'Redskins' Shows Off Ugly Colors of America

Adrian Jawort

To many American Indians living on a desolate and rural reservation out west where issues like extreme poverty, substance and sexual abuse, and violence and suicide reign supreme, the popular media focus these days of the Washington Redskins mascot debate can seem baffling.

Compared to their day to day struggles, debating the Redskins name can seem like some bourgeois worry contrived by richer 'casino tribes' with nothing better to worry about. To Montana tribes like my own Northern Cheyenne, racism doesn't stem from a mascot in Washington D.C. over 1,500 miles away, but very real people we come across like those just across our border at the University of North Dakota who'd proudly wear shirts that say “Siouxper Drunk” to show what judgments their parents passed onto them.

While many of those on both coasts are ignorant of American Indians very existence, 'out here' in Montana and the surrounding states we're actually the largest visible minority. Montanans won't generally bash blacks or Mexicans for their skin color because it's taboo and a jerk thing to do, but when it comes to an American Indian, however, bashing and stereotypes are seemingly an acceptable form of racism.

As one white high school student pointed out while defending that Sherman Alexie's Diary of a Part-Time Indian book be kept in a school districts curriculum, “Crude racism in the book is unfortunately how many Montanans view Indians. I hear slurs against them every single day in the halls of Senior High [my former high school], and it’s vile.”

A recently retired U.S. District Court Judge for the State of Montana – who also happened to be a Northern Cheyenne Tribal Court Judge from 1970-72 – was found guilty of violating judicial ethics after it was deemed he sent and received hundreds of emails that, “Whether cast as jokes or serious commentary, the emails showed disdain and disrespect for African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics....”

Go figure, this same judge ruled against American Indian tribes getting satellite voting stations, where the most populous town on the Northern Cheyenne is 120 miles round trip in an area where many people can barely afford life's necessities—much less a vehicle and extra fuel to accommodate the trip. Not to be outdone, a Montana school district superintendent was under fire for numerous racist comments, including one said, “It still baffles me how (Obama) got elected. It must mean there are more lesbians, queers, Indians, Mexicans and [n***ers] than the rest of us!”

Ramblings of an old redneck(s) on his way out, perhaps, but what does it say about our society when young people see this behavior as common? “Siouxper Drunk” t-shirts are made, and our own younger Native populace also gets to grow up seeing these prejudiced attitudes toward them all over the internet, thus the perpetuating cycle of distrust as racism thrives.

Disclosure: Back to the beginning, the Northern Cheyenne tribe a couple of months ago was given some 500 coats via the Redskins' Original Americans Foundation charity. More things like shoes are promised later. Like I mentioned prior, in our neck of the woods, tribal leaders didn't, for the most part, see it as being 'bought off' but as something convenient as plenty of kids couldn't afford coats in the light of an especially brutal and long winter.

As one Tribal Council member, Oly McMakin, noted to local Cheyenne journalist Clara Caufield, “Do you think this will make us, the 'Fighting Cheyenne,' look like sell-out wimps? Possibly, but, the council must decide since you are on the twin horns of a dilemma. You are charged to meet the needs of our people, including children and elders who need coats, shoes, food, etc. But, you must also consider principle. Not all Cheyenne, like you, count on a regular paycheck.”

So, although many Natives are in fact understandably indifferent, I've noticed the Redskins debate has morphed into something larger regarding the very treatment and attitudes toward Natives. Now, with previously unconcerned people reading through internet comment sections regarding American Indians, you'll see ugly stereotypes from people who barely recognized Natives still existed outside of a western movie.

If a Native shows offense at the name, it somehow gives these same people the permission to overlook and discredit them as non-people unworthy of having a voice of what should and shouldn't offend them, because maybe they even “know someone who is Native, and they don't care.” Or that Natives should “worry about other things than a mascot,” as if they can't chew gum and walk at the same time as confront more than one issue that they deem is perpetuating negativity in the first place that leads to other problems.

Another common straw man phrase said over and over, “What about the Vikings and Fighting Irish?” What about them? Is it deemed a racial epithet? No, but how does the, “Minnesota Rapists and Pillagers” work for you in lieu of Vikings? Or instead of the “Fighting Irish” one could use, “Dumb Micks”? Etc.

To a lot of people new to the debate that are unaware Native activists have been fighting against the name for decades, it's just a recent another dumbed down liberal vs. conservative debate the likes of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk deem as “a bunch of leftists” and PCness gone amok.

But for people like myself, the reality hits me as I witness prevalent racist commentary and realize my 5-year-old daughter Aurelia – who is so proud with all of her little heart to be Native and dress in regalia and go to powwows– must grow up with such pretentious attitudes already ingrained against her before they've even met her. Not just on a local level, but now on a national level of ignorance.

If it takes the Redskins mascot issue to expose the dark underbelly if this country's inhumane attitudes toward us in that we're still somehow considered inferior people who shouldn't even exist, we must not be silent victims any longer. After all, it was our Native languages that were the first languages heard across this land, and our future generations are worth fighting for so they can continue to be heard.

Adrian Jawort is a proud Northern Cheyenne writer living in Montana. He's been a freelance journalist for various newspapers and several nationally distributed publications, including Cowboys & Indiansand Native People magazines. He's compiled a newly released fiction anthology titled, Off the Path, An Anthology of Montana 21st Century American Indian Writers, Vol. 1, available at OffThePassPressLLC.com.

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scd's picture
Adrian, It took me a couple of days to think through your words in this article. I think you have made some very good points. First of all I want to tell you how I feel fortunate or maybe not to be able to see into the minds of three different types of people. My grandmother was Cherokee. My father is Black and Cherokee and my mother was white, (I do not say this often, about my mother.) So, I have always been able to see things in all three worlds. I am 59 winters old so I am no novice. This is one of the things I have learned in life. ______________________________ You said, “ …the reality hits me as I witness prevalent racist commentary and realize my 5-year-old daughter Aurelia – who is so proud with all of her little heart to be Native and dress in regalia and go to powwows– must grow up with such pretentious attitudes already ingrained against her before they've even met her. Not just on a local level, but now on a national level of ignorance.” The most important thing in life is to know who you are! I will say that again, ”The most important thing in life is to know who you are! “ Montanans are the problem NOT your daughter or you or Tribal people! The whites are the problem. Anyone that feels they have to put down someone else to make themselves feel good HAS THE PROBLEM! The reality is, they are so ignorant, they do not know it. Constantly, instill in her who she is and to NEVER be ashamed of that. People do not make you who you are. You do when you believe their lies about you. And there lies the problem with a lot of Tribal people in this country. They have “believed” the lies that the whites have told them and are acting out those lies in their lives. This was the mission of whites from the beginning and unfortunately it worked. If you look back at the struggles of the Blacks in america, you will find that the whites did the same thing to them. BUT, one day a woman took a stand and decided that she would not be dehumanized any longer and made her stand. You know the facts and you know the history, but things changed. It was hard, brutal and long, but there was change. The work is not done, but there was change. ___________________________________ This (in my opinion) is why this fight against the Washington football team name is so important. First, this is big and if this battle cannot be won, then forget about other battles. This is a battle for our identity. Tribal people are not “red*kins” anymore than Blacks are “ni**ers“! That is only what insecure, ignorant whites have said, but that does not make you who you are. If Tribal people and I mean ALL Tribal people do not believe in who they are then how can you expect anyone else to believe in us? Second, Have you ever been in a store or elevator and have heard music being played that you hate? Well, you may have had to be in the store or elevator and made to hear that crap but that does not mean you have to rush to buy the CD. You, we live in a broken society that feel apart when the whites stepped foot on the shores of this land. We live in a raciest, evil, greedy, uncaring, egotistical society that hates anything that is not like them! BUT, we do not have to buy their lies and racism. We do not have to believe that we are somehow lower than them because of our skin color or our beliefs. The answer is very simple but so hard. First, Tribal people and people of color in this nation must, MUST come to terms of who they are and get their identity back. Once this happens no one no matter what they say or do will phase you, because you know who you are. I know because I have been there. I have been called “nigger, nigger lover” by whites, “Uncle Tom” by Blacks, teased by both for being Tribal and everything in between. Then one day it dawned on me not to care about what anyone said about me. Now, I do not give a damn what ANYONE, especially a raciest white says about me, because I KNOW they have the problem and are too ignorant to realize it! Second, Tribal people MUST, MUST, MUST , it is imperative to come together. "Together we stand, divided we fall." It is time to quit falling! Lastly, and most importantly, we owe no man (especially a white) an explanation! The only one that matters is The Creator! He made us, so let us be proud of that and rise up! Steve Fire Heart
Opechan's picture
Pamunkey living in the Washington, D.C. Area here. (I have a family to protect, hence my pseudonym.) Glad you see it Adrian. Local tribal leaders are entitled to their own opinions and currently have interests in not making any enemies or waves. This is the price of federal recognition petitions/legislation, reliance of cultural tourism, and about 400 years of ingrained fear. There are no rich or casino tribes in Virginia. Survival will always be a greater priority, but we can do more than one thing at once, we can have our own opinions and about more than one thing at a time. For those of us who openly oppose the R*dskins, it has always been about basic respect, but its secondary effects of are worth mentioning. The greater part of the controversy isn't the racism of the name itself, it's the racism supporting it. You've taken your dive into comments sections and editorials, and you would agree with me that our kids shouldn't be exposed to that racist mess. That's the world we live in, but not the world we have to settle on, and we have more to gain from change. Issues like this have the potential to unite our communities and embolden us to take on harder problems, using the momentum gained here for other issues we care about. Falter, and we'll be seen as weak. Who should respect us if we don't respect ourselves, or if we don't stick up for ourselves? If you want to get it down to a bread-and-butter issue, here you are: Washington, D.C. is the seat of Federal Power. Politicians, federal judges, agency officials and others empowered with the ability to make decisions that affect healthcare, lands, trusts, food and water in Indian Country make their decisions from Washington, D.C. What gets decided here has consequences for you back home. If the most those decisionmakers see of Indians consists of a mascot, a cultural theft/appropriation named after a racial slur against Native Americans, does that make any of us confident that they see us as people? Does that make them more or less likely to see us as people who matter? You know the answer to that. Kill the mascot, save the Indian.
curtj's picture
A good article that our leaders should read. Our leaders with their colonial education and 3 piece suits are indoctrinated by an invaders point of view, not to say anything or do anything to jeopardize their careers of carrying out colonial policies on the Natives. They do not speak up or advocate for their people. I heard that the annual visits with the President, the "delegates" are instructed in what to do and what to say. What happened and what is happening to our people, is a travesty and a farce that our leaders refuse to talk about. our leaders refuse to talk about the root cause of terrorism and that the policies of our country creates the never ending war on terrorism, self perpetuated and self sustaining. That we invade and manipulate other countries to allow multi national conglomerates to go in and steal their resources, killing and terrorizing the locals in order to steal. our leaders, clueless, voiceless and ineffectual.
Sammy7's picture
Adrian I am your brother and out of respect for you do take your words seriously. You have stated your viewpoint and I will not argue with it. I too have a viewpoint and it is my custom to state it once, and not argue it either. I believe there is a hirearchy that leads to genocide. It goes something like this: Mockery Disrespect Dehumanization Genocide The First Peoples of this continent have suffered the greatest genocide in the world in the last five hundred years or more. A quiet genocide continues. It is estimated that our Peoples suffered losses of over one hundred million people from purposeful killing and spreading of disease. Consequently, I believe that Mockery as in the "Cleveland Indians Logo", and Disrespect as in the use of the "Redskins" name, must be challenged forcefully to keep from moving to the next category of "dehumanization" and then on to a greater continuing genocide. By saying this I in no way wish to minimize the suffering and exploitation of First Peoples today. I believe they are both important.