ESPN’s “Red-face” Minstrel Show by Matt Remle
This past weekend, on ESPN’s College Game day show, nationally known college football commentator Lee Corso made an appearance dressed as Osceola the Florida State (FSU) Seminoles mascot. Corso, who is Italian, danced on stage, like a buffoon, with a feathered spear and headdress. The segment ends with guest commentator Bill Murray “beating up” Corso and throwing his spear into the sea of crazed fans below who are cheering on the red-faced minstrel show widely.
The segment was met with the now standard response of people expressing disgust at the skit followed by a chorus of statements like; “get it over it”, “mascots honor Indians”, “I’m Native and I’m not offended”, and of course the much repeated, “there are more important issues out there to worry about.”
First, a little history about Osceola. Osceola was an influential leader during the Second Seminole War with the United States. He famously stabbed a treaty with a knife that would have given up Seminole lands in Florida for lands in present day Oklahoma. Osceola helped lead an ambush of US Army troops in December 1835 which helped spark the Second Seminole War.
Osceola died as a prisoner in Fort Moultrie, SC.
In 1978, Florida State University began its tradition of having a man dress as Osceola during home games where he would ride his horse “Renegade” into the stadium and throw a flaming spear to kick off each game.
While the Seminole tribe has passed a resolution with FSU that gives their support to the school name and use of Osceola’s image, for me, as a Lakota, I would find it hard to watch a non-Native dress as Tatanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull) and dance like a fool in front of thousands of rabid non-Indians and get beat-up by an 80’s movie star.
Despite the joint resolution between the tribe and the University, according to Forbes.com, Florida State University has a whooping Native student population of 0.4%! With numbers like that it strikes me that the sentiment of wanting to honor Native peoples rings a little hollow.
One of the most common responses to Native themed mascots is that they are meant to honor Native peoples. I’m not sure how a caricature like the Cleveland Indian’s Chief Wahoo honors anyone, but that hideous image aside, I’ve always found this statement to be a little suspect.
For schools that have Native themed mascots, how many of those schools actually have mascots that represent tribes of that region? Most tend to be of plains imagery. Further, in these schools, how many truly incorporate a Native historical and contemporary perspective on both history and contemporary affairs? With graduation rates between 40-60% nationally for Native students what are these schools doing to support tribal students through graduation and beyond?
The argument is also often made that there are tribal schools with Indian mascots too, which while true, you will most likely never see a gym full of Native people dressed in “Indian” costume dancing foolishly around with fake headdresses and “war-paint” tomahawk chopping and yelling “kill the Indians!” So called “imitation” does not necessarily equal “flattery.”
Mascot debates often see people claiming Native descent, or claiming their 4/4thness, as a way to say that since they’re not offended no one should be. Both claims are somewhat dismissive since people of ones own “race”, ethnicity, or national origin can be just as abusive and repressive to ones own community as the colonizers are. Remember, Sitting Bull was assassinated by “full bloods”, Osceola was a “mixed blood.” What’s wrong is wrong and what’s racist is racist.
Perhaps the closest example of the “red-face” minstrel show are the “black-faced” minstrel shows of old. Black faced minstrel shows rose in the 1830’s and ran through the early 1900’s, at least in popular fashion, some minstrel shows carried on well into the 1960’s. The shows, which featured white people in black face, featured song and dance routines and comedy sketches primarily. Popular “characters” included the slave, the mammy, and the over sexual mulatto.
Studies have shown that minstrel shows played a powerful role in shaping societies perception of Black people, as the happy go lucky servant who is musically inclined and whose existence was centered on either “entertaining”, or “serving” the white population. Black people who stepped out of this “role” were often met with brutal violence. The entire civil rights movement is testament to this construction as Black people who dared challenge societal “roles” were met with horrific violence.
Just like those within the Native community who seek to silence fellow Natives for speaking out on various issues, the Black community also had, and has, individuals who sought and seek to quiet those who spoke and speak out against issues impacting their community. We see this dynamic with individuals like Clarence Thomas who has actively worked against gains within the Black community through his efforts to attack affirmative action policies.
Across Turtle Island, the mascot debate will continue to draw strong opinions from Natives and non-Natives alike. Instead of falling into cliched responses we should push for a more thoughtful and constructive conversation that takes a serious look at what “honoring” Native peoples, and lands, truly looks like.