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Byron Williams

Byron Williams

Posted: November 12, 2009 10:51 AM

Native American Insensitivity: An American Tradition

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This Sunday, the Oakland Raiders of the National Football League will honor Native American Heritage Month at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.

Native American Heritage Month recognizes the significant contributions the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the U.S.

I commend the Raider organization for honoring the contributions of Native Americans, but I question their choice of opponent--the Kansas City Chiefs.

Is it possible to be any more insensitive in the selection of an opponent for an event that began with, what I view as, good intentions?

Try to imagine the executive meeting where the discussion for honoring Native American Heritage Month was first introduced. Since the celebration is in November, the Raiders, with two home games, could have chosen either the Chiefs or the Cincinnati Bengals.

Did someone sitting at the table glance at the schedule and see the Chiefs on November 15, and shout, "Eureka!" Did anyone not see this as a potential problem?

It could have only been worse if the Raiders were playing the Washington Redskins. Fortunately, that game is not scheduled until December 13.

Excluding their immediate fan base, the Chiefs and Redskins carry very derogatory images. Ironically, the Chiefs just released their top running back Larry Johnson for using a gay slur.

This was not Johnson's first offense, but there is something paradoxical about condemning someone for using a derogatory term by an organization whose legacy is built in part on the same.

Is there anyone who cannot see the racism and buffoonery associated with the fiery red "Chief Wahoo" mascot for the Cleveland Indians baseball team? I would love for someone to Google "Chief Wahoo" and share with me the positive images that come to mind.

The Cleveland baseball team may have been looking for a way to honor Native Americans when it decided to name the team the Indians. But does Chief Wahoo achieve that goal?

Imagine a professional team called the Sambos; featuring an African American man adorning a top hat and tails, flashing his pearly whites, all hell would break loose until there was a name change. Isn't that what caused the restaurant chain bearing the same name to file for bankruptcy in 1981?

Too often racism is based on intent. This limits the definition to something that is overt. But there is an equally insidious form that initially presents itself as benign.

It's possible to engage in racist behavior, just as it is for men to be sexist or heterosexuals to be homophobic void of any harmful intent. It can simply be a matter of being part of the dominant culture.

Whatever is normative for that group can still have harmful overtones for anyone outside the group. But it is this benign form of racism that finds nothing wrong with the use of such terms as Chiefs, Redskins, Indians, Braves, and Blackhawks.

Some will also rally their teams with the dreaded "tomahawk chop" and the accompanying music more likely derived from a John Wayne movie than anything from Native American antiquity.

I am also aware of the arguments that cite nicknames such as Trojans, Spartans, Aztecs, Fighting Irish, etc. "Why aren't these names equally offensive?" is how the question is posed. Some may indeed find these mascot names offensive.

But the Native American experience is unique because it is marred by events unrivaled by any other group in our society. So much of America's expansion came at the peril of Native Americans. And the residue of that peril remains evident in far too many Native American communities today.

The policy of Manifest Destiny, in which American westward expansion was divinely inspired, led to 389 ratified U.S.-Indian treaties, with the majority broken in some form by the U.S. Events such as the brutal Trail of Tears continue to stand as dark chapters in American history.

Moreover, any serious attempts to change the names of these Native American mascots would most likely be met by fan fury that will make the Tea Bagger protests look like a youth choir.

Again, I commend the Raider organization for honoring Native American Heritage Month. Their inability to see the contradiction of holding the commemoration on the same day they were playing the Chiefs says more about our society than it does about their individual insensitivity.

 

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