Last Real Indians

Marketing the Native American Stereotype

By: Rhonda LeValdo

For over a hundred years, Americans have held a collection of outlandish ideas about Native American Indians. From Boston Tea Party Indians, to the Washington Redskins & the Cleveland Indians, the Land O’ Lakes girl to Twilight– Native and non-Native children are taught everyday through grammar school history, sports mascots, images, film, and sitting Indian-style, what it means to be a Native American Indian. It is clear to all that “Native American Indian” can be packaged and sold in a Halloween Pocahontas outfit for anybody to shapeshift into.

The issue of the University of North Dakota (UND) and their refusing to stop using their “Fighting Sioux” mascot in defiance of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) 2005 ruling has come about recently because UND previously said they would phase out the mascot. The NCAA rule was to get rid of school’s nicknames and mascots that are deemed “hostile or abusive in terms of race, ethnicity, or national origin”, unless they get the permission from Native tribes to use the name. UND would not bow to the level of decency which Natives and Native Nations have demanded, and are wiling to endure sanctions by continuing to use the mascot as a result of non-compliance with the NCAA.

UND and its representatives however recognize hostile and abusive behavior when it suits them. At a recent men’s hockey game at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD), the UMD student section was overheard chanting “small pox blankets” and some UND fans were offended. The UMD athletic director went one step further and said the chant was “hostile and abusive” and anyone caught repeating it would be removed from the arena. If mascots didn’t promote hostile and abusive behavior, then this example shows this is only true if we are talking about non-Natives. In years to come, it will be embarrassing for UND to look back at how long they allowed this charade to continue.

In 2006, a group of Native college students calling themselves “Not in Our Honor” organized a rally, unwilling to use the word protest, at a National Football League game between Kansas City and Washington. I was part of that group and the reception we received by the fans at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City was hostile and abusive. People cursed at us, beer was tossed at our group as we marched around the stadium and Kansas City fans told us to go back to the reservation. Our group took the high road and made sure all the people in the rally did not curse back- this was an educational moment, to teach others why we don’t support these teams. It fell on deaf ears as we were labeled as protestors by mainstream media reporting.

Although we were let down by labels, we ultimately reached our goal of letting people know we are still here, that we didn’t like anyone misappropriating our culture, and we aren’t going to go away. One of my proudest moments was having Vernon Bellecourt there for support and along with his Coalition against Racism and Sports and Media. Not to mention all the Native students who gave up a day to hold signs for the fans to see as they walked into the stadium. Here was the next generation of Natives standing up for a cause they deemed important to their people and the coming generation.

The sole argument proponents have is that these mascots honor us by keeping our history alive. We cannot have such low standards for educating our youth. Right now, could any student name five tribes? Name the President that killed the most Native Americans in the largest mass hanging in this country’s history? Or name one boarding school? Native mascots don’t teach that history, so let’s stop using that argument. If there is such a burning desire to honorably keep Native history alive, invite a Native into your classroom to share that history.

Racial stereotypes in America swing pendulously between passively intense and outrageous. As with Native Americans, it was permissible to subject New York Knicks player and Taiwanese American Jeremy Lin to racial slurs- if they were witty enough. To write a headline like “Chink in Armor” or make fun of someone because of physical attributes or come up with phrases like “Me love you Lin time” (a sign a fan had at one of the New York Knicks game) in reference to Asian culture is not funny. While he does make a fair sum of money for his job, it is never acceptable in anyone’s work environment to endure racism. How witty would a racial slur have to be in order for N-word to be acceptable?

There are some people who do not find mascots and other Native stereotypes in media interesting or important, but Native American children have been increasingly learning about themselves from outside their own families and clans. Well over half of the enrolled tribal population lives in cities, away from reservation homelands. These children, all our children, grow up having to deal with the stereotypes thrown at them- not simply from commercial sources, but social ones. We cannot expect a Native child to deal with questions, taunts, insults, and slurs, not just from educated adults, but their own peers. Yet this is the situation our children are faced with. For generations, Native children have stood alone, with no one to fend them, and nothing for them to use in defense- both on the playground and in the classroom. Of course we cannot forget there are some people in their own families who have deemed these problems- mascots and other stereotyped Native media– uninteresting, unimportant, and not worth our attention. Think about who it is hurting and how it will have an impact on the future.