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Indians as Mascots for America's Fun and Games

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"The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on," is an old Arab proverb.

I quoted this old saying more than 25 years ago when I first broached the subject of the use of Indians as mascots for America's fun and games. An article I wrote for Newsweek magazine in 1991, the year the Washington professional football team played in the Super Bowl in Minneapolis, Minn., brought a deluge of hate mail of the likes I have never experienced before.

This was before the Internet and email so the letters came to me as snail-mail and they weren't just letters because the page my article appeared on under the heading "I Hope the Redskin's Lose," was torn from the magazine and sent to me with big, red lettering that, in most cases, read "F--K you Giago." As I wrote many times since, I did not write that headline. It was like waving a red flag in the face of the Redskin football fanatics. Since then whenever I have to use the Redskin word I always refer to it as the "R-Word." And why should it not carry the same inference as the "N-Word"?

An article I wrote on the same topic several years later for the New York Times also brought an outpouring of similar hate mail. But it convinced me that there was no easy way to point out to America that most Native Americans do not appreciate their use as mascots especially in many of the extremely insensitive ways they are depicted.

The classic example I often use is the time a pig was painted red, a feathered war bonnet attached to its head, and then the painted pig was chased around the football field at half-time at a Washington "R-Word" game. Would the cheering fans have felt the same if a pig had been painted black and an Afro-wig attached to its head? Of course not, you say? Then kindly let me know what the difference is? One painted pig is clearly an Indian and the other an African American so which pig connotes racism?

The topic of Indians as mascots is on my mind because a die-hard group of fans at the University of North Dakota refuse to let their Fighting Sioux mascot rest in peace.

There is one tribe in North Dakota that approves of their use as mascots: the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe. I wish members of this tribe would have accompanied me to the University of Illinois campus several years ago when I covered the Indians protesting the use of Chief Illiniwek as the school's mascot.

Two of the people leading the protest are now deceased; Vernon Bellecourt and Michael Haney. Protests across America have diminished tremendously since their passing. I was appalled to witness the hostility against the protesters at U of I that day. While the protestors marched to the stadium, passengers in passing cars flipped burning cigarettes at them while cursing them with the worst forms of profanity. Stadium police stopped a group of Illini fans from dumping a huge vat of water from the stadium wall as the protestors marched beneath it. Objects were hurled at the protestors as they marched. "Go home you dirty Indians" reverberated around the stadium.

And I wish the members of the Spirit Lake tribe who think being used as mascots is hunky dory, would have been standing next to us at the Super Bowl in Minneapolis in 1991. The police waded into the protesting Indians swinging their batons knocking Indian men and women to the ground. Charlene Teeters, one of this Nation's foremost leaders in the fight to quash the use of Indians as mascots, was knocked to the ground. Later she said, "I will never go to Minneapolis again. The police were absolutely brutal."

Yet, after all of this, the University of North Dakota, in the face of censorship by the NCAA, will bring back the Fighting Sioux mascot despite the restrictions that will be placed upon it by the NCAA and despite the protests of Native Americans everywhere. Is using this symbol of racism that important to an institution of higher learning?

I pray that the more intelligent and sensitive people at Spirit Lake and at UND prevail and convince those who still refuse to speak out against this travesty will let it be known that most Native Americans do not consider it an honor to be mimicked, insulted and demeaned by sports fans across America in the name of a high school, college or professional sports team mascot.

I would also remind those insistent upon denigrating Native Americans in the name of sports teams that the year is 2012 and racial epitaphs that rang across America for more than 500 years are now passé and in continuing this archaic practice, they are also denigrating themselves. And please try to understand that Native Americans are human beings and not mascots for America's fun and games.

So let the dogs keep barking because I and thousands of other Native Americans will be a caravan moving on to change bad things in America.


Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net.