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Mascots, Ignorance and Racism

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Twenty years ago I was on the Oprah Winfrey Show with Michael Haney and Suzanne Harjo to talk about the use of Native Americans as mascots for America's fun and games.

It was the first time in television history that a major talk show allowed Native Americans to openly discuss why we do not appreciate our use as mascots for sports teams.

I believe that tape is still available through Harpo Productions if anyone wants to see what happened on that show. In the ensuing years no other major network has found the topic interesting enough to pursue. After all, the mascot issue affects only a very small and politically weak segment of the U.S. population and there are those dissenters even among the Indian people who defend this nefarious practice.

Twenty years is a very long time and memories fade. Michael Haney, Seminole, has since made that long journey to the Spirit World. Michael was larger than life. Everyone took notice when he entered a room and his booming laughter made everyone stop, listen and smile. He was large in stature, but even larger in his undying battle against the use of Indians as mascots. He could never grasp the concept that the American people could not see this blatant conduct as racism.

Harjo and several others challenged the legality of the logo of the Washington professional football team, but after several years a judge ruled against them and the one case that might have hit a professional team ownership in the pocketbook, a target that would cause irreparable harm, is gone and probably gone forever.

Twenty five years ago when Native Americans like Haney, Harjo, Charlene Teters, Vernon Bellecourt, Bill Means, Floyd Westerman and I wrote about and spoke out against using Indians as mascots, we were thoroughly and soundly vilified. I was told by a caller on a radio show I did for a Los Angeles station, "What in the hell are you complaining about? We kicked your Indian butts from the east coast to the west coast so why don't you whiners go back to where ever it is you came from."

How does one argue against such redneck stupidity? And speaking of "red" what exactly is a "redskin." When I talked about the Washington professional football team that uses this name as its motto and logo, I started using the "R" word, because I find it disturbingly racist. What is a "redskin?" It is the pigmentation of the skin of an ethnic minority. Americans might use "brownskin" for example when talking about Mexicans or Pakistanis. For years they used "black" to describe people of African descent. Even the Spanish word "Negro" literally meant "black."

When the white Americans were running roughshod over Indian country they chose many colorful names for the indigenous inhabitants. They called the indigenous people redskins, red niggers, prairie niggers, savages, and worse. The name redskin was never intended to be a word to honor Native Americans. It was a word intended to insult and to put the Indian people in their place. The word made a clear distinction between the master race, the white people, and the inferior people, the redskins.

Florida State University has taken this perverse practice to another level in this modern day. The student body and faculty there have taken the honored name of the Seminole people and cut it in half. On their sweatshirts and banners they have renamed the Seminoles, "The Noles." Should that new name be taken as an honor, as some Seminole people claim, or as an insult, which most Native Americans would claim?

It was only after Americans decided that the indigenous people were the "Vanishing Americans," that colleges and high schools began to use names like warriors, braves, Indians and redskins as mascots. Since Native Americans would soon disappear from the face of this earth, the names given to sporting teams were meant to honor a vanishing people. We fooled them and survived.
Pekin High School in Illinois used "Chinks" as their mascot, but when it was pointed out by Asian Americans that the name was racist, they dropped it.

Michael Haney, Floyd Westerman and Vernon Bellecourt, all great Native Americans, went to their graves with no victory in sight for their years of fighting the use of Indians as mascots. Charlene Teters, Suzanne Harjo and I often grow weary carrying on their fight because we have found that it is much more difficult to fight ignorance than racism. In a way, ignorance and racism are one in the same, but until white and black Americans walk one mile in our moccasins, they will never see the difference.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Dakota/Lakota Journal. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at