It's time to put an end to offensive Native American mascot names

Brianna Skildum, left, gets ready to dance in Native American regalia at the Grand Portage Rendezvous Days Powwow.
Photo By: Submitted

Growing up as a Native American, I didn’t care about the respect others had for my heritage. But as I’ve gotten a bit older, I realize how little respect is present.

Whether it’s descriptions like Squaws and Savages or chants like “Scalp the Indians” (isn’t that like saying “Kill the whites?”), Native American mockery is often on display at sports stadiums.

Imagine seeing your culture presented in such an insulting fashion. Would you appreciate that? Especially in 2013?

As most sports fans know, names like Braves (Atlanta), Chiefs (Kansas City) and Indians (Cleveland) are used for professional and college teams. Probably the most offensive of all, Redskins (which once had the words “Scalp ‘em!” in their fight song), continues to be promoted by Washington’s franchise in the National Football League.

But even though some teams refuse to change their names, high schools are starting to see another perspective.

Last year, Oregon enacted some of the nation’s toughest restrictions on Native American mascots, nicknames and logos, the Associated Press reported. Schools in Oregon have five years to comply with a ban on Native names; otherwise they lose state funding.

Wisconsin is the only other state to enact similar restrictions. However, schools are given the opportunity to prove to boards that they aren’t enabling stereotypes, allowing dozens of schools to maintain Native mascots.

That isn’t good enough to me. I won’t let those names go unnoticed. They bring too many bad memories to Native Americans.

INSULTING OUR CULTURE

Supporters say the mascots honor Native history and evoke positive values like strength and bravery. Plus, it’s silly to “mess with tradition.”

How is it that non-Natives get to make that call?

After a recent Washington Post article said that D.C. mayor Vincent Gray wanted to sit down with Redskins ownership to discuss changing their divisive nickname, Internet commenters trotted out arguments about too much “political correctness.”

“Leave it alone.” “I’m so sick of the complaining.” “Don’t we have better things to worry about?”

That’s easy to say when it’s someone else’s culture that you’re insulting.

But that’s what happens when you don’t have empathy for what Native Americans have gone through. And forget about doing some research.

I spoke with my dad, Patrick Skildum, about why this issue is important to our culture. He was adamant about where he stood.

“I’m not a mascot. I’m a human being,” he said. “My children are human beings, and I don’t think we should be treated that way.”

He also understands that not every mascot is intended as a racial slur.

“I guess I don’t have a problem with the Chiefs because chief isn’t really an Indian word. You know, a Master Chief in the Navy isn’t the same as an Indian chief. So the word doesn’t really bother me,” he said. “But the Tomahawk Chop that they do (in Atlanta), I find that incredibly offensive.”

Same goes for names like the Fighting Sioux and Redskins, which dredges up history that Native Americans would like to forget.

I’m certain that Redskins fans dressing up for football games don’t realize that the name symbolizes a time when Native American skin was sold in local markets, and how the name sprouted from the blood-dyed flesh. They’ve probably forgotten how this country’s original inhabitants were nearly driven to extinction by excessive slave work and tortuous wars.

RIGHT WAY, WRONG WAY

The middle school I attended was called “Keewaydin” (North), partnering with “Winonah” (First Born Daughter), as the Lake Nokomis community schools. The mascots were the Eagles and Chipmunks, both animals that resonate strongly (as most do) with Native Americans.

When supporters of Native names talk about honor, this is what they should be referring to. It’s an example of a school that has respect for the Native American culture and still has the aspect of honor by using Ojibwe names.

But even then, a lot of neighboring schools would disparage our name and talk about how “poor” we were as a school. That always hurt my pride. Being disrespectful wasn’t the way I was raised. At our Native powwows, we see all racial backgrounds — light and dark — coming together. It never mattered to us. As long as non-Natives respected us, we respected them.

The false image is what bothers me most. For instance, comparing a flimsy mascot headdress to a real one. Or seeing a Native man with bright red skin, rough features and that same sad excuse of a headdress.

Or maybe you’ll see a darkly tanned male with a huge grin and a loincloth, or worse, a native boy with bared teeth and a dirty face representing a savage. The whole thing is a joke.

Yet the stereotypes persist. When a kid meets someone with Native blood, that’s who they’ll expect to meet.

PERSONAL PAIN

My grandmother, Shannon Crossbear, takes this issue especially hard. When we’ve talked about our Native American heritage, she breaks down at the thought of our ancestors’ skin on a wall for sale. As tears ran down her face, she explained how horrible these mascot names make her feel.

After seeing her cry, I wondered if we were the only country that had this kind of problem. Where we put down an entire culture and slap offensive images on merchandise for sports teams.

And coaches or students have the audacity to say, “We just didn’t know.”

Ultimately, it shows how little we learn about Native American history. Perhaps a history class could be taught in schools and prevent these stereotypes from passing generation to generation. I’d also like to see the Oregon ban extend to other states.

Continuing to accept Native American mockery only shows ignorance. The world is evolving, yet these stereotypes remain the same.

Is the name “Redskins” that important to you and your sports superstitions? To me, there’s a bigger tradition worth acknowledging.

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