Dear Residents of Whitesboro, New York:
Over the past several months, the official seal of Whitesboro has been under growing scrutiny for the controversial portrayal of a white man subduing an “Indian” man — an image in which many residents of Whitesboro have defended as an accurate historical portrayal of a friendly wrestling match between the village founder, Hugh White, and an Oneida Indian.
Considering that changing the seal will be up for vote in Whitesboro on Monday and also considering that many residents of Whitesboro continue to defend the seal, I wanted to offer you all an indigenous perspective of the controversy, my perspective, as a Native American woman, mother, educator, and citizen of this country.
But first, something that immediately comes to mind is this idea of a makeover show, like, TLC’s “What Not to Wear,” or the Discovery Channel’s “Ambush Makeover.” We all love a good transformation, right? What viewers of these makeover shows have, is the privilege of seeing a drastic transformation, as appearances go from “blah” to beautiful, when an unsuspecting person is plucked from off the street, and confronted with a surprise makeover. Men and women alike come in with mullets and mom-jeans, or quirky get-ups that make heads turn in weird amazement.
As viewers, we relish in observing this unique opportunity to create a look and a persona that is fresh and new, and much more flattering. Yet, often times the person being faced with such an exciting opportunity is fearful, sometimes terrified to let go of the familiar. They cling to their outdated and tacky styles, because let’s face it, humans are creatures of habit, and those folks with mullets and mom-jeans, they are comfortable, and sometimes, that is all they’ve ever known.
Some of these folks even give tearful explanations as to why they cling to the styles they do. For them, it is just so hard to let go, even to let go of styles that do not flatter them the slightest. Sometimes, the ambush itself makes them feel defensive and embarrassed.
I hope you’re following, dear residents of Whitesboro, because, well … it’s time for a makeover — your makeover.
We’re clearly not talking mom-jeans or mullets, here, but your outdated and inappropriate town seal, which is not only unbecoming of a progressive and humanitarian America, but according to a growing body of academic studies, portrayals such as this cause psychological harm to Native American youth. And many of us can agree, the look really doesn’t flatter your figure.
To be clear, as an educator of the social sciences and history, I do acknowledge the possible validity of not only the historical accounts that this image does in fact highlight a friendly wrestling match that may have occurred, but also, I do acknowledge the cultural practice among the Oneida who did traditionally engage in friendly wrestling matches. I get it. There is a historical context. But that’s beside the point. There is also a history of slavery in America, but glorifying that on a town seal would never be deemed appropriate, no matter how historically accurate.
Yet all context aside, and without a thorough explanation, that seal, well, it looks racist. At first glance, this is what Whitesboro, New York, looks like: a white supremacist town. For one, your name is, Whitesboro, after all. And secondly, a white man is subduing an Indian, the original occupant of this land that was ultimately, near annihilated.
I know, I know. White is the last name of founder. But the combination of all of the different elements on the seal, together, evoke a soup of emotions among outsiders looking in, conjuring up discomfort, defensiveness, and even pain. Images matter, and your image is harmful.
Considering that Native Americans went from being 100-percent of the population pre-contact, to roughly 1-percent of the U.S. population today, your historical seal of a white man subduing an Indian highlights the reality of indigenous genocide, while twisting the knife of domination and colonization into the fresh wounds of the indigenous population still living today.
And friendly historical context or not, it definitely did not end up friendly. Make no mistake about it. According to City-data.com, in 2013 Whitesboro was made up of 94.3-percent white residents, with only five Native American residents out of 3,700. So not only does your seal evoke uncomfortable emotions without context, but it glosses over reality- indigenous people suffered genocide, and this genocide was no accident.
We get it — your ancestors, white settlers, subjugated us, killed us, subdued us with conniving wit, and legalized land theft with the Doctrine of Discovery. White Americans dominate American systems and American institutions today. Native Americans, on the other hand, we suffer from poverty, deep psychological wounds, declining mental health, broken family structures, addictions, and youth suicide.
You did win the theoretical and metaphorical wrestling match for our lands, and our fate, was genocide. Please stop glorifying it with your image. Unintentional or not, this is the sort of emotion your seal evokes. Seeing this portrayal, it feels as though we are being kicked while we are still down, in pain, and suffering. All contexts aside, images matter.
And while there was in fact a short time of friendliness among some settlers and Indians, egalitarian tribal societies facilitated this friendliness because of the fact that those societies were grounded in empathy, holding strong values of helping their neighbor, and extending a hand to the less fortunate. Just as the Oneida extended their hand to you in empathy, now is your opportunity to extend that same empathy back to the indigenous people today, and listen to the voice of Native Americans who request that your seal be changed, indefinitely.
Nearly 10,000 signatures have been collected on a Change.org petition asking that Whitesboro retire the village seal, many of those signatures being from Native American people. We are a small voice, and try as we may to be heard, the ultimate change will come when the majority finds within themselves the humility and empathy to recognize the need for action, even if it makes you, the majority as white Americans, uncomfortable.
It is on the shoulders of your community to take advantage of this momentous opportunity, Whitesboro. Our world is hungry for this sort of change, and all eyes are on you. Your opportunity for transformation is now.
A friendly, but boldly honest, Indigenous Woman
Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.