Mascot supporters insult Native peoples
New and more sophisticated ways of insulting Native peoples and depriving them of their voices are on the march, and we must greatly increase our efforts to confront them. Of course, we have seen this sort of backlash before. Remember when fishing and hunting groups first organized against tribes for "perceived special treatment?"
The same is happening with gaming. Efforts continue by states and private interests to undermine this important new tool for Native economic development. The resentment and animosity are building, though often hidden. One open example is the campaign of the Texas Attorney General to deny tribes in that state the right to operate casinos. Shades of Slade Gorton!
In the media, two recent, egregious examples of this recent trend demeaning to Native people surfaced in articles in Sports Illustrated and Crain Business magazine. The latter highlighted the continued use by the Tootsie Roll Corp. of the Indian wrapper legend and "Chief Shooting Star."
The Sports Illustrated issue of March 4 contains a story, "The Indian Wars," that says the general public ? mostly sports fans ? and large percentages of Natives, both on and off the reservation, see nothing wrong in the use of Native mascots and logos. The piece implies that American Indian leaders and activists are on one side of the issue and Indian peoples are on the other. The interviews chosen, combined with the limited polling data offered, paints a picture of Native confusion in relation to the mascot issue. We have serious doubts about the polling process and numbers. And I agree with Suzan Harjo's comment that there are always "happy campers on every plantation."
Despite the considerable progress in changing the Indian names and logos of high school and lower-level professional teams in the past decade or so, the top-level professional teams still resist. The Washington Redskins is the classic example of a team trying desperately to justify a name, one that no one believes has been anything but derogatory to Native peoples over the centuries. But, there is lots of money in Washington Redskins merchandise.
As for the Indian wrapper legend and "Chief Shooting Star" of Tootsie Pop fame, an article in Crain Business asks what's the big deal about "Chief Shooting Star." To Native peoples, plenty. The legend of how the Tootsie Pop came to be is a parody of Indian storytelling and insulting to all Indian people. The Tootsie Roll folks, of course, see nothing wrong in the story and justify its continued use. It doesn't matter, you see, what Indian peoples think. Again, as in the case of the Washington Redskins and other professional sports teams, money stands in the way of doing what's right.
Unfortunately, Tootsie Roll isn't content on defending its bogus legend and insulting story. A more sophisticated move is afoot. Tootsie Roll has approached the Securities and Exchange Commission trying to get shareholder activism stopped on the grounds it interferes with the management of its business.
This move is very dangerous. It not only attempts to stop the free speech of American Indian peoples, but, if approved by the SEC, it would seriously hamper the growing movement of socially responsible investing. This movement has begun to reap important results for tribes as their voice in how companies treat Indian issues is being heard more and more. This progress is based on what is, apparently, the most important thing to companies ? the bottom line. In fact, a number of such companies are beginning to see that treating all peoples with dignity is just good business.
The use of polling and backroom deals at the SEC to stop the movement against the derogatory and demeaning use of Indian names, logos and mascots can only be called what it is ? greedy racism. These newer sophisticated ways of demonizing Indian leaders, activists and those who don't approve of the use of Indian mascots are just different ways of keeping our voices silent. For too long, Indian voices have been silent. Because various tribes and socially responsible investors, like the Calvert Social Investment Fund, have been making inroads in favor of taking Indian issues seriously, the status quo must find newer ways to stop us.
This all reminds me of what my respected colleague, Elsie Meeks, has gone through just for standing up for all Native people. Elsie, the first American Indian member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, sponsored a resolution that opposed the use of American Indian names and images as sports symbols. The resolution passed on April 13, 2001. Since then, Elsie has received many, many hate letters opposed to her and the resolution she sponsored. When I hear this, I wonder: why are these people so angry? What are they afraid of? Native people having their own voice? Anti-Native racism is still within the psyche of too many Americans, but we can not allow it to silence us.
Now is the time for all Indian leaders and peoples to respond even more forcefully against the greedy racism perpetuated by the use of offensive Indian mascots and logos. To begin with, Sports Illustrated and the Tootsie Roll Corp. need to hear what all Indian peoples really think about the demeaning use of our images and symbols. The backlash needs to be met forcefully and quickly. The Sports Illustrated poll is wrong. Speak up for yourselves and your children and grandchildren. Now is the time to buttress the progress that has been made on the mascot issue on so many levels. Speak out!
Rebecca Adamson is president of First Nations Development Institute and a columnist for Indian Country Today.