It was a cool, late autumn Sunday and the Washington football team was playing a home game. Joseph Bennett, an African American gentleman in his early 60’s, was sitting in his usual seat, wearing his customary Indian headdress and burgundy Washington team jacket with its “Redskin” emblems. Joe noticed that the seat next to him was unusually empty.
Another fan sitting a few rows behind Joe shouted “Hey Joe, when are you going to get some real feathers in that bonnet and look like a real fighting Indian Chief?” Joe hollered— “Tommy, wish I could, but the government has outlawed the use of real eagle feathers!”
At that moment, a gentleman, who was bundled in a heavy jacket with a hood that virtually covered his face, eased into the seat next to Joe. He quickly removed the covering exposing his painted black face, and hastened to introduce himself as Waya of the Cherokee Nation and extended his hand to Joe. Joe looked at Waya, put his hands on his hips and demanded to know, firstly, how he got a ticket to sit next to him and, secondly, how he could be so damn insensitive to paint his face black. Joe continued to speak harshly and said “Just get the hell out of here, NOW!” Waya quickly responded “how can you be so insensitive to wear an Indian headdress?” Joe was taken aback. Joe said, in a less harsh voice, “I have worn this headdress to REDSKINS games for 30 years. I’m considered the team’s unofficial mascot.” Waya responded “No one asked me how I felt and I’m likely one of the few people at this game who could really tell others how it feels seeing you with your headdress, your Washington team jacket and hearing the “R” word.”
Joe looked rather perplexed and responded, “Listen man, Redskins has been used as a term of honor and pride of Native Americans for 80 years and wearing an Indian headdress has been acceptable for as long as I can remember”. Waya said “Black faced minstrel shows and painted black faces began in the 1840s and continued in this country until the 1960s”.
Waya continued, “People are constantly telling me that the ‘R’ word means honor, but they have no idea how it really feels to an American Indian who associates the term with its history of being derogatory. Indeed, its history is deeply rooted in hatred; it’s even defined in the dictionary as a racial slur to American Indians.” Waya paused then continued. Waya proceeded. “Don’t you think that the affected party is the one who really decides what is racist and what isn’t?” Joe interrupted and, in a more consoling tone, said “Waya, I’d like to hear more of what you are talking about. The crowd is beginning to come in. Let’s slip out where there is less noise and I want to hear more. But PLEASE WIPE THAT CHARCOAL OFF YOUR FACE!” Waya took a towel from his coat and began to wipe his face. Joe, to the amazement of everyone sitting around him, removed his headdress. The two gentlemen began walking towards an exit, while Waya continued wiping the blackness from his face.
The two gentlemen found a quiet place somewhat away from the incoming crowd. Joe said “Go on Waya, you’ve got the floor and this better be good for me to miss part of my game.”
Waya continued “Joe, what you guys experienced is what we are going through now. If I’m not mistaken, in the early civil rights movement, the major emphasis of Black America was confronting many hardships like voting, education and unemployment inequalities, having to ride at the back of buses, separate eating, restroom and theater facilities, that were common place in the South. When the 1964 Civil Rights Act began taking affect and the unconscionable ways of treating African Americans were changing, your leaders turned their attention to addressing issues, such as stereotyping. Just think of the names and caricatures like the ‘N’ word, ‘boy’, ‘spade’, ‘jig’, ‘Sambo’, ‘Aunt Jemima’, ‘Jim Crow’, ‘Sapphire’ and ‘the Mammy’, and public spectacles, such as, painted black faces and black faced minstrel shows that your people said were demeaning. Many whites claimed that this was the way of life in America and it had been that way for years, many said they were only having some good, clean fun, meant no harm and there was no racism intended. But fortunately for blacks, much of white society realized the injustices of how Black America had been treated and they accepted that these acts that you,“ Waya pointed gently at Joe and continued “the affected party, said were stereotyping, and change occurred.” The two men looked at each other and Joe rubbed his head. “Waya, I have to agree with a lot you have said, please go on.”
“Thanks, Joe!” and Waya continued, “These changes did not come overnight and typecasting of blacks had been a way of life in America for many, many years. To my knowledge, there were no polls taken to see what percentage of blacks, or for that matter, other Americans, were opposed to these uses of derogatory words or stereotyping in general. But, Joe, there were many polls that have been conducted to see how many American Indians or Washington team fans think the ‘R’ word is racist.”
Waya realized that Joe was beginning to see his point and proceeded “I have often wondered if a poll had been taken among blacks, primarily living in the Deep South in the mid to late 1960’s, whether they cared that much about typecasting or the many other issues that Black America was facing. Recall that virtually all of the blacks in the South depended on whites for their jobs and livelihood. I would guess that the vast majority would have said these issues are not that important —- wouldn’t they more likely have said that our jobs and livelihood depend on whites and we have to survive!”
Waya again paused then began speaking slowly “Weren’t the ‘preachings’, if I can use the word ‘preachings’, of the Rap Browns, Huey P. Newtons and the Stokely Carmichaels really about shaming blacks into ascertaining their own identity that was totally independent of white society? I’ve always looked at this as if these activists wanted Black America to realize that they could not depend on whites anymore, but had to depend on themselves.”
The two men were quiet for a few moments and Joe said “Waya, I never equated our previous pain of going through our ‘stereotyping’, as you call it, with that of Native Americans. I wonder why we haven’t seen your pain more clearly.”
Waya continued, “Joe, look at what most other minorities have experienced. Virtually all of them have been typecast at one time or another. If I’m not mistaken, Jewish Americans were stereotyped in cartoons and depicted in caricatures with large hook noses, curly hair, olive brown skin and being miserly with money in the early part of the 20th Century. Let’s take Asian Americans and look at the subsequent fallout they felt from the typecasting of Japanese during and after the Second World War. They were illustrated in cartoons with exaggerated slanted eyes and buck teeth, and referred to as ‘Japs’. Chinese were often depicted in Asiatic Hordes, while Asians in general were referred to in terms of the ‘Yellow Peril’. During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese were called ‘gooks’, ‘Charlie’ and ‘zipper heads’, Mexican Americans have been stereotyped in advertising, such as, ‘The Frito Bandito’, depicted in cartoons as lazy and referred to as ‘wet backs’. Even Italian, German and Irish Americans have also felt the sting of the whip at one time or another, being stereotyped in society and the news media.”
The crowd roared and Waya stopped talking. After a brief pause, he continued. “Joe, you’ve listened to me enough. I think the Washington team may have scored. Why don’t you go back to your game? I do appreciate our conversation and you taking time to listen to me. You are an important participant of the Washington team game.” Joe shook his head and said “I can’t leave this conversation. I’ve always thought of myself as a compassionate person; let’s see what more you want to say. Please.”
“Joe, I appreciate your time and you listening to me. Each of those examples of past racial insensitivities is easily comprehensible and acceptable as racially derogatory, and politically incorrect in today’s society. The harbinger of change in all cases began with the affected party, the only one who could rightfully feel the depth of the pain of stereotyping, their concerns were heard and others in society ultimately agreed. Claims of historical uses by the perpetrators, the reasons given for using a specific term, and the number of affected individuals involved as motives for continuing to use the name were of no consequence; don’t you agree?” Joe only listened and did not respond.
“Joe, I blame America as a whole for not responding to our problem, but listen, virtually every minority has been through the same thing.’ Waya paused and then continued, emphasizing each word. “We are currently the most stereotyped minority in sports and advertising, much, much more than just the ‘R’ word and the accompanying Washington team’s and fans’ Indian paraphernalia. I’ll give you many other examples in sports – the Cleveland Indians and their mascot, Chief Wahoo. The Atlanta Braves and their tomahawk chop, the Chicago Blackhawks with their logo of an American Indian, the Kansas City Chiefs and Arrowhead Stadium, and the colleges, high schools and other professional teams with their monikers, mascots and Indian images. Examples in advertising are Pontiac, Winnebago, Dodge Dakota, Jeep CHEROKEE”, Waya paused, as he had perhaps overly emphasized Cherokee, but quickly went on. “Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, Hamm’s Beer, Gray Owl Rice, Umpqua Diary Products, Sue Bee Honey, Land O’ Lakes and Arrowhead Bottled Water.”
“Stop this, Waya. Now I’ve heard enough.” Joe said. “You can’t tell me you object to Jeep Cherokee? Man, that, if anything, is an honor! You’re way off base and way too sensitive.”
Joe said “OK, Waya, go on and this better be good.” Waya continued. “Joe, I look at things a bit differently. Remember, we Cherokees are a nation of people. You’ve heard of the Cherokee Nation. Right?” Waya said “Joe, I also look at Mexico as a nation of people, and would anyone dare make a Jeep….” Waya paused, as if to say to Joe, you complete the ‘Jeep ____’. Joe looked sternly at Waya and nodded indicating for him to continue.
“I think the reason that other minorities don’t identify with our feelings, even though they experienced similar types of typecasting, is that it is a characteristic of humans that we see the things that affect us and not the things that affect others. We really only feel our own pain!” Waya paused momentarily. Joe tilted his head slightly, nodded while raising his eyebrows indicating that Waya had made a good point.
The two men became quiet. Joe slowly shook his head and said “You have thought about this a lot, Waya, and I know you have much more to say. But I’ve learned a lot and have a lot to think about. Shall we stop?”
Waya also sensed that it was time to close. He smiled, cocked his head slightly to one side, gave a slight bow indicating to Joe how much he appreciated the talk and offered his hand. Joe enthusiastically shook Waya’s hand and said “I will never wear this headdress again. That will tell so many of the fans that a big change has occurred. I will have to do some explaining, but will handle that. Thank you, Waya.”
“Many thanks for taking time to chat. I learned a lot too. I appreciate you not wearing the headdress. Joe patted Waya on the back and turned his head quickly as his eyes seemed to fill with water. He headed in the direction of his stadium seat leaving his headdress behind.
Waya went towards one of the exits.
Dolph L. Hatfield has been involved in civil rights issues since the late 1960s and involved in combating stereotyping of Native Americans since the mid-1990s. He has written several articles on these issues which may be found on his website www.dolphhatfield.com/ under the links Published and Unpublished.