Gays, Redskins & MLK: The U.S. Is Still Raising Arizona

Steve Russell

Arizona is at it again, and “it” goes back to when Arizona was a territory rather than a state. The New York Times reported on October 12, 1885 about a proposal in New Mexico to reinstate a $250 bounty on Apache scalps, and mentioned that Tombstone, Arizona had actually increased their bounty to $500. According to the Times, bounties on Apache hair were in effect in Pima, Yavapai, Yuma, Maricopa and—yes—Cochise and Apache counties.

Some people opposed the bounties out of “sentimentality,” but others lodged the practical objection that it’s hard to tell one “redskin” from another when the individual has become a piece of skin hanging from a saddle horn, and many bounty hunters were cashing in by murdering people from more peaceable tribes. The bounty was also supposedly limited to “a buck Indian,” but I’m not clear how one would determine the sex of the “redskin.”

While I find this discussion distasteful, I do hope the supporters of the Washington football team’s “honoring” of us are paying attention to the genesis of their team name.

Arizona Territory started out with the policy of separating farming tribes from their water rights and separating hunter-gatherer tribes from their hair. Enforcement of white privilege has of course become subtler in the 20th and 21st centuries.

In modern times, there was the brouhaha over the holiday for Martin Luther King. Arizona was the last state to get on board. A bill to recognize the holiday failed in the legislature.

Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt declared the King holiday by executive order, but that order was rescinded by the next Republican Governor, Evan Mecham. The question was put to a referendum, and Gov. Meacham campaigned against it, commenting in a liberal moment, “I guess King did a lot for the colored people, but I don’t think he deserves a national holiday.” The referendum failed.

Note the assumption that “doing a lot for the colored people” does not benefit the nation as a whole, does not help create the “more perfect union” envisioned in the preamble to the Constitution. Like the “redskins,” other non-whites are to remain on the outside looking in.

The NFL, more conscious of African-American feelings than they are of Indian feelings, relocated Super Bowl XXVII from Sun Devil Stadium to the Rose Bowl. Everybody knows the NFL is non-political, right?

The MLK holiday was finally enacted as a result of a new referendum in 1992, the Arizona Legislature proving itself unable to lead a prairie dog colony. The controversy cost Arizona businesses millions of dollars and Arizona citizens a great deal of embarrassment.

The boycott stopped and Arizona’s racism dropped under the national radar until 2010, when Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, which became known nationally as SB 1070 or the “brown in a no brown zone” law.

This law purported to enable police to demand paper proof of citizenship from anyone they suspected not to have such proof, and commanded police to arrest persons unable to produce papers. You know, like the old Soviet Union?

The Supreme Court of the US shot down some of the worst of SB 1070, but not before copycat laws sprung up around the country and a German Mercedes-Benz executive was arrested under the Alabama copycat law for leaving his passport in his hotel room in a county where Mercedes-Benz was a major employer. Arizona Indians visiting in big cities were also vulnerable to harassment for brown in a no brown zone because they were as easily mistaken for Mexicans as pueblo dwellers were mistaken for Apaches under the old bounty laws.

The boycott of Arizona over bigotry cranked up again and, once more, Arizona hotels and restaurants paid a big price until the SCOTUS acted. I cannot resist noting here that when I have visited in Europe, I have always left my passport in a hotel safe, because losing my passport while overseas would be a much bigger hassle than losing my credit card. So I was a bit shocked when some US states started arresting people for doing the same thing I had always thought was common sense. But what’s common sense in the face of prejudice?

Arizona’s latest contribution to the history of American bigotry is on Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk as I write, and the boycott beast is rumbling once more. The latest law creates a “religious freedom” exemption from public accommodations laws if businesses do not wish to serve gay people for religious reasons.

Religious reasons? An exclusion from public accommodations law for religious reasons?

Killing of American Indians, for scalp bounties or just in the process of robbing or raping, was backed up by “religious reasons.” Please search your history books for the Requerimiento. See also, the Valladolid debate of 1550-51, where the issue was the existence of humanity in American Indians according to the Christian God.

Religious reasons?

Enslaving of Africans proceeded with a firm foundation in Christian theology. See, in your history library, Arthur Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being: The History of an Idea. All of creation—animal, plant, and even mineral—is part of a hierarchy defined by “closeness to God,” and nonwhites are much farther from God than whites and therefore subject to the dominion of whites just as farm animals are subject to the dominion of humans.

Religious reasons?

English common law, sometimes claimed to date from 1066 as a historical convenience, said that when you hold yourself out to the public as a provider of goods or services, you lose the right of private choice in who you may serve. The old signs you still see, “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone,” were an attempt to abrogate the common law and, later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The translation would be “No Niggers Here.”

You have no such right to reserve. When you serve the public, you may turn away people who are drunk or disorderly or who violate your dress code or who present the wrong credit card. But not persons of the “wrong” skin color or gender identity or religious beliefs. This is true of any state rooted in the English common law, which is to say every state but Louisiana.

There can be no exception for a religious belief that God endorses your bigotry, since every flavor of bigotry has always claimed to be acting on behalf of some God—just like every army has God on its side.

Are you listening, Arizona?

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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Michael Madrid's picture
If Arizona weren't so important to the Dine', I would say let the conservatives have it! The advantage would be to have all the abrasive, conservative assholes in one place at one time. Of course, that wouldn't be fair to all the sane people who live in Arizona. The southwest has a history rich in persecution in Christ's name. The sad thing is this history isn't even well known by people who live here. We actually have a high school in my home town (I live in New Mexico) named after Don Juan de Onate. He was responsible for cutting off the foot of male pueblo Indians for revolting against the Spanish and their God.
Michael Madrid
azpark's picture
Steve The issue isn't quite as black and white as you make it out to be but I certainly won't argue the point that the AZ legislature screwed this one up. I'm told it has something to do with the drinking water at the State Capitol. Oh and you failed to mention that Az. impeached Evan Mecham.