Speak Your Piece: ‘Playing Indian’

A senior staff member of the National Congress of American Indians cringes to remember his costume at his 21st birthday party. What will it take for the owner of the Washington, D.C., NFL team to have a similar epiphany over his team’s mascot?

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I’m a white guy who works in a city whose football team’s name is a racial slur. I was born and raised 10,000 miles from Washington, D.C., but the name of the local professional team still matters to me.

When I celebrated my 21st birthday in Sydney, Australia, the theme was “Americana.” People dressed in cowboy hats, ate hamburgers, and listened to Bruce Springsteen. I wore a red, white, and blue Indian headdress.

I was in the final semester of a degree in Indigenous studies and personally committed to addressing the tragic history of Australia’s Indigenous people. When I put on that headdress, I was proud—happy, even. I thought I was honoring Native people. Today, I look back on that costume with regret.

What changed? In the 14 years since, I’ve met tribal leaders, Native warriors—those who have earned the right to wear eagle-feather headdresses. I’ve studied with Native scholars, taught Native students, and visited countless reservation communities.

For the past seven years, I have served on the senior staff of the National Congress of American Indians, giving me a front row seat to many important policy battles for Native peoples, including the fight to change the Washington team name.

But on the issue of “Indian” mascots, I’ve been more of an outsider. Like many Americans, I have that “Indian in the Cupboard” moment: The time I played Indian at my 21st birthday. There are even photos to prove it. Until I wrote this, I’d never even told anyone I work with about that moment.

And maybe that’s why I’m not angry at the non-Native people that I see wearing Washington NFL team jerseys, caps, and other branded merchandise. As the team starts training camp this month and the controversy over the name simmers, I’m sad, not mad, when I see the license plate covers, the bumper stickers, and the office decorations.

Many of the people sporting that gear don’t know the Native young people—promising young leaders who speak passionately about the impact of “Indian” mascots on them and their communities—that I teach each summer. They may not be aware of the research that shows that “Indian” mascots harm the self-perception of Native youth. Out here, far from the reservations, they can’t see the impact of suicide in Native communities around the nation.

Some of them might not know that the majority of America’s more than 560 tribal nations have spoken out against these stereotypes for almost 50 years through the resolutions of the National Congress of American Indians.

It’s likely that they are in the same position I was in on my 21st birthday: They don’t know Native people. Even if they feel mildly uncomfortable about the Washington team’s name, even though there may be that sneaking suspicion that Native people might not like it, there is no personal accountability for their choices. No Native friend to call them out.

And it’s not entirely their fault. The relatively small population of Native people on the East Coast is the direct result of policies of the United States government—and colonial nations before that—to kill or remove Native people from their homelands.

In 1963, Martin Luther King wrote in Why We Can’t Wait that America “tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population.” He decried the harm of exalting that history and noted that “even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode.”

In 2014, in Washington, D.C., I’m afraid that is still true. When fans across the city don team colors and proudly exalt a caricature of Native people as their mascot, they are not showing remorse for that shameful episode. How is that possible? Many racial slurs of the 1960s have been relegated to the history books—where they belong—but this one lives on.

Many Americans have not been allowed to move beyond that vague feeling of discomfort with the team’s name. They went through an education system that failed to acknowledge the history of the United States and Native people, or failed to acknowledge the existence of Native people at all.

The Washington team is financially invested in sustaining that ignorance. When they claim that this is a “new issue” or just the “PC police” at work, they are relying on the scarcity of Native people on the East Coast to avoid a critical response. They claim, with a straight face, that Native people aren’t really offended by the name—even though that term evokes the history where Native people’ skins were removed and sold for bounty.

More than that, when the team proclaims a “proud history” of honoring Native people to a racially diverse Washington, D.C., fan base, they conveniently neglect to mention that George Preston Marshall—the owner that brought the team to Washington—led a decades-long fight against the integration of black players.

They take money for jerseys and caps and use it to hide the fact that there are more than 5 million diverse Native people living in America today. They stand behind a team name that considers Native people, at best, a thing of the past, and, at worst, people to be ridiculed and impersonated with impunity. They promote a mascot that encourages people to don the equivalent of black face and “play Indian” each and every game day.

While the big corporations haven’t changed, the NCAA has. And while there were 3,000 high school teams with an “Indian” name in 1980, today there are fewer than 1,000. Many of those changes were led by high school students.

In recent years, schools in states like Montana and Washington have implemented curriculum to educate all of their students—Native and non-Native—about the historic and contemporary importance of tribal nations. Social networks have enabled non-Native young people to go beyond their geographic peer group and connect with their Native peers. Some have met Native people and realized—just like I did—that when we wear feather headdresses, we’re missing something.

Native people are not a relic of America’s past; they are making America great today—they are sports stars and artists, politicians and scholars, soldiers and school kids—and, with almost half of today’s Native population under the age of 25, they will make America great tomorrow.

Peter Morris is senior advisor to the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. This article was originally published in Pacific Standard’s PSmag.com.

 

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