Just this last week a Facebook meme displayed Aunt Jemima, Confederate flags and monuments crossed out with the Washington football team mascot remaining.
July 2, I was surprised to see the NBC headline, “FedEx asks Washington’s NFL team to change the team’s name.” The next day The Wall Street Journal and NBC reported that the Washington NFL team will review the name “opening the door to change.”
This week, the Cleveland Major League Baseball team announced it would reconsider its team mascot, as did Union Public Schools.
This is not a new battle. In 2017, Suzan Shown Harjo described the efforts she had made in over a quarter of a century to have the name changed.
In 2003, I wrote a column for the Tulsa World titled “Lessons in English and Social Studies: What’s wrong with the ‘R Word’?” There was hope by local Indian groups and community organizations that education would bring change. In it, I discussed the history of the word, noting that across dictionaries the word is consistently defined as “offensive and derogatory” — the same definition given to the “N” word and disparaging terms for other ethnic and racial groups. Despite the claim by some that the “R” word means “respect,” credible sources do not agree.
From the 1600s to the late 1800s, cash bounties were posted by British and U.S. governments for the delivery of scalps and body parts. Indians were often killed for sport, included the taking of testicles and vaginas for souvenirs. Nineteenth century policies called for the complete extermination of Indians. General Jeffery Amherst wrote, “You will do well to inoculate the Indians by means of (smallpox) blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.” Tribes were continuously forced on long removals with resulting illness and death. Hitler studied and praised the model of genocide used on the Indians in the U.S.
After that physical genocide came the policy known as cultural genocide, summarized in the phrase, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Indian children were taken from their homes, forced to attend boarding schools, prevented from speaking their native languages and forced to learn the ways of the dominant culture. We learned the phrase attributed to Gen. Philip Sheridan, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and Indian children experienced harassment, shame and embarrassment in school. Despite achievement tests indicating that Indian children are academically capable of success, they have the highest school dropout rate of any group.
Since the 2003 article, I have been contacted by groups across the country who wanted to understand more of the history. Some have made changes while others have not. It is a curious time in our country when racism is overt and purposeful. Cameras document violence and death against minorities. It is also a time of hope and change. We can hope that the Washington team will change the mascot.
As Suzan Shown Harjo has said, “Offensive mascots belong in museums and history books.”
Ann N. Dapice, Ph.D., has served as administrator and faculty member at a number of campuses, including the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University and Goddard College, where she taught social sciences and Native American studies. She is vice president of T. K. Wolf Inc. and a founding member of Tulsa Indian Coalition Against Racism. She is a member of the Greater Tulsa Indian Affairs Commission and the Elders’ Council of the Lenape Tribe.