In downtown Anacostia, on the corner of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave, there are spotlights already pointing to, and waiting for, a totem pole. It is scheduled to arrive this spring. It may seem odd that a Native American totem pole was the picked piece of public art -- as part of a 200-person Ward 8 survey conducted by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development -- but it is, nonetheless, fitting.
The Nacotchtank Native American tribe was among the first dwellers east of the river now called Anacostia, the Anglicized variant of the tribe's name. The totem pole, which some Ward 8 residents see as a potential city landmark as well as a tribute to Native Americans, will stand where the Nacotchtank once stood.
This Anacostia totem pole, however, will be less native and more abstract in nature. Instead of traditional wood materials, it will be constructed with COR-TEN steel, copper tubing, and stained glass. According to the DHCD, the selected artist's proposal reflected the "diverse history and heritage of the community" and inspired the viewer to "establish a dialogue on the interconnectedness of the past, present and future of Anacostia."
The growing number of totem poles in D.C. -- often rendered respectfully, albeit abstractly, by Wilfredo Valladares, an artist who hails from Honduras and teaches locally -- is paradoxical. The District of Columbia, who funds these well-intentioned efforts, is increasingly out of touch with Native American culture and sentiment and no amount of totem poling will ameliorate that fact.
Enter the Washington Redskins. As multiple writers for the Washington Post have pointed out -- from Post columnists Courtland Milloy and Robert McCartney to Post sports writer Mike Wise -- the lack of sensitivity in this town to the racist moniker of our local NFL football team is inexcusable. Thankfully, due in no small part to the Post's recent rabble rousing on this front, the call for a rename of the Redskins is mounting.
Mayor Vince Gray, once a proponent of a rename, suggesting that we should "do the right thing," is now completely avoiding the issue and claiming that it's a federal problem. Meanwhile, the general manager of the Redskins, Bruce Allen, refuses to consider a rename saying "there's nothing that we feel is offensive," a convenient comment for someone who is white and who was likely never at the marginalized end of a racist slur. (Incidentally, it was Bruce's brother, former Senator George Allen, who got in trouble for calling a constituent "macaca," also a racist slur.)
Without question this town has a problem with racism. It's evident in how white the branches of the federal government remain, how geographically and economically divided D.C. is along racial lines, and how it poorly processed racism recently on the Metro, as evidenced by anti-Muslim advertisements that left WMATA with an offense it was ill-equipped to manage.
Few of these inequities, however, can be as quickly corrected as the Washington Redskins' racist moniker. And there is no excuse for inaction. If it were a different race or religion we'd have a whole different conversation and a lot more public protest. America has a racist and discriminatory political pecking order that allows some prejudice to continue while prohibiting others.
We'd never allow, for example, nor should we allow, a Washington Blackskins or a Washington Yellowskins. Nor would we allow a baseball team to be called the Cleveland Jews. And yet, thanks to this prejudicial pecking order, we somehow justify keeping Native Americans at the bottom of societal barrel, treating them in ways that we'd never tolerate for another race and religion.
In an effort to put a stop to this, Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian hosted a daylong symposium this month entitled "Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports." The Washington Redskins team name, not unlike the Cleveland Indians' mascot, was rightly lambasted as racist and demeaning.
Their ask was simple. Symposium panelists were not calling for anything insurmountable, like an apology for the removal of the Nacotchtank tribe from southeast D.C. or the genocidal treatment of tribes. Though an apology, at minimum, is certainly warranted. They were simply calling for a change in how sports teams are branded, an effort on which states like Oregon and Washington are leading the way by banning Native American mascots.
Calling for totem pole dialogue, as the DHCD has endorsed, on the "interconnectedness of the past, present and future of Anacostia" undoubtedly has merit. We certainly need more dialogue. And we should start with the past. The Nacotchtank tribe would have much to say about appropriation past and present, cultural and otherwise.
In lieu of the Nacotchtank, however, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for this totem pole, there will be an opportunity for the District to do the right thing and further the dialogue on this misappropriated Washington mascot. Let's hope it does. Until then, racism plays on.
Michael Shank, a resident of Anacostia, is adjunct faculty at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and a senior fellow at the French American Global Forum. A different version of this article was first published in the Washington Post.