This is an excerpt from an email I wrote that was sparked by a discussion on that most useful of dialogic platforms, Facebook, after I posted the USAToday article “Brennan: It’s time I stopped calling team ‘Redskins’:”
I’m mainly writing because when I see “why does the [Illini / Redskin / Braves, etc] mascot matter?” what I hear is “can you please explain settler-colonialism to me from the beginning?” (I mean this in a non-patronizing way, but I’m also okay with being all Teachable Moment on you.)
In the beginning, lots of things happened. Creation stories date back millennia, and I won’t start there because we’re both busy people, but I bring this up because we are all based in stories.
Somewhere in the more recent past, a year some people call 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in Hispanolia and immediately captured and enslaved some members of the Indigenous population to bring back to Europe as souvenirs. Everyone involved in that story is long dead, but the story continues. (Thomas King wrote about this in A Coyote Columbus Story.)
Skipping over centuries of missionaries, mappers, invasions, wars, incursions, epidemics, wholesale slaughters, the “Sixties Scoop” (a cute name for removing Indigenous children from their homes and cultural contexts throughout North American and placing them with White families, a practice that led to widespread abuse and ongoing intergenerational violence), Residential Schools (a cute name for removing Indigenous children from their homes and cultural contexts throughout North American and placing them with White educators, a practice that led to widespread abuse and ongoing intergenerational violence), the establishment of reserve and reservation systems, the “granting” of the right to vote for Indigenous peoples (in the twentieth century), treaties, sovereignty disputes, protests (just some big ticket examples that got lots of coverage: 1990 Oka “Crisis,” the Trail of Tears, both Wounded Knees…), and other events that have led to high suicide rates, shorter than average life expectancies [link via Marc], the higher than average disappearance, rape, or murder of Indigenous women (ie along the Highway of Tears in rural BC – you could check out the Stolen Sisters initiative) with limited jail time and laughable penalties for White perpetrators, let’s jump to today.
Today, the United States of America is one of a few (~30) countries that grants citizenship at birth just for being born on US soil. The map below [which I came across on Reddit, but was lifted from Wikipedia, which cites the suspicious “low-immigration, pro-immigrant” organization Center for Immigration Studies, so take it all with a hefty heap of salt] shows how many of these countries are in the supposedly “New World:”
There are lots of implications to this, but one over-arching justification for this practice is colonialism. How do you effectively dispossess Native or native inhabitants without a lot of paperwork? It’s deceptively simple: grant everyone citizenship who can meet certain requirements (which, for the US and Canada, have included, over time, not being Chinese, not having TB, not being old), AND go ahead and grant citizenship to Indigenous people who intermarry with the Newcomers a bit too often. (This is the Blood Quantum debate, wherein ancestry can dictate your rights as a band member, if you even get any, and funding for higher education, if you even get any. Rights as a band member can include ownership of land or a house on a reserve or reservation, although with housing shortages throughout Indian Country, it is also unlikely that you’ll get that, assuming you meet other requirements for membership that aren’t limited to Blood Quantum.)
Now there is a population that is marginalized and side-lined (just look at where reserves and reservations are located – at the end of the road, or past the end of the road in some seasons) and faces systemic racism, rampant unemployment, intergenerational violence and abuse, governance and representation that doesn’t recognize treaty rights or represent the populace.
Add to this mix the fact that most of the other residents of the continent don’t know about, care about, or recognize the struggles and claims of the Indigenous inhabitants. We European/Asian/African/etc. mutts (and Pure Bloods, to go all Harry Potter) are here to stay – that’s the “settler” in settler-colonialism. However, we’re here to stay on a finite territory. This territory has a history, a history that very few people know about, care about, or respect.
To appropriate emblems of the culture that is currently being displaced and constantly being ignored is so blatantly racist that the only way to deal with the cognitive dissonance, for some, is to embrace the icons of imperialism.
This “we’re honoring you, dude” cartoon would work just as well in plenty of other settler-invader contexts, such as Australia, South Africa, New Zealand… Claiming to honor and respect the history and heritage of one’s homeland by appropriating the feathered headdress (in the case of the Illini or the Blackhawks) without recognizing the implicit claims and explicit racism of the imagery is, to put it gently, bullshit.
How does the mascot contribute to daily oppression? Maybe it doesn’t for you or for many sports fans or for some Indigenous peoples or Native Americans. But it is a symbol, a representation, that is also the culmination of centuries of abuses, broken promises, lies, and dispossession. What are the mechanics of this oppression? Well, the mascot is one of them. Systemic racism, political oppression, cultural dispossession are others, but the mascot is a piece of this process.
If people can wave their arms “like a tomahawk” and chant “Chief” without any critical reflection on the centuries of colonialism that led to that moment being acceptable in a huge crowd in the UIUC stadium, we have a much bigger problem than just racism. We have wide-spread, whole-sale, socially sanctioned (and celebrated!) ignorance and bigotry. It’s a celebration colonialism masquerading as cultural sensitivity, which is even more insidious than somebody’s racist uncle that everybody knows is a jerk. It’s more like everyone is being an asshole constantly all the time and no one seems to notice or care.
Via BW, among other sources.
You should be a vegetarian, or a grad student, or a feminist, or a monk, or whatever brings peace to your world and the world around you. You should ask follow up questions when you have them and think critically about things – don’t just trust me on this. There are plenty of other resources on this topic, and even more resources available that take the exact opposite position that I am espousing. You have Google, you are intelligent, you can figure this out and decide for yourself how to feel about mascots and Halloween costumes.
Via “Feminist Disney.”
I’m not telling you what to do – I’m telling you what I’ve learned and how I want that knowledge to transform the way I live my life. I want to live as a de-colonizing, anti-racist, feminist, scholar and advocate. Writing to you about this, for me, is part of the de-colonizing project of advocacy. You reading it can also be a part of that process. This is an ongoing discussion, one that I’m happy to have in a respectful fashion, and one that is only a tiny, tiny, tiny part of the ongoing lived oppression of people around the globe.
But sticking up for something like dressing up like a Native American for Halloween or using the Chief at Illini games or supporting team names like the Redskins is not something I’m happy to hear from a friend. I appreciate that you couched most things in “explain to me why this is bad,” I am just frustrated with the world for not knowing more, or caring more, or having more respect. I’m in the world, and I get frustrated with myself for certain ways of thinking or practices that I don’t think critically about (for example, Jim Jim just told me that clowns may have been invented to make fun of Irish people – red hair, red noses for being drunks, stereotypical plaid – what the what, world?! Then again, that is an “unverifiable” link from Reddit, which I have now cited twice. That’s a bit like citing “Google Books.”). And you’re in the world, so I guess that made me frustrated with you on Facebook.
I won’t nitpick over the things you wrote, because I HATE those kinds of things on Facebook, but my overall impression was that it felt like you wanted to poke holes in my argument and debate the merits of degrees of mascot-ery when all I wanted to say was COLONIALISM IS BAD! and all I wanted to hear was you say YEAH, LET’S COMBAT COLONIALISM! But that is a lot to demand.
We don’t have to agree on this, but I try to incorporate this passion about injustice into my life and scholarship, so you should know that if you want to hang out more. I’m going to be a pain in the ass until things change, and things are slow to change, so I’m probably going to be a pill for the rest of my life. You’re welcome to the party, you’re welcome to the uphill struggle, and you’re welcome to debate – feel welcome! I just want you to know that I will call my friends on bullshit, and I expect the same from my friends.
Some other links on this topic that might be of interest:
– Indian Mascots, Symbols, and Names in Sports: A Brief History of the Controversy (curriculum guide)
– “Redskins name scrapped by Ottawa minor football club” (Most ridiculous excerpt: “This name change could confuse some local residents. The East Nepean Eagles are an Ottawa youth baseball organization that reached the Little League World Series last summer.” What is confusing is the ritual of football! [Google the phrase “football as human ritual” for a while rabbit hole of anthropological good times.])
Some guys with more to say:
– Thomas King
– Taiaiake Alfred
– Gerald Vizenor
– Thomas Berger
– Bartolomé de las Casas
(I know, I need more gender parity – I am working on that in my scholarship!)
[Further citations available upon request.]