As part of my ongoing research into Native American culture and the debate over the Washington Redskins name change, I felt it was important to reach out to members of the Native American community in order to hear their perspectives. As I’ve mentioned previously on the blog, I’m extremely aware that from my standpoint as a white American, I’m incapable to fully grasping the struggles and perspectives of another race. Speaking to members of that community to hear their voices is the best way to learn about their perspectives.
To this end, I reached out to the Nanticoke Indian Tribe in the hopes of finding someone I could speak to about these issues. My request for contact was forwarded to the Chief and Council of the tribe, and I was then contacted by Reverend John Norwood, who said he was asked to respond to my request and serve as the spokesperson on behalf of the tribe. He was gracious enough to speak with me in a telephone interview on Tuesday, March 26th.
After greeting Reverend Norwood and telling him about my research into the name change, I asked him for his thoughts on the debate.
“The position I take on the mascot,” he said, “is that people don’t understand how devastating it can be, even when you are trying to honor the tribe.”
He explained that matters like the use of Native American images in mascots have to be handled sensitively, and that they should be handled on the local level. When Native American images are used at the national level, such as with major sports teams, he said that can make it difficult to teach people about the needed sensitivity. In some cases, the use of Native American imagery is handled properly and respectfully.
“Our southernmost community has a relationship with their school district,” he said, explaining how that tribe has granted permission for their local school district to make use of their tribal images. “That is between that tribe and that school district. But the school does not own the images, and the school is teaching about sensitivity.” The fact that the individual school is addressing the issue with respect and sensitivity, he explained, is an important variable.
“Most of the time it’s not the case,” he added, explaining that many other uses of Native American images aren’t handled properly. “What you have are mascots that do harm to the history and psychological well-being of tribes.”
When I asked him more about how some institutions improperly use the images, he said, “Native Americans don’t have the opportunity to control how the mascot is displayed. That is actually the stealing of heritage. The way it was taken is the same way our lands were taken. Most of the institutions don’t have any link to tribal heritage, and the images used are stereotypical about 90% of the time.”
He then explained some of the issues about the specific ways in which the mascots are displayed. He referenced some of the violent conflicts from the past where many Native Americans were killed. “Indians were being decapitated,” he said. “Whole villages would be decapitated. When people see a floating Indian head, that’s what they remember. If it brings up painful memories and painful history, then that’s offensive.”
This point is one that I haven’t seen raised in the other articles I’ve read regarding the mascot debate. Most of the articles I’ve read tend to speak about how the name “Redskins” is racist and offensive, but the image of the mascot itself is often ignored. Yet it turns out that the image itself can be associated with a violent and traumatizing past.
Reverend Norwood also spoke of the ways in which Native images are often portrayed as caricatures and stereotypes. He told me about how his son played in an intramural basketball league, and when his team played against a school with an Indian mascot, the images painted on the walls were of “a racist looking caricature of an Indian.”
“If an African American had walked in and seen a caricature of an African,” he said, “or if it were a Jewish or Asian image, something would be done about it. When it’s Indian people and we say we’re offended, they say, ‘We’re just honoring you.’ We are dismissed.”
His words reminded me of a number of articles I’ve read in the last few weeks that referenced that same point. People who defend the use of Native American mascots often argue that they do so to “honor” the Native American people. But Reverend Norwood explained that the use of these images in improper, misrepresentative ways does not honor them.
“Only certain people were allowed to do certain things and earned that honor,” he said. “When we say we are offended and these people who say they are honoring us, they dismiss us.
“It is possible to gain the support of a local tribe to bless the use of an image. To truly honor by engaging and understanding that is a privilege. Not a right. Typically, there is an arrogance. The misappropriation of badges of honor.”
What Reverend Norwood was referring to is called “cultural appropriation.” It is defined as “the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group,” but it can also be referred to as “the act of stealing and corrupting.” Along with the debates and protests over the use of Native American images in sports mascots, there are protests over individuals using traditional Native American clothing and adornments as fashion statements. One example that has gained recent notoriety is the band Pink Pony, which sparked protests when they posted photos of one of their band members wearing a Native headdress “that is traditionally reserved for Native Tribal Chiefs and not for members of unsigned Electronica bands.” This is another example of what Reverend Norwood referred to when he said, “Only certain people were allowed to do certain things and earned that honor.”
“It wouldn’t be tolerated with any other race,” he said. “The history of American Indians is unique in this country because we’re the only indigenous people.”
He then explained how his people are often excluded even in the language used by many others in the country. As an example, he spoke about how many politicians will use the phrase, “We are a country of immigrants,” a phrase that was even used by President Obama on Citizenship Day 2013. Yet as Reverend Norwood explained, such phrasing excludes Native Americans who have lived here since long before our current country was founded.
“My people were here,” he said. But he explained that his people have a sense of exclusion, and that they are viewed as a conquered or vanquished people who are often ignored by politicians and the government. “They don’t want to deal with the plight of the tribes today. It’s a huge insult.”
I then asked him about the Washington Redskins as a specific case. “The term is a term we don’t call ourselves,” he said, echoing the words of the “Proud to Be” video released by the National Congress of American Indians. “It’s an insult. The arrogance of the owners is a travesty. If it was any other race, they would understand. We are dictated to, more so than any other individual group. The mascot issue is symbolic of the continuing struggle of American Indians.”
He then continued, “An institution will get an individual group to say it’s okay. That doesn’t matter.” Instead, he explained, a team would need the support of the tribal nations. An example of what Reverend Norwood was referring to can be seen in the recent news about Redskins owner Dan Snyder and his efforts to reach out to Native American communities. As reported by The Nation, Dan Snyder recently released a letter in which he described how he spoke “face-to-face with Native American leaders and community members,” but as The Nation’s article points out, he didn’t speak with the oldest Native American civil rights organization, the National Congress of American Indians. In essence, what this means is that while Mr. Snyder may have gained the support of some individual communities, that support cannot be said to represent the beliefs and views of the tribal nations as a whole.
When I asked Reverend Norwood to explain when a mascot would or wouldn’t be okay or under what circumstances permission would be granted, he said, “When it crosses the line into disrespect, then it’s a problem. It’s a direct insult to your very identity. And when you say that, you’re cast as being unreasonable.
“Opinions vary. Some extreme people will say, ‘It’s all wrong.’ Some say ‘Oh, it’s not a problem.’ Something in the middle is where the real problem is.”
We then discussed the way certain individual schools and institutions could gain permission. “Let’s say you have an area with a tribe that is still active in the area,” he said. “The tribe continues to educate and advise so that the school doesn’t think that they own it.” In this way, he said, the use of a Native American mascot can be monitored by the tribe to make sure they don’t devolve into an insulting image. Without this continued relationship with a tribe, he said, “Mascots will deteriorate into a caricature and an insult.”
As an example, he told me that his local township uses an Indian symbol. “But the township has a formal relationship with the tribe,” he said. “Their engagement and understanding is valuable. That was blessed. That’s okay. This is how we can respect and honor the culture. But I have never personally spoken to a tribal Indian who thought it was okay to have an offensive mascot.” It is important, he explained, for there to be continued engagement between the institution and the tribe, and that the tribe should retain the rights to withdraw their permission in the future, should they feel the need to do so.
“There must be a continuing relationship of respect,” he said. “And if you’re not going to do that, stay away from it.”
But this type of continuing relationship, he explained, can only occur on a case-by-case basis with individual tribes and their local schools and institutions. On the national level, he said, “There’s no tribe to get consent from. They need to change. If you’re using those images, you need to engage them. If you do anything less, you’re doing violence to them.
“I’ve had to wipe the tears off the cheeks of my own children and the tribal children dealing with that. When racism happens, we are all victimized by that racism. All are affected. Our mindset is affected. It has a negative influence on our society and our cultures. We are all victims. We are all victimized by it, in some way, shape, or form.
“Even the head of the Redskins is bound by that,” he said in conclusion. “It kills a bit of his soul. It affects all of us.”
Reverend Norwood also forwarded me a publication by the National Congress of American Indians, titled, “Ending the Legacy Of Racism in Sports & the Era of Harmful “Indian” Sports Mascots.” It is a compelling document that I strongly recommend reading.