intention. So what I mean is that the debate today is largely straightforward.

Scott Wyffels (#5,792)

FYI, Abe. The guy in your indian custom died the night of that photo.

His name was Chris Jenkins.

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