Indian Mascots: A Privileged Fight

Autumn Dawn White Eyes

Today, Savage Media will release a video of Preston Wells’s poem entitled “If the Indian Mascot could speak.” It invokes a sense of anger, which I’ve never been able to express.

I often find myself thinking about the time before I came to college. I grew up in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, a small Lakota community, one that takes care of its own but also neglects its own. Pine Ridge is a community that has Indian mascots in high schools and middle schools. Before coming to Dartmouth, I did not see the mascot as a big deal; I never gave any thought to it, good or bad. If someone had told me they were “honoring me,” I probably would have believed it. There weren’t any predominantly white schools with Indian mascots that I knew of. I had never seen red face in my life. At home, Lakota boys would pray and put war paint on before sporting events as if they were going into battle.

My first term at Dartmouth College in the fall of 2010 changed my thoughts on the Indian mascot. Loud music and girls in skimpy costumes filled Fraternity Row, it was just like any other Halloween night on a college campus. It was my first time stepping into a fraternity; I was excited and nervous, my only plans were to have fun. The first fraternity basement I stepped into, I saw a white man standing next to a pong table with a fake headdress, or “war bonnet,” as we call it. I couldn’t help but be angry, my new home and community put an image in my face that I didn’t know how to respond to. I left the fraternity with my friends to avoid the scene. As we made our way to another part of campus, a white girl in a skimpy Indian costume walked towards us. Oh, hell no! were the first words that came into my mind. This time I could not control my rage. I screamed at her, “What the fuck do you know about being Native, you dumb white bitch?”

That night was a turning point for me. Why was I so angry? Because she didn’t know. She has no idea know what it’s like to grow up Lakota, or on a reservation where every day can be a struggle to survive. She doesn’t know what it’s like to be around alcoholism, domestic violence, poverty, or rape. It was then that I realized that I wanted people to know it offended me. Their Halloween costumes offended me. Their Indian mascots offended me. Even their fake native jewelry and moccasins offended me.

I searched for the words to describe why the Indian mascot offended me in many different articles I read, both politically correct and empathetic ones. After my research and talking with Preston about his poem, I’ve realized that fighting the Indian Mascot is a privileged fight. It is a battle Natives fight when they are privileged enough to be experiencing life away from their homelands for once. In these environments the Indian mascot is often the predominant representation for Native people. If I had gone to a school closer to home, I would not be writing this reflection; it is likely that I would still feel indifferent towards the mascot. If I hadn’t gone to Dartmouth, I may have been able to focus more on the poverty and domestic violence prevalent in my community. Instead, I am in an environment where many of my peers lack the basic knowledge of who my people are. While I didn’t know how to react to their blatant racism, they didn’t know how to respond to my existence. Something happened inside of me when I saw that white girl in an Indian costume; trying to be something she knew nothing about. It was the same anger that rose in me when I first heard “If the Indian Mascot could speak.” While many will say that the poverty and health issues facing Indian Country are much more worthy of fighting for; the anger I felt that night tells me the Indian mascot battle is one worth fighting.

I decided that I would articulate why it offended me. What did it do to my self-esteem, my pride and honor? I didn’t want to argue the political correctness of the mascot; I wanted to put into words how it made me feel. I wanted to figure out what psychological affects Indian mascots have on Native American youth. I think about my nieces, twins that are eight years old and another who is thirteen. They are young, beautiful Lakota girls. Little girls who once said, “I am not Indian, I am Lakota.” I think about what would happen if they saw that white girl the way I did; if they saw that man standing in a headdress in the basement of a frat—surrounded by alcohol.

Would they feel honored?

And what part of that experience would make them feel proud? When the owners of these Indian mascots say that they are honoring us—what part of us are they honoring? Because when I look in the mirror I don’t see a man, brown skin, tomahawk and headdress. I see girl far removed from her homeland, in modern day clothes, with light skin and glasses. Are you honoring the part that is gone? The brown skin that I’ll never have, the land that you took from us, or the buckskin dress that I will never wear because you wear it for me.

It’s not me they are honoring; they are honoring themselves for doing such a good job on killing all the Indians. And that’s just what we are—Indians, not Lakota, not Ojibwe—despite what my eight years old nieces might think.

I’ll admit it over and over, it’s a privileged fight. And tomorrow when I help shoot this video, my community, 3000 miles away are suffering over the loss of a 15-year-old boy who hung himself last week.

Autumn Dawn White Eyes is Oglala Lakota and Ojibwa. She was raised in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and is currently residing in Hanover, New Hampshire as a Senior at Dartmouth College, she is a double major in Native American Studies and English (with a concentration in Creative Writing). She is also co-founder of the media group Savage Media.

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Michael Madrid's picture
I thank goodness for Ms. White Eyes. It's young Native women like her who will make a difference in our world. Education should be our ultimate goal.
Michael Madrid