Monday morning I looked at my Twitter (@jfkeeler) Interactions list and I was surprised to see that Jake Tapper, CNN anchor had answered an obnoxious response to my tweet “Why Indian Mascots Need to End in a Picture” featuring a photograph I had clipped from a Facebook post of a Sonic Drive-in in Belton, Missouri with a sign that read, “KC Chiefs” Will Scalp the Redsk*ns Feed Them Whisky Sent – 2 – Reservation.” He said to the troll, “you truly can’t understand why a Native American would find that offensive?”
When I tweeted him the photo with my one-line observation, I didn’t really expect him to retweet it. I sent it to many high-profile media figures (actually, I was most hopeful that Rachel Maddow would retweet it) and was pleased when he did retweet it Sunday night. He or one of his staff, because I’m sure not all media figures read their own Twitter accounts. Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) has over 300,000 followers on Twitter- not in the Kardashian range, but still, respectable.
Comprising only 1 1/2 per cent of the population of the United States, we get very little meaningful media coverage of our issues. And yet, as major landowners with an outsized interest in the path this country pursues regarding the development of our natural resources (fracking/water issues for example) we should have a larger media profile because the future of the country depends on us agreeing to this economic policy. Yet, even in this day and age of digital media, we are so invisible to the American public—seen only as mascots & movie characters set in the Old West that getting a prominent news anchor to publicly comment on our issues, is something that rarely happens. They don’t even know what our issues are. But you’re reading Indian Country Today, you know all this—what you want to know is how do we make Native American issues go viral and make an impact on policy, law & imagery that limits the public’s perception of us.
I like most people on social media sites like Twitter spend some time battling trolls, people who enjoy expressing the worst parts of their character and most hateful ideas at others. Like many, I share articles I find interesting and quickly found when I shared things about the Native American mascot issue, I was barraged by insulting tweets and sneered at by Redsk*ns fans who I did not know or follow. They were searching the Twitter sphere for any tweets that might cast doubt upon the future of their mascot. At first, I tried to engage them with reasonable reasons why Native Americans find that the use of stereotypes & the use of our culture for entertainment would make it difficult for actual Native Americans to be taken seriously in real life—both as individuals and as sovereign nations.
Quickly, I realized, their only defense was to insult me and make slanderous remarks about my person. One even went so far as to tell me that because I tweeted #BanRword my ancestors would be ashamed of me. Me, a Navajo/Yankton Dakota mother with a loving Iroquois husband both of us Ivy League-educated and raising in a safe and happy home our two children honoring our traditions and extended family obligations in every way we can. Apparently,for the sin of tweeting #BanRword our ancestors would disown us despite everything else we’ve done in our lives for our loved ones.Further discussion descended further as the Redsk*n fan tweeted how my husband could stay married to such a “racist, B*tch.” All this from a man who originally began the conversation saying the Washington Redsk*n mascot was there to “honor” us.
Despite this, or maybe because of it, I garnered a lot of support from these online attacks from both Native Americans and non-Indians. These included Babl (@loxhobabL), Jenny S. (Cherokee, @hippocketsoul), Maggie Hundley (Mvskoke-Creek, @mshundleymaggie), Tanya Tolchin (@tanyatolchin), Samantha Eldridge (@utahsamatha), WashitaValleyGirl (@jen741) and others. Together, we reigned in feeding the trolls except to put out information in the Twitter stream about links to organizations like the National Congress of American Indians (@NCAI1944) and their excellent report on the issue of Mascots at www.ncai.org. Instead, we began talking to each other and as we talked the idea formed of filing FCC Obscenity Complaints online during Redsk*ns games.
Then, last week I put together an email list (direct messaging over Twitter being too cumbersome) and on Friday Ethan Keller (@nonativemascots) put together an FB Event page (“File complaint when you hear R**skins on Radio/TVSatisfaction,”) at No Native Mascots Facebook page and we began inviting everyone we knew to join us. We used the hashtag #FCCcomplaintRskin to make our tweets easily searchable. The FB Event page included the website address to the FCC Obscenity Complaint Form and the time and date of the game and where to hear it (ESPN, Redsk*ns.com-streaming online) and encouraged people to listen even for a few minutes.
During halftime my husband wrote an App to make time stamping every utterance easier and we tracked that the offensive word “Redsk*ns” was said every one to three minutes during game play, so no one had to listen long and once they heard the word even once, they could simply file an online complaint and then go about their Sunday. Our goal was (and is, we are doing it again on Dec. 15th) to bombard the FCC with as many complaints as we could. We reached out to all the Facebook & Twitter groups who opposed the name and Change the Name Now (@ChangeRacism) and Change the Mascot (@ChangeDCMascot) joined us. And we reached out to people we knew who have already been fighting the good fight: Suzan Shown Harjo (Muscogee Creek, Morningstar Foundation), Greg Deal (@the_lame_sauce, Pyramid Lake Pauite in DC), Se-ah-dom Edmo (Shoshone Bannock, Yakama, Nez Pearce, Oregon Mascot fighter). Greg and Se-ah-dom responded enthusiastically over Twitter and Facebook and we were grateful for their support.
An hour or so into the game, Carma Corcoran (Chippewa-Cree) a member of our Facebook Event page shared the infamous photo of the racist Sonic sign, which was also been posted on Dakota comedian Dallas Goldtooth’s Facebook page. When I saw that photo with the Redsk*ns losing badly to the Kansas City Chiefs in the background (the score was 38-7 and the sports announcers were saying, “Just ridiculous, Redsk*ns should pelt them with snowballs”) I could see how “‘KC Chiefs” Will Scalp the Redsk*ns Feed Them Whisky Sent – 2 – Reservation,’” encapsulated everything in one terrible sentence what was wrong with mascots. I’m a mom, I take my kids to Sonic for a quick bite to eat between sports and other after school activites. What if the corporate office refused to take responsibility? I had drive by our local Sonic nearly every day and the thought I couldn’t patronize it would make my world, my kids world, our world a smaller place. I suddenly saw that my small fight against one mascot was part of a larger problem that has still not gone away yet. I could not look away and believe every other person would or could do the same thing without interpreting such a sign in a public place as a license to disrespect myself and my family and create a hostile environment for us. My children are 10 and 13 years old. They deserve a better world than that.
Some may say that mascots don’t matter, in fact the typical Redsk*ns fan argument runs like this: “get over it”, “stop being a p*ssy”, “why are Indians only mad now, why not say anything all these years” (this despite NCAI issuing a statement against American Indian mascots back in 1969), “you don’t speak for Indians” (apparently, they do), “it’s not important, do something for your people like make jobs” (if it’s not important, then why not change it?) and finally, “F*ck you”. The vast majority of Americans say nothing on social media about our issues, and utterly unfamiliar with who we are and what matters to us. They ask the same old questions “why don’t you leave the reservation?” As if this would solve the problem and despite 60-70% of us already being economic refugees living expatriate lives in the United States. The mainstream media encounters every Native American issue as if it was for the first time, baffled by our status as sovereign nations—not simply ethnic groups or “special interest groups”. It is in this light that I think our online social media use, done strategically, can help alleviate some of the fundamental misconceptions about who we are that still plague us and hamper our attempts to find national support for our issues.
So, the plans of “File complaint when you hear R**skins on Radio/TVSatisfaction”, our Facebook Event page is to continue to reframe the debate by using social media to educate more and more of our fellow Americans. We want to make sure this nationally newsworthy story is not just about what one Sonic employee did or even “what will Sonic did and how will they apologize?”, they did apologize within hours. And yes, they did it on Twitter. They sent me first one tweet apologizing saying Sonic Drive-in (@sonicdrive_in) “@jfkeeler Remarks were offensive, unacceptable and just wrong. The remarks have been removed. The owner and our brand apologize to all.” And then later a tweet apologizing to my children was well (I will patronize Sonic again). We want to make sure that Americans see this for what it is, one moment where they looked at a sign and understood, even felt for a second what it is like to be marginalized and feel the wallop of hatred that stereotypes and their avatars Mascots can unpack on innocent children, our children. Our stories rarely make the evening news accept as statistics or once they have reached their final, tragic conclusion and are almost never made into movies or television shows that make us human and tell what is in our minds. Even when depicted we are mute, projections of others’ fantasies. We want to make sure that this momentary, fleeting feeling in the American public does not simply fade away with a corporate apology but can make even something as small as changing a mascot possible.
Jacqueline Keeler is Navajo and Yankton Sioux. She lives in Portland, Oregon.