Photo courtesy Success Native Style
Bella Aiukli Cornell of the Choctaw Nation participates in a 2015 pow wow. Cornell was called a 'squaw' by a male peer and fan of the racial slur 'redskins' during a school board meeting last month.

'Get Off the Stage, Squaw!' 14-Year-Old Native American Is No Stranger to Racism

Tara Houska
1/7/16

“Get off the stage, squaw!”

Bella Cornell, a 14-year old girl from the Choctaw Nation, heard these words as she finished her testimony against the name and mascot of the McLoud High School Redskins during a school board meeting last month.

In the packed audience, her mother was distraught watching her daughter. “It was horrible to see,” said Sarah Adams-Cornell. “It takes so much for one of our kids speak up. I wanted to take her out of there and protect her. She’s my child.”

A few weeks prior, Woodrow Wilson, McLoud High’s Indian Education director, had reached out to Adams-Cornell hoping she would be willing to testify to the school’s board about Native mascots. Several local Native American families had privately voiced their concerns to him, with one family stating they no longer participated in school events because of references to ‘dumb, subhuman Redskins.’

A vote on the mascot had been scheduled in a meeting open to the public, but the concerned local Native families didn’t want to testify, fearing backlash and bullying against their children. “The Board wouldn’t allow anonymous comments, you had to actually be present at the meeting to speak out,” said Adams-Cornell.

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Upon Wilson’s invitation, Adams-Cornell made the trip from Oklahoma City to the small town of McLoud, Oklahoma. Her daughter, Bella, refused to be left out.

“My mom raised me traditionally, I know how to treat sacred items, how to treat regalia. To see it used as a plaything is wrong. People aren’t mascots,” she said.

Cornell is no stranger to experiencing hostility and ignorance about Native Americans. When she was in 8thgrade, a history teacher gave an account of America’s first peoples that left her stunned and in tears. “He called us vicious vermin and said we were cannibals,” she said. “Other kids came up to me after and asked if I ate people.”

“She came out to the car in tears,” Adams-Cornell said. “I spoke with the principal and then with the teacher. He stood by what he taught, the principal said the school would ‘keep an eye on it.’”

At the McLoud School Board meeting, audience members heard defenders of the name state it was an honor and it was tradition. One man was particularly vocal in his defense of Native mascots, at times shouting at Native Americans speaking against mascots – he was a founder of the Native American Guardians Association, a group of Native Americans and allies that claims to preserve the positive imagery of Native mascots.

Multiple psychological studies have empirically shown Native American mascots harm the self-esteem of Native American youth and indoctrinate racial stereotypes in non-Native children.

The board vote was unanimous – in a 3-0 vote, McLoud High School would remain the Redskins.

Adams-Cornell has kept in touch with the local Native families who wished to remain anonymous; they’ve now filed a complaint with the Department of Justice.

While the 23-year long legal battle between Native Americans and the NFL’s Washington Redskins rages on, several public schools that share the moniker have dropped the name. Backlash against change has been widespread, with some alumni going so far as to run for school board positions vowing to bring back the name.

“It’s strange to see someone who feels so entitled to give their perspective on something that doesn’t negatively affect them or their children,” said Adams-Cornell. “I saw one woman [at McLoud] say that giving her testimony supporting the name was the hardest thing she’d ever had to do. She’s up there crying, when this actually hurts Native children.”

Though she understands her mother’s concerns after the meeting in McLoud, Cornell says she will continue to fight. The Choctaw teen hosts "Indigenous Aiukli," a radio show dedicated to Native American youth advocacy. 'Aiukli' is Cornell's middle name, meaning 'beautiful' in Choctaw.

“If we give up, it tells them that they won," said Cornell. "What happened to me is what happens when you allow racism.”

Tara Houska. Photo courtesy Josh Daniels.

Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) is a tribal rights attorney in Washington, D.C., a founding member of NotYourMascots.org, and an all-around rabble rouser. Follow her: @zhaabowekwe.

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hesutu's picture
hesutu
Submitted by hesutu on
Racial mascots are an abomination. That said the term and identity with redness is a historical one that originated with our nations. This is an absolute historical fact. Those claiming otherwise are either not aware of actual reality of our tribes or chose to attack indigenous concepts of identity for their own reasons. Not all indigenous nations of the americas identify with being red people and red skins and that is perfectly fine. There is nothing wrong with them. However, the attacks upon redness by many so-called indigenous media are acts of deep seated hatred and prejudice against fundamental aspects of identity that many of us hold. Most of those attacking our identity have their own reasons for doing so, it is not because of solidarity with indigenous identity or a hatred of racism.

tmsyr11's picture
tmsyr11
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
"racism" is okay then as long as it is contained within and not outside. Why would the writer would call or lend SUPPORT to my child as a "redskin" if he played sports with Red Mesa, AZ (because this is what the majority of locals approve of). Why would the writer call or support for cause for other names (See Slants legal case) to be called or referenced to tribal members just because they are brown-skinned or red? Obviously, these 'mascot names' or 'racial sterotypes' (based on identifying whose a skin versus whose white) are OKAY or all-right or allowed as long as brown-skined or those who 'identify' as brown-skinned can call other brown-skined or legitimate tribal people out. So this blows away or lends to viewing as hypocritical support …."the Multiple psychological studies have empirically shown Native American mascots harm the self-esteem of Native American youth and indoctrinate racial stereotypes in non-Native children". Typical, as long as your a legitimate tribal member, its okay for the mascot group to SUPPORT in calling you racial names versus a white group.

Suzanne Kelly
Suzanne Kelly
Submitted by Suzanne Kelly on
If you keep fighting this stupid mascot stereotyping, then you can't help but win. What I'd really like to say is to Bella - you did something remarkable by having the strength to get up and speak to a hostile audience - it's not at all easy at any age. All the best, and don't let them get you down. Ever.

verncox's picture
verncox
Submitted by verncox on
Pretty lady but for being raised "Traditionally" you'd think she'd realize that her people, in reality" are being honored as warriors. The "Golden State Warriors" professional women's basketball team is named thus. I can't stress enough the respect that is shone between true battlefield leaders. Custer was not the model soldier and is worthy of derision from both sides. Cochise, Sitting Bull, General Mead, Andrew Jackson all gained the admiration of the white man and aboriginal alike. When will someone tell her why The United States Army always names an aircraft model after an Aboriginal tribe? They're not mocking anyone that's for sure. The Army's mission, distasteful as it was, was to move the aboringine to reservations. That mission proved to be a "Pain in the ass". The Army has never forgotten it.

a warrior's picture
a warrior
Submitted by a warrior on
Be strong Little Sister. We survived a genocide. We are here. We are strong. We are survivors. I am your brother. I am a Warrior. I stand by your side.

crwillingmcmanis@aol.com's picture
crwillingmcmani...
Submitted by crwillingmcmani... on
It is the 21st Century, for Jesus' sake. Will these ignorant people ever end racisn?

Mitzie's picture
Mitzie
Submitted by Mitzie on
If your face were hidious, I would still be writing this: You're beautiful, regardless of what people say to you. The native American Indians need to be patient a while longer. There is a true saying: The bigger the number of people, the easier they'll be defeated. True the intent to murder the native born American people was in the hearts of Negronorrhea people (they are calling aboriginal). You should be thanking H'Shem B'G-D they found a different people to murder instead. My name people. When jerks tell you their racial slurs "redskins" are a compliment, don't believe them. There isn't a national paid holiday for the Native Born American People.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
To Vern "Whitey" Cox: What is it about "WE'RE NOT HONORED" that you don't understand? I'm sure at one time a similar excuse was used for the "N word" which is no longer used in polite company. I'm sure there were similar excuses for the "Frito Bandito" which is no longer used in advertising. The term R*dskin is a DICTIONARY-DEFINED racial slur, what is it about that you don't comprehend?

hesutu's picture
hesutu
Submitted by hesutu on
It is beautiful to have red skin, to be a red person. This is a wonderful and beautiful concept. Would any disagree?

David J. McDonough
David J. McDonough
Submitted by David J. McDonough on
So "they" make tribal law officers that don't protect you, it is time to start equipping all you guys with Tasers, stun guns and pepper spray!

Alamosaurus's picture
Alamosaurus
Submitted by Alamosaurus on
That history teacher should be fired--and the principal, too. His statements were out and out cruelty to a child and cruelty to children is indefensible. Not only did the teacher insult the girl--he turned the other students against her. He obviously knows nothing of Native history--the theft of Native lands; the death marches--that's what the trail of tears was--the massacres like Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, the smallpox infected blankets the army gave Native people and the mistreatment of Native children in so-called boarding schools. And he is totally insensitive to the feelings of Native people. Doesn't he realize that Native Americans are people with feelings and emotions, just like all other people? Doesn't he know about the crops Native people introduced to the world food supply, and the herbal medicines they introduced to the world's drug supply such as aspirin which is found in willow bark? This man has no place in a classroom.

turbojesus's picture
turbojesus
Submitted by turbojesus on
We threw our weapons away, and we threw posterity away. Now we're gonna raise all of them.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
TO Alamosaurus: Right on! Well written and as I currently work in public education I completely agree with you assertion that the teacher AND his principal be fired!

Romala2002's picture
Romala2002
Submitted by Romala2002 on
Bella - you are brave. Don't let anyone put you down, because then they win. And above all, ignorance, cruelty, and disrespect should not win. Stay true to yourself, your goal and to who you are.

atmu09's picture
atmu09
Submitted by atmu09 on
There was NOT a "Squaw" onstage, there was just an ignorant racist in the audience. Cultural Appropriation is yet another way that racism is enacted in this country. Tomahawks, feathered headdresses, buck skin jackets and boots are cool, but NOT having a First nation family as a neighbor and friend. I support First Nations in their attempt to have such images removed from sports franchises, school mascots and business brands that are NOT First Nation in origin, and who utilize the images in a way that is not congruent with the Cultural context in which it originated. America is exceptional alright, exceptionally racist. Courageous and strong people have to stand up and speak out every time racism emerges, whether it is happening to YOU are one of our fellow human beings. "What happened to me is what happens when you allow racism.”~ Bella Cornell That's damn right!!!
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