Oki, good day!
I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to the Biloxi High School Alumni community for helping to raise awareness on the misappropriation and exploitation of Native American cultures. They are doing this by using “Indians” as a school mascot and by having their entire marching band wear feather headdresses. Your lack of understanding for our Native American sacred regalia perpetuates ethnic stereotyping and is a violation of our basic human rights. We are not your mascots. We are human beings with families and a long history of cultural genocide and displacement. Our ancestors were silenced for more than 400 years. No more! We are arising and vocalizing our positions on any issues pertaining to us—individually, and as families, homes and nations!
Biloxi High School, you are not a new-age hipster at Coachella or a high fashion model—you are, instead, an institute of learning. Your school is government-funded and represents Biloxi County and Mississippi. You have standards to which you must adhere. You have a responsibility to properly educate your students on the spiritual principles of integrity and respect for all human beings regardless of their race, socio-economic status, or gender. It is my hope in the year 2015 your teachers, principals and community leaders will broaden the accuracy of their knowledge of Native American cultures and their histories—a necessary step toward improved racial relations. Dehumanizing of Native Americans is not acceptable.
On Tuesday morning April 13, 2015, I was reading through my newsfeed on Facebook. I came across an Indian Country article on F.A.I.R. Media (Fair Accurate Indigenous Representation). The article featured the Biloxi “Indians” High School marching band from Biloxi, Mississippi wearing headdresses as part of the band uniforms. The band, made up of 81 students, recently preformed in Washington, DC at the National Cherry Blossom Festival. On national television, the entire band performed in Native American Plains-style headdresses.
I remember taking a deep breath as my heart sank into my stomach. As an Indigenous woman from the Blackfoot Confederacy, Chickasaw, and Yankton Sioux Nations I have experienced racism first hand. I am visibly First Nations/Native American and I also carry my maternal grandfather’s last name Many Grey Horses. As a child, I was teased for being a “dirty squaw” and told to get back to the reserve where I belonged. As a child in elementary school it was hard not to internalize these hateful remarks from peers and adults. Research has shown racism is a learned behavior from birth to the teenage years. My peers didn’t just wake up one day and say, “I’m going to be a racist.” Rather, the most likely place where they learned racism—consciously and unconsciously—is in their homes. I recall feeling isolated, dreading the first day of class each year just because I knew the teachers would be calling out our last name. I always felt targeted for being different. I saw the subtle dirty looks directed at my appearance, coming from peers and even teachers. The unspoken message came across loud and clear: That my Nativeness does not have a place in the aesthetic of colonialism.
My mother is a member of the Kainai First Nation of Southern Alberta, Canada. My father is member of the Chickasaw and Yankton Sioux Nations, USA. He was born in Lawrence, Kansas at the Haskell Indian Boarding School, where my grandparents met while attending school. This makes me a dual citizen. I moved to California from Alberta, Canada when I was 15 years old to attend the Thacher School, a boarding prep school in Ojai Valley. It’s an extremely academic and prestigious school where racism and discrimination are not tolerated. Not only do the teachers promote equality but so does the student body. It was the first time in my life I wasn’t made fun of for being Native American. My peers, teachers and the academic community encouraged me to be proud of being Indigenous—and this is what an academic institute of learning should look like. At any rate I was able to focus on my studies and not have to worry about being hit with the forces of racial discrimination.
I then went on to University of California, Berkeley where I met a group of progressive, intellectual and open-minded Native American students who really ignited a fire in me to stand up to the injustices my people experience on a daily basis. I majored in Native American Studies and Ethnic Studies, which provided me with a historical context to why Native American’s are experience a high level of systemic issues including high rates of First Nations/Native Americans in the child welfare system and in the criminal justice systems, high teen suicide rates, poverty, domestic violence and health related issues.
In the Dakota culture, the ultimate goal in life is to be a good relative. It was this teaching, my academic rhetoric and supportive extended family that molded and shaped me into the community advocate I am today. I am also a mother to a beautiful 22-month old little girl. The thought of her having to experience hatred for being Indigenous is horrible. I am sure any mother can relate in wanting to protect her child from injustice and unnecessary trauma. As Indigenous Peoples our time is here to create a different story for the next generation of children. It is our responsibility to teach our young people that it’s okay to have a strong voice and to stand up for themselves and all relatives.
My struggles in life motivated me to stand up to Biloxi High School. I reposted the article and a community leader whom I greatly respect encouraged me to call the school to make a complaint. Although, the school did not answer any of my calls I was able to leave a complaint with the Biloxi Superintendent’s office. I thought to myself, “Why stop here?” With the help of a fellow Berkeley alum and another community advocate, I started a petition on Change.org requesting Biloxi to please change their band uniform and mascot.
Within four days, we got over 500 signatures. People across Turtle Island who are just as passionate on the subject took to social media and help raise awareness about the petition. I was pleased with the support the petition was getting, so I shared an update on my Facebook page yesterday. Within a few hours I received an email from Facebook stating that I had been reported for using a fake name and my account was temporarily shut down. I had to provide a government-issued ID in order to have my account reactivated.
Biloxi High School Alumni are defending themselves by stating they are “honoring” Native Americans—when it appears they are simply “playing Indian,” something that doesn’t honor us at all. The available research on the history on the Biloxi Tribe reveals that the majority of the Biloxi Nation was decimated by the chicken pox epidemic in the 1800s and then the remaining members were forcibly removed to Missouri. The Biloxi language is extinct and their traditional headdress is not the Northern Plains style headdress.
So I would suggest to the Biloxi Alumni that if you’re talking about honoring or respecting the Biloxi Tribe, please show respect to the actual traditions of the Biloxi Tribe.
I have been diplomatic regarding my interactions with Biloxi including conveying my position statement on this issue. My cousin Jacqueline Keeler, a long time standing advocate for against “Indians” as mascots eloquently states, “I find it ironic that Biloxi Alumni are defending their right to mascot Indigenous peoples and misappropriate our headdress by trying to silence actual Native people.” Nevertheless, their effort to silence me has inspired me to stand up for justice and to honor my commitment toward advancing social justice for Indigenous Peoples. The Biloxi Alumni seem to feel threatened by our petition, and thus they are retaliating. They started their own petition to keep their “Indian” Mascot and refer to themselves as a “Nation.”
As I said earlier, I am grateful the Biloxi High School Alumni—their reaction to concern from myself and other actual Natives has helped to stimulate discussion on the issue.
I encourage you to please sign the petition if you haven’t yet. Indigenous Peoples are strong in number and together we need to show Biloxi High School and other institutes of learning that this is not acceptable behavior on the Earth Our Mother.
My Facebook account was reactivated this morning after I sent them government issued ID. I’m happy that Facebook responded to the situation quickly. This generation of Native Americans and First Nations will no longer be silenced. Here us roar Biloxi Alumni! We are not going anywhere and will continue to stand up to this injustice.